Pearl Jam have had more drummers than Spinal Tap, yet their problem has remained the same. Egghead critics might describe it as the 'sound of reluctanceâ?� or 'moral ambivalence,â?� but in plain Beavis and Butthead'speak, they never consistently 'rock.â?� They have moments where their little engine puts it together, but with the exception of their second album, Vs., on which they captured their grooviest side, they've had trouble loosening up. It's made them a band more admired than liked. Soundgarden's Matt Cameron has been their drummer since mid-'98 (he also, coincidentally, played drums on the band's first three-song demo), and though he's brought roster stability to the band, he's rarely been able to relax Pearl Jam's weary and uptight hard rock muscles.
Pearl Jam's self-titled eighth studio album opens with exactly the stick-up-the-butt rigidity that's defined their sound. 'Life Wastedâ?� is pure aggression that inexplicably runs in place. It's the sound of futility: guitars scream, singer agitates, the drummer pounds nails into cement blocks. The car is stuck in the ditch, wheels revving, shooting off mud. It's not without its charm, but again, more admirable than likable. But on 'World Wide Suicide,â?� the album's first single, PJ catch the wave and swing. Cameron and bassist Jeff Ament no longer stutter but glide. Eddie Vedder, who always sounds either like Blood Sweat & Tears' David Clayton Thomas bellowing into the abyss or Iron Butterfly's Doug Ingle losing his way in the Garden of Eden, finds his footing and gives the band the room they need to manipulate, reacting to rather than commanding the direction.
Pearl Jam's albums vacillate all over the map. They're more experimental than often given credit, and at times it's served them well. Unsurprisingly, this album's strongest moments are its changes of pace, as on 'Parachutes,â?� a swirling psychedelic number that might have come from a Josh Rouse album. 'Gone,â?� an acoustic-based ballad that builds in intensity and volume, feeds directly into Vedder's tremulous snarl. 'Come Backâ?� is an uncomplicated, swaying piece of remorse that looks into the night sky with that eerie sense of foreboding that Vedder does better than any other rock melodramatist you can name.
They came of age in the age of irony, so how ironic is it that this is one hard rock band that's at their best when they don't try to rock?