In this chapter of our running Discussions feature, Daniel Griffiths and Jason Hirschhorn team up to discuss the career of Pearl Jam.
JASON HIRSCHHORN: As with any Pearl Jam discussion, the only logical starting place is Yield. I know you have some very strong opinions on it, so why don’t you have at it?
DANIEL GRIFFITHS: I’m split on Yield. The very best of it is the very best of Pearl Jam; I’m a very big fan of the punky side of the band. Sometimes though, it’s a little lifeless. A long album too.
JASON: All their albums are on the long side, and sometimes I think that’s to their detriment. As for Yield, I can’t say I share quite the same opinion about it containing many “best of Pearl Jam” moments, and it has some pretty cringe-worthy moments. The way Eddie Vedder contorts his voice on “Do The Evolution” bothers me every time. I will say that “Brain Of J.” is one of their best punk songs, and “All Those Yesterdays” has a slow burning, “Tea For One”-type quality to it. It’s an enjoyable record but I prefer not only their first three albums, but multiple of their 2000 releases.
DANIEL: Oh, I don’t think it contains many of their best moments, just the really good bits that do crop up are stunning.
JASON: I feel like it’s a good time to discuss Pearl Jam’s place in the music hierarchy, or if that’s too daunting, their standing in the 90s alternative movement. Unlike Nirvana, Radiohead, and many other acts that broke in the early 90s, I feel as though Pearl Jam only gets credit for having one great album (Ten) and a handful of huge songs. This seems odd to me considering they’re the biggest-selling grunge act, and they continue to have one of the most devoted fan bases in music. However, the fact still remains that for the average listener, they’re still only really going to hear “Evenflow,” “Alive,” “Jeremy,” and the like. How do your observations differ?
DANIEL: Ironically, I think Pearl Jam’s career is matching The Who’s, which is funny given Eddie’s fandom of them.
In an overall hierarchy they should be somewhere near the top, and for me they are, however, for whatever reason, they’ll never be recognised as such. It’s like The Who; Who’s Next is one of the top 5 classic rock albums of all time but will never, ever be regarded as such. Another comparison would be Rush; do you reckon Pearl Jam are becoming more of a massive cult band?
I think their place in the alt-rock movement of the 90s is far more clear. While they’re remembered for one album, that one album is big and awesome enough to catapult them to the top. It’s criminal, but this is why I think they’re becoming a Rush-like cult band; the casual fans remember Ten and the first three tracks, but there’s such a large fanbase that know them for so much more.
I sometimes wonder if Kurt Cobain’s death had something to do with how revered Pearl Jam are now. Had Nirvana kept going and released some sub-par albums, the 90s legacy would be there for the taking for Pearl Jam.
JASON: As a quick aside, who actually doesn’t think Who’s Next is a top 5 classic rock album? It’s glorious.
But we’re in complete agreement about Pearl Jam being a Rush-esque cult band. The two groups mirror each other in a lot of ways, especially in their respective fan bases. I think that is sort of fitting for Pearl Jam, since they were never really quite comfortable as super stars during the early 90s and they seem to love their close connection to their fans. I was at their 20th anniversary weekend shows, and Eddie hit the nail on the head, “We feel like we could play anything and you fuckers would know.” He’s absolutely right about it too. I’ve been to many shows over the years including some very big artists, but a Pearl Jam show is different. The fans not only know every song, but there’s no “bathroom break set” for the vast majority. I don’t see that commitment in most other fan bases.
DANIEL: I’ve seen glossy mag specials that don’t even list The Who as a classic rock band. It’s borderline insanity!
The cult thing does suit. I would say they’re probably a little bigger than Rush, but then again, Rush are pretty massive. Anyway, I think it’s a testament to Pearl Jam that their fans have that kind of devotion and commitment towards the band, considering that the band themselves seem to appreciate it and reciprocate it. I’ve never been to a show, but hopefully it’ll happen one day. I think the recent re-issue series shows that reciprocation; the band are taking their time with them and giving the option of splashing out and getting awesome extras or just going for the bog-standard option. The one constant is that there’s a focus on quality; everything from adding a live show into the package to making the cases the same shape and size is awesome, and as a fan I really appreciate that.
JASON: That transitions very well into PJ20. As I touched on earlier, they’re celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. I haven’t seen the PJ20 movie yet, but I find the way they’re treating the occasion a bit strange. It’s not uncommon for artists to look back at their past, but this is different. At the festival and in the interviews I’ve read, their attitude is that of a band that’s “wrapping up” rather than celebrating how far they’ve come. I don’t think they want it to come across that way – I don’t expect them to stop playing anytime soon – but it’s almost as though they’re tying a bow around their first 20 years with the subtext of “we don’t want to be judged by what we do going forward.” There’s some precedent for this. For example, The Who are often judged not by everything they’ve done up to and including 2006’s Endless Wire, but rather by what they did with Keith Moon as their drummer. The Rolling Stones’ legacy is built on their work up to the mid-eighties Jagger/Richards breakup and not what they’ve done since returning. It’s as though Pearl Jam are trying to define their own “classic period” from which they will be remembered. I doubt you’d ever get Pearl Jam to admit they were thinking in this manner, but how do you go from PJ20 to making relevant new material?
