The first single for the upcoming Pearl Jam album was released last week. It’s a balls-to-the-wall punk rock number hilariously titled “Mind Your Manners”. I’ve been thinking about this song a lot– not because it’s a particularly ponderous piece (as you’re about to find out), but because of what my reaction tells me about my relationship with this band. For as much as I don’t feel a strong connection with Pearl Jam or its fanbase anymore, I do feel I’m somewhat indebted to them in a number of ways. I am going to try my best to articulate my thoughts, not just on this new single, but on my own personal history with this sharply divisive band, and where I stand with them. First, here’s the track so you can listen for yourself:
The song starts with a few bars of stopstutter metal riffing and ghost drum notes (anti-accents in the rhythmic pattern) that, at the very least, sound like nothing the band had ever attempted before– for those few seconds, a PJ fan perks up at the notion that the band may be about to deliver its first truly heavy-sounding lead single in well over a decade. However, those hopes are quickly dashed as the band kicks into an all-too-familiar punk rock facsimile that is, by this point, a well-worn road within the Pearl Jam canon. Driving powerchords atop a tight and economical rhythm section, the song is Hüsker Dü by way of Motörhead– in fact, those two bands are referenced so directly that it would’ve been a genius tip-of-the-hat to include an umlaut somewhere in the song title, as well as fitting in beautifully with the general snarkiness of its tone and execution.
The song’s strongest feature, apart from that exciting-yet-deceptive intro, is Vedder’s vocal performance. After two straight albums of shrill, screechy straining, he’s finally managed to find a comfortable range to navigate so as to make the best use of his declining vocal powers. Sounding like a madman wielding a doomsday device, Vedder rails against religious fundamentalism with a sardonic disdain that we hadn’t really heard since 1998’s “Do the Evolution”. His vocals have a grit and menace to them that are, sadly, missing from the rest of the song.
It’s not that the song is bad— in fact, I enjoy a lot about it– but I can’t help feeling that this is a huge missed opportunity; that they had the skeleton of a good song, but stopped themselves short when it came time to execute. Mostly, I’m exasperated that it’s so… damn… inoffensive. For a song that’s tailored itself so closely to its key influences– and I’m referring specifically to Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades”, this track’s closest traceable lineage– it seems adamant about making itself sound as characterless and polished as it can be. Where Motörhead’s riff roars like a cannonball, Pearl Jam’s feels like a feeble ersatz. Where the rhythm section in “Ace of Spades” charges madly like a wild boar, “Mind Your Manners” gallops gingerly behind.
It’s not just about the pace, it’s the nuances of the performance itself. Coupled with the smoothed-over production of Brendan O’Brien, this already-inoffensive song feels neutered and languid. Compare to Chiendent’s “Chien Battu”, a song that’s at a slower tempo than “Mind Your Manners”, and still manages to sound twice as intense, dangerous and caustic by virtue of its performance and production. Compare, also, to one of Pearl Jam’s past attempts at this throwback punk style, 1994’s “Spin the Black Circle”, which they nailed with aplomb. Execution is paramount when you’re attempting a song that aims for this kind of unhinged aggression, this nervous energy, and in that regard “Mind Your Manners” falls flat.
Still, I do think it’s a good song. It’s inoffensive, sure, it’s derivative, sure, but it’s fun to listen to and I imagine it’ll be a real blast for the band to play live (in fact, it seems designed for live shows, what with the call-and-response towards the end; this is another topic we won’t talk about in this blog post– Pearl Jam’s growing proclivity towards manufactured audience participation). All of that aside, I’m afraid the main reason this song is somewhat deflating to me is because it’s symptomatic of a larger problem I’ve had with Pearl Jam, or the band that Pearl Jam has become, and it was something I was quietly rooting for them to overcome.
First, a little bit of context. Pearl Jam occupies a strange spot in my life. I went through a long period of what could be described as hardcore fandom. I’m intimately acquainted with their history, trivia and minutiae. I follow their news and announcements with a kind of bemused interest– I even keep track of setlists, when they’re on tour, just to see what they’ve been playing. And yet, I rarely ever listen to them these days. When I do, it’s only to a specific 40% of their catalogue. Not only that, but more and more they’re becoming a band I constantly feel like I have to make excuses for.
When Pearl Jam’s name comes up in casual conversation with music enthusiasts, it’ll usually be referencing their reputation as the ultra-earnest grunge rockers of the early nineties; Eddie Vedder’s comically exaggerated baritone singing words about pain and alienation– the kind of pain and alienation that only straight white middle-class males can know– over melodramatic and utterly characterless classic rock approximations, all pomp and fiery passion and stout-hearted bravado. This is the enduring image of the band in pop culture, regardless of the fact that they’ve been well divorced from that sound and approach for the majority of their career. As far as the general public is concerned, they’re the perennially angry kids with long hair, bouncing around the stage in hilarious hats, singing these over-the-top songs about teen suicide. Of course, by today’s standards, that image is hilariously passé, almost embarrassing to watch. And for as many movie soundtracks and ukulele albums Eddie Vedder puts out to establish himself as a rootsy elder statesman of song, it’s those early years that he’ll always be most closely associated with.
