I moved to a new city not long ago. For reasons mostly having to do with space, I sold or gave away whatever possessions I, over the last decade, had accumulated and held onto as proof that I was growing older and more successful. There was the good couch, the antique mirror, the tasteful framed thing, the work table that looked like a butcher’s block. The rest I threw out. A writer friend asked what I was doing with all my books, and I told her I’d be selling them to a used-book store. She was shocked, etc. Lots of writer/academic friends winced in shock and disappointment on the books’ behalf. What upset me a lot more was the last-minute heaving into the alley garbage bin of a sad, well-travelled cardboard box stuffed with cassette tapes. My tapes. If the rental van had had a tape player, I would not be writing this. The morning of the move I was overheated and reeling from an “everything goes” temper. Now every single one of my tapes is in the uppermost crust of a stinking landfill, God knows where. My heart is in pieces.
The tapes, taken all together, are much like anyone else’s collection from the time before CDs: a diary of post-adolescence. This diary calls up a blend of romance and confusion, like what I might experience were I to locate a stash of notes I’d written or received in junior high. Did I actually think that? Did I actually listen to this? (Londonbeat, EMF, Extreme, Hoodoo Gurus?) What the holy fuck was I thinking? I lingered over cracked spines and remembered loving songs I never loved again. There were tapes stuck into the box corners, detached from their plastic cases, missing the liner notes, re-recorded on a MAXELL 90-MIN with cryptic handwritten memos like “Free Your Butt! July 91” and “You Won’t Like This, Kathleen—Vol. X and XI.” And then once in a while (mercifully), I found tapes intact in more ways than one, in which recognition of the former self came as a kind of shock, as the feeling for them was still present and embarrassing in its clarity. Michael Chabon wrote that if you can see how you ever loved someone (or something), you are still in love with them (or it). The extinct love is always “wholly incredible.” So I loved the tape—worn to a gurgling nub, showing stretch marks—that quite a few others loved in 1991-92: Ten, by the (then new) band Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam was—for a time—the biggest band on the planet. They were also—briefly—the hippest. They were also—briefly, and for me—the most important.
Reasons for this importance are as vague as post-adolescence itself. That time was all about outward gestures, equally trusting and desperate. Ten’s sound was an outward push too; it sort of surged, nervous and brave, suspiciously sincere, streaming from a healthy heart to a pair of raised arms. This was the guiding spirit of the album, crafted, it felt, in immediacy, almost improvisation: lightning in a bottle. The actual writing and recording of the album (according to the band members) followed and caught this spirit like a monk reaching another level of the sublime, a shutting down and opening up to instinct. Suddenly, all at once, the path is revealed, a window is opened. An alchemical regard for music like this was appropriate, given my age back then. I could blame hormonal soup, being away from home, learning to drink, that filing job I got with a relative after I was kicked out of college or even the girl whose name I can’t remember, the one I had a stupendous crush on, the one who made me sick upon rejection. I was nineteen. What I listened to, I listened to in a kind of trance. So, whatever. I absolutely loved Ten. I know all the words, most of the guitar tabs, and have no apologies for either. The album got me from point A to point B. But this column deals with Pearl Jam’s latest album, thirteen years after their first, and history plays a role: specifically, the curious history of Pearl Jam in the intervening years.
Pearl Jam skidded through the grunge era making its own noise, clearly produced but airy, not heavy, not brainy, not punky—a sincere young man’s cri de ventre. Then there was Eddie—mesmerizing little Eddie Vedder, surfing the rafters, singing of parentless rooms and pictures washed in black, singing in that voice. This muscular shriek and growl, loud as James Hetfield’s, tamed with a deep-throated sensuality with no reference point in “alternative music” (besides, perhaps, Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano). It made for an unusual sound. It sounded professional, which should have been verboten in any rock and roll band, though of course he wasn’t. He was merely gifted.
But on Pearl Jam’s very different albums following Ten, two odd things happened. One had to do with Eddie’s voice, which sounded all of a sudden as if he wanted to halt its projecting power before it left him; he started favouring a smaller, pained vibrato that translated less like a scream and more like a gnawed nerve. The other thing had to do with the band. They rotated drummers, cut much of the reverb, allowed things to both muscle up and fatten out. The sound formalized the group’s own disparate elements (the band loves Ian MacKaye and Neil Young in, I think, equal measure) to make Pearl Jam into a stranger, more versatile band, one that largely defined its sound live, as a touring band. Somewhere in the mid-1990s, Vedder was quoted as suggesting—perhaps wisely, perhaps not—that the band’s overgrown fan base needed a little weeding. This meant the popular devotees of Ten (who, at the time, included the kind of person who watched Headbangers Ball) bought 1994’s Vitalogy or 1996’s No Code—hugely overlooked, by the way—and wondered, What did I just buy?
