'Nothing As It Seems' and the story of Pearl Jam
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Pearl Jam entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame feels at once so inevitable and so strange.
On Friday night, Neil Young (update: David Letterman) will take to the podium in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and welcome Jeff Ament, Matt Cameron, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Eddie Vedder and original drummer Dave Krusen into the hall in the band’s first year of eligibility.
Though Cameron played drums on the band’s earliest demos in 1990, he was tied up with Soundgarden and Krusen took the drum seat for Ten, the album that immediately pushed the band into the mainstream with a handful of radio hits and three videos — “Even Flow,” “Jeremy” and “Alive” — that made the band mainstays on MTV.
This kind of lifetime achievement recognition typically calls for a maximum of three songs. If they get to that maximum, all three will be of the giant hit variety that has kept Pearl Jam on the radio since Ten was first released. “Alive” will certainly be one of the songs played — the band has hinted as much without saying it. “Even Flow” is a good bet for another, or perhaps “Corduroy” or “Better Man.” Maybe they’ll mix it up a little and break out “Daughter” or “Given to Fly.”
One of those Ten songs will also likely be played with Krusen on the drums, an acknowledgement of their earliest days and a nice way to welcome their first drummer into this exclusive club.
But some of the band’s best music has been recorded with Cameron behind the kit. He took over for Jack Irons in 1998 after the band released its fifth album, Yield, and has played on everything since. On top of making all their previous songs his own with his outrageous propulsion and otherworldly sense of time, he’s been involved in the making of some of their most interesting and captivating music. They could truly stir things up and remind the voting masses that their career extends far beyond their first album.
Within these most rigid of circumstances, it’s likely asking too much. But the band could throw some much-needed zip into the black-tie proceedings and shake a staid crowd in Brooklyn by bucking expectations one more time and playing “Nothing As It Seems” at their induction.
This seems like as good a time as any to acknowledge just how ridiculous the concept of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is. Sports halls of fame have enough difficulty within a medium where statistics and accomplishments are more easily measured. In a best-case scenario, it’s pursuing the noble cause of recognizing the contributions of the format’s great artists, but who decides which artists are great and, therefore, deserving? Jann Wenner? What’s the inherent worth of an institution that has yet to recognize Soundgarden, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Rory Gallagher, Sonic Youth, the Minutemen, Free, Fugazi, Big Star or, as Pearl Jam themselves pointed out in a letter, Jane’s Addiction or Bad Brains? And why should such an institution align with anyone’s specific tastes, this writer’s included?
It’s all absurd. But at the moment, it’s still a relevant honor and it represents an opportunity to celebrate the band’s work and revel in the music that has made such an impact. And Friday night’s ceremony should be predictably hokey and fun. The band will probably play “Alive,” “Better Man” and maybe jam out with
Young and the other honorees, and for most in attendance and watching on TV, that’ll be a suitable tribute to the band.
Those are all excellent, but they’re not necessarily what I’d like to see the band play. As Charles R. Cross pointed out in the Seattle Times’ look back at the band’s first year, they’re not being inducted for the Ten album but their entire career. Everyone who has followed the band has their favorite era, and it’s the leaner years following the ridiculous fame and concocted feuds that I’m drawn towards. When MTV retreated to the din and magazines moved on to the latest flavors, Pearl Jam was working. Their live shows began growing longer and more unpredictable while their studio work grew more twisted and experimental.
While the second album Vs. made a point to depart from the anthemic sound of Ten, the change in the band’s approach began in earnest with 1994’s Vitalogy. Radio staples “Corduroy” and “Better Man” sat side-by-side with the dissonant march of “Tremor Christ” and the sonic exercises of “Bugs” and “Stupid Mop.” This continued on with No Code, which traded in any radio-friendly decor for wide-open spaces, where songs could be built around Jack Irons’ tribal drum arrangements and running times could spin well past the four-minute limit of commercialized alternative radio.
By the time the band reached Binaural in 2000, it was time to eliminate all expectations. There were reported rifts between the band and producer Tchad Blake when the album’s tracklist omitted a number of potential hits, including “Fatal,” and the growing gap between them and their corporate overseers at Epic only widened when Pearl Jam insisted that “Nothing As It Seems” serve as the record’s first single.
Even accounting for the built-in time allowed for a single by any established band, “Nothing As It Seems” was not going to establish the kind of hum-worthy hooks that radio programmers were looking for in choosing that season’s hits. It was an Ament composition that was as deliberate as it was impenetrable. The lyrics painted an oblique portrait of a man on a journey which could have served as a parallel to the band’s own career at that point. It was framed by McCready’s searing guitar on each end along with a solo in the middle that, during live performances, could bring a crowd to its knees.
Inherent greatness notwithstanding, it did not fit easily into whatever was happening in music in 2000 and whatever expectations might have lingered from their video heyday. It didn’t immediately fit into programming formats and subsequently wasn’t easily marketed. That’s what happens when art shows even the slightest difficulty — it’s relegated to the back of the shelf and only rescued by those enthusiasts who are more than happy to give it its cult status.
That’s more or less what happened to “Nothing As It Seems” and Binaural. It was the lowest-selling album of the band’s career to that point, but Pearl Jam went on to give the song a fairly regular spot in their setlists in that most trying of years. They witnessed tragedy and had to take account of themselves on the fly. “Alive” was all but banished from the show for the rest of the year, and “Nothing As It Seems” was given even more prominence. It went beyond advertising and proper business planning. Without being directly as much, it was a statement. This was the work of five musicians who would continue forward.
An unfortunate thread that runs common through Pearl Jam megafans is to constantly complain about the setlist. Every “Even Flow” or “Corduroy” is a missed opportunity to break out “In the Moonlight” or “Dirty Frank,” you see. I’ve been guilty of that, especially going over a setlist after the fact, lamenting that, while hearing this song or that song for the 15th time was fine, it would’ve been great to finally hear “Hard to Imagine” or “Wash” instead.
But in the moment, that never matters. Live, “Even Flow” still tears it and allows McCready to shred for an extended period of time for a delirious crowd. “Corduroy” still brings the house down whether it’s the first song or the 30th. “Jeremy,” “Better Man,” “Animal” and “Given to Fly,” no matter how many times they’ve been played, are all monsters when they appear in the set. And “Alive” typically sends the crowd into their final hysterics these days, the climax to a three-hour marathon that’s as much a performance as it is a celebration of a quarter century of persistence.
I can’t imagine Pearl Jam won’t play “Alive” when they’re inducted into the Hall of Fame on Friday night. That song is the near-constant in their existence as a band, and it’s the anthem to end every other anthem in their catalog.
But it’s not the whole story. Strange but inevitable, if the band was to survive, their side trips and experiments are vital to understanding how they shaped their career and earned this honor. Maybe they’ll surprise us, and before going into an obligatory “Alive,” Cameron will count the band in, the tempo will slow dramatically, McCready will hit those scorching first notes and Pearl Jam will remind everyone involved that it’s not just the hits that have kept the band burning for more than 25 years.
April 4, 2017
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com