DANIEL: Thing is, it’s one hell of a period to be wrapping up, and I guess it deserves to be wrapped up. It could mean they’re looking forward now, and I sincerely hope they are, and this is their way of letting go of the past. Maybe there’s a realisation that their best commercial days are behind them (a la Rush) and there’s a feeling of wanting to celebrate that. I also think the band may be starting to realise that Ten wasn’t just the album that defined a short movement, but the album that (eventually) showed itself to be one of the best rock albums of the last 25 years period.
JASON: I don’t disagree that Pearl Jam’s first 20 years should be “wrapped up” as we’re calling it. I just find it strange that they’re the ones who seem to be taking that initiative. As for the best rock album of the last 25 years, some on this very site have weighed in on that (personally I’d take OK Computer over the rest of the field, but that’s beside the point). I feel you skimmed over my question about how they could possibly create meaningful new material after PJ20. I’d really like to hear your answer to that.
DANIEL: I think waiting a while after PJ20 would be the best way for the album itself to be meaningful to the wider public, I don’t think they’re ever going to anything drastic musically that warrants being ‘meaningful’, if you get me. Of course, I’m assuming that the next album will be par for the course.
The thing with PJ20 is it hasn’t been massive. I can’t speak for what it’s been like in the U.S. (whether it’s been making waves or not), but it’s almost as if this isn’t the end of a chapter/beginning of a new one. It’s almost as if someone told them they were nearing their 20th and they said “Shit. Yeah. Better do something for it”. It’s not as if they’ve made it known they’re taking break, so the next album won’t be a triumphant return.
JASON: Pearl Jam made a few talk show appearances around the time of the PJ20 Destination Weekend, but I wouldn’t say there have been huge waves. I don’t know if there’s any general consensus, but to me they’re finished as a contemporary band and this is their transition into being a nostalgia act. I don’t think that’s terrible either, as I’ve seen many such acts perform live much farther past their prime than Pearl Jam is and enjoyed the hell out of it.
DANIEL: I think you’re absolutely right. They were moving towards being a nostalgia act after Riot Act in my opinion, and I think it’s pretty settled they’re not going to move in a radical direction now. I hope people don’t think we’re painting this as a bad thing though. Most Classic Rock bands wrote some of their best albums once they stopped trying to be ‘current’ and did what they wanted to. We keep using them as a case study in this discussion, but just look at the Rush path; they’ve always been a little current but their 00s output is far more Rush than their early 90s stuff. Maybe this will be a good thing for Pearl Jam.
Speaking of legacies, how about we look at the legacy of the man in the middle? After all, he’s pretty much the (living) face of the 90s movement now. How do you think he’s seen now and how he’ll be viewed a few years down the line?
JASON: I think Eddie’s stature has been significantly impacted by the way Pearl Jam consciously moved away from the spotlight during the late nineties. While he’s decidedly liberal and politically candid, he hasn’t received the same kind of flack that has befallen similarly outspoken rock stars like Bono. At the same time, he’s sort of become an icon of the un-hip. Certainly, he didn’t do himself any favors in that regard when he released his ukulele album earlier this year. Yet I’m not sure any of that really matters to me when I think about Eddie Vedder. I know we keep going back to the well on this, but he and Pearl Jam have definitely found a Rush-like niche. Their fans absolutely adore them and the rest are pretty apathetic. I wonder if Eddie is the last rock star of his kind. I suspect we’ll always have huge stars like we do today with Rihanna and Lady Gaga, but sub-super star cult status seems to be going away. Sort of fitting for a guy who deep down always wanted to be Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend rolled into one.
DANIEL: Nailed, mate. I think he suits that anti-establishment yet elder statesman role, and he definitely seems to be the last great rock star (although Matthew Bellamy has it in him to carry the torch).
I still think of him as the most important figure of 90s music. Essentially, he is the face of a movement now because he’s still living; the last great touchstone to a bygone musical era, if you will.
JASON: Let’s wrap up on a prediction: How much longer do you think Pearl Jam will stay together?
DANIEL: I hope they’ll stay together well into their fifties; the market is there for them. I don’t know what I think though, Eddie Vedder’s too unpredictable. How about you?
JASON: Eddie was fairly sulky in the nineties, but since then it appears he’s become much more stable. The band doesn’t seem to have much in the way of battling egos, so as long as Eddie stays afloat I don’t see why the band wouldn’t. Regardless what you can say about the quality of their more recent material, they clearly still love playing together. I’d expect them to stay together through their sixties, at which point “Alive” could rival “My Generation” in the unplanned comedy department.