What makes the change interesting at all is that (a) Pearl Jam actually sought this exclusion, the better to never sell themselves as their own tribute band, (b) they’re still huge, with a zealous following here and abroad, and (c) being under the radar has, for them, made for some brilliantly unexpected music. It may not sound like the Pearl Jam you remember. Shifts in form and style started as early as their second album, Vs. (an album with songs that could never have fit on its predecessor). Eastern rhythms, accordions, sixty-two-second punk workouts, ballads, porch laments—the band has yet to step into the same river twice, except in one aspect: They do middle-of-the-album acoustic better than anyone. The band’s deference to Neil Young (they toured with him, covered him, backed him up on Mirror Ball) can be traced further back to Buffalo Springfield: irregular Americana, the sound of optimism paired with the lyrical content of a dirge. American Blues, the countrified modern version. It’s a bit like fictional realism—no one wants to do it, either because it’s bankrupt or because people are insecure about measuring up to its simplest standards. This kind of music is rare, thus rarely done well.
Beginning with “Release” on Ten, the band regularly sought and perfected this acoustic: with each new album, a new take, new versions of a poor man’s beauty. “Indifference,” “Nothingman,” “Around the Bend,” “Off He Goes,” “Sleight of Hand.” Collecting these titles onto an album that (inadvertently) showcases the band’s strength in this regard is what brings us to Live at Benaroya Hall. In October 2003, Pearl Jam played a single-night benefit for YouthCare, an organization that provides housing and services for homeless youth in Seattle, the band’s hometown. The distance from the troubled kid Eddie was to the band he leads is closed in a single performance. A warmth and welcome, a homecoming—though all the band members still live there—settles over the band, which performs a largely acoustic show sitting down: some hits, some obscurities, all pitched in the same beautifully controlled register. Eddie has grown up, and doesn’t howl so much anymore—which might be a problem for those who haven’t heard much from the band since 1993. But the Eddie of Ten is still the Eddie of 2000’s Binaural, or 2002’s Riot Act, just with less occasion for vocal, um, assertiveness. His control of the lower registers is flawless, and the higher notes in “Man of the Hour” (from last year’s Tim Burton film, Big Fish) and “Of the Girl” allow his massive voice to take shelter from itself, and hole up in a much different space in the band’s mix. The result is a pretty, sharply tensile pleasure. He is like an on-screen madman holding a knife who lets you know he is not averse to using it—just let him do his thing for the moment, sing as God gave him the power to. And aside from the between-song mumbling, Eddie sounds beautiful.
I don’t mind admitting that since the box of cassette tapes disappeared, Live at Benaroya Hall has taken on a personal weight for me, one that it might not have asked for. It’s not about growing up (what a dull concept), but about change. And change isn’t a stupid metaphor, either. When I threw the goddamn box of tapes away, I wasn’t conscious of the symbolism, the story line, the bigger picture. I wasn’t welcoming change. Who does? Was there ever a less pleasant pleasure than succumbing to the new? And yet I have played “All or None” off Live at Benaroya Hall about sixty times since moving, and each time Eddie sings, “It’s a selfless situation, and I’m starting to believe / that this hopeless situation, is what I’m trying to achieve / and I try to move on, but it’s all or none,” the windows hum with transparency, the floor beneath me hardens. I am in a new place. When Mike McCready’s first solo ends and Eddie quietly leaps an octave for the third verse, “To myself I / surrender, to the one I’ll never please,” then my heart is put back together, and this new life in this new city comes into its inevitability, the hard fact of itself. Right now, this is what I take from the song and no one can tell me otherwise. I don’t need my most beloved music to pin down a time or place—which I might have wanted at nineteen—but to be there, at my elbow, as all times and places pass. Out in the world, McCready’s solo stays with me, as it might with you. It’s fitting, I think, that an album I’ve selfishly invested with so much symbolic change is a live one, a recording of a fixed date. Nothing lasts, said Jeanne Moreau in her sixtieth year, with a shrug, and in perfect d’accord with all things Moreau. I think she said it more than once.
So this morning I thought of making a new tape, with “All or None” as the opener. I’d give it a name and date and title only I could understand: notes in a diary, understood best in retrospect. “Big Move 04—What Was I Thinking?”
But I stopped doing that a long time ago.
Paul Winner unfurls the Score every second Monday.