Pearl Jam offers up surprising twists and turns on Gigaton
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Through the opening four songs, the initial spin through Pearl Jam’s Gigaton felt like this: Excellent first track, two tracks that were familiar thanks to pre-release singles, and then an unexpected hailstorm.
That was the sensation when “Quick Escape” first came bursting through my stereo’s speakers. I had a positive feeling through the first quarter of the album, but that song in particular got my hackles up and had me energized in a way I hadn’t expected.
The way the riff jumps and breaks down between verses. The way Matt Cameron’s drum rolls steam ahead only to shift to a stutter and suddenly back into a groove. The way Eddie Vedder’s vocals and lyrics seem to leap in and out of the rhythm with abandon. The way Mike McCready’s guitar pointedly screeches and yelps before riding right into a solo that could serve as his legal signature. The entire band locks onto this song and creates one of the more thrilling moments in their long career.
This is not a review of one song, but the merits of that track set the tone for the rest of this record. It was natural to question the strength of the album before its release, considering the seven years between its release and its predecessor, not to mention the slim history of bands making quality music after nearly three decades.
But the first listen through Gigaton felt like a ride, where the weather whips and calms, sometimes smooth and occasionally rattling the car. “Quick Escape” felt like one of those sudden gales of wind that feels as if it will lift the car off all four tires and throw it over the guardrail — shocking in the moment, but a thrill all the same. If nothing else, I had a song I could cling to for years. But there’s more than just one outlier track on this record, the 11th full-length LP in Pearl Jam’s discography.
The opening drive of “Who Ever Said” initially raised goosebumps on my arms —its proto-Cheap Trick-style riff slashing and jutting up against the rhythm filled a gap that I hadn’t quite realized I’d missed. But that first track lays the roadmap for this new album beyond simply steady hard rock. It quickly downshifts and heads for a darker plane about halfway through, before taking further sharp turns. Simply, it doesn’t just take the easy path of a quick rocker, the way so many recent Vedder-penned tunes could have. And as a reminder that this is not a solo Vedder tune, the rest of the band plays like a collective monster behind him, particularly the locked groove of Cameron and bassist Jeff Ament.
But the band signaled that this would not be a straight-ahead album two months ago with “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” their synth-led single which features Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard switching duties, Cameron mimicking a drum machine and Vedder taking on some of the vocal tics of Davids Bowie or Byrne circa 1983. It’s not totally out character for them to go this far outside of a classic rock template, but it is a welcome return to that period that ran from 1994’s Vitalogy to 2002’s Riot Act where the band felt free enough to try just about anything on any record.
Instrumentally, this is one of the more free-wheeling albums in the Pearl Jam catalog. Pump organ and keys make repeated appearances, to the point that they’re not just flourishes on a couple of spare songs. Those additions particularly aid the closing “River Cross,” which plays like the kind of swooping epic that used to always mark the close of a Pearl Jam record. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of the straight-ahead rock that’s marked their recent tenure, as on Vedder’s “Never Destination,” which features him spitting out the lyrics in staccato bursts. It really feels like the band used whatever fit, and whatever fit best, they used.
That untethered spirit is reflected in the credits. There are two songs that feature more than just one member credited with writing the music, a rarity for the band in the second half of their run, as well as lyrical contributions from Ament, Cameron and Gossard. Rather than simply working up and polishing musical ideas brought by one member of the band and waiting for Vedder to write over the top of them, there are clear signs of more collaboration here. It takes longer to work that way, of course, but it’s a much more arresting path.
Not all of it hits me the way I’d hope, though. “Seven O’Clock” has some interesting moments but feels like a song that’d be buried on a latter-day Bruce Springsteen album. Stone Gossard’s lullaby “Buckle Up” likely won’t get as many repeat engagements. Nothing on this album offends, but it’s not all groundbreaking.
But even that's okay. It’s that adventurous spirit that marks the distinction on this album. Admittedly, they’re now at the point in their career where new music — or a lack thereof — would have little to no bearing on their touring business. But the bands that continue to make new music stay vital longer than those that feel their last word has been said and continue to tour on the backs of the catalog. So this doesn’t play like a comeback record. It plays like a record they wanted to release — a record that, when they were satisfied after years of writing and recording that they had 12 songs that held together, could hang with the best of their prior work.
Whether it does or not will be left to time and the listeners. But this is not an easily dismissed album. It’s one that reveals layers over repeated listens, that features the band trying things they’d never attempted in almost 30 years together, that bonds together to feel like one sustained, multi-faceted statement over nearly an hour of music. It took a long time getting here, but they’ve delivered a record that deserves a long, long listen.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org