Sometime around 1994, Pearl Jam took a sharp turn in their songwriting, transitioning from fist-pumping, flannel-clad, self-loathing rock stars to a more modest, understated and self-consciously quirky garage rock band, first with the album Vitalogy (where they shed the last vestiges of their arena-rock inclinations) and later, more confidently, with their 1996 masterpiece No Code. I may have my reservations about Pearl Jam as a whole, but I’ll never turn my back on No Code, a rich and exciting album of sonic mishaps and genre experiments that features a band tearing down their supposed identity and reconstructing it piece by piece– but the pieces are all screwed up, the proportions are wrong, and the structure comes toppling back down again. A wonderful process of creative rediscovery.
“In My Tree” is arguably the centerpiece of that album. It’s also my absolute favorite Pearl Jam song. From the distant-rolling-thunder of the verses to the irrepressible roar of the chorus, all the way to its ethereal conclusion, “In My Tree” packs a wallop. It slams down full-force on the choruses, before reaching for the skies in its impassioned coda. Just an absolute stunner of a song, and one that I tend to offer as a counter-argument to friends who say Pearl Jam are a cock-rock band. The fact that they were able to write something so transcendent and nuanced and melodically complete is evidence that these guys have the potential to be world-class songwriters. Much more than some dude emoting unintelligibly over a rudimentary chord progression and some tasty guitar licks.
Between 1994 and 2005, Pearl Jam released five full-length albums showcasing an off-kilter sense of musical adventurousness and experimentation across a remarkable variety of song styles and approaches, while still operating reasonably within the limits of rock music. They were mercurial in their approach– sometimes raw and unhinged, sometimes quiet, delicate and mournful. During those 10+ years, they were a band that focused mainly on whatever worked best for whichever song they were tackling, setting aside the general public’s notions of what they were supposed to sound like. This resulted in a band that was free to explore, to stretch and adjust the limits of its own songwriting. 1998’s Yield was built on this very premise, an exercise in egoless songwriting– an entire album predicated on the idea of letting the songs take you where they want to take you, giving way to all kinds of structural oddities and left turns and discoveries. And there was a palpable joy in that process. More than a bunch of guys trying to sound their angriest, Yield sounded like a band indulging in the joy of creating music, and being caught off guard by these creations.
Something I loved about this particular period of the band was their ability to construct songs that, though they had a foreboding sense of darkness, still managed to latch on to a glimpse of hope, a glimmer of light to see the song through. That as murky and left-of-center as their songwriting became, pulling towards the stranger and sometimes more desolate sides of melody and performance, there is still this overriding humanity and compassion cutting through the fog. This could be in the form of a warm vocal melody over an icy soundscape, a victorious guitar solo freeing itself from an oppressively downtrodden instrumental backing, or even just an upwards bend in a descending bassline. Their songs were filled with mystery and dimensions, hidden colors and flavors and emotional spaces they couldn’t have explored or expressed when they were sulky twentysomethings because they just didn’t have the musical language for it.
This, of course, came at the cost of their commercial success, with each consecutive record selling only a fraction of what their first three albums did. And as they retreated from the pop culture limelight, they also managed to alienate the fans who wanted more of the sound that made them famous. They had a knack for subverting their fans’ expectations; while the core of their fanbase was clamoring for more overwrought power ballads with dramatic declarations and wailing guitars, Pearl Jam were recording beautiful little anomalies like this obscure one-off, “Strangest Tribe”:
And then, something happened. 2006 rolled around and Pearl Jam had officially ended their relationship with longtime label Epic. They had broken free of the commercial shackles of a major-label contract, and following their most deliberately difficult record (2002’s Riot Act), surely they were about to hit us with the most challenging and interesting work of their career– everything that those pesky major-label suits had been rejecting for all these years. Right?
Not quite. Instead, quite the opposite. Its members started giving interviews and talking about “hopefully making music that’s a little more accessible”. Shortly afterwards, they released their self-titled 8th album, signaling another sharp turn in their songwriting. All of a sudden, their songs went from playful, introspective, angular and adventurous to muscular, brawny, “punchy” and outward in a way that was a palpable shift from the direction they seemed to be heading. This was a “new, revitalized” Pearl Jam, putting the emphasis back on the rock side of their music, bringing the hooks and melodies back to the forefront, playing as loud and angrily as they could. A big deal was made of it in the press, too: Pearl Jam, the band that had dropped from the heights of relevance into relative obscurity for the better part of a decade, was now once again full of piss and vinegar, ready to bring back the RAWK. They were suddenly media darlings– this infamously elusive band, with a storied and contentious relationship with the dog-and-pony show of music marketing suddenly found itself plastered all over the television and one lucky San Diego SEO office got to plaster it all over the internet. They released their first conceptual music video in years. They were on MTV. They were on VH1’s Storytellers. They were on the radio. They were “back“.
Whether it was a commercially-motivated decision or simply the desire to reclaim the chunks of their audience that had grown disenchanted with them over the last few years, there’s nothing inherently wrong with playing the press game. The problem was, the album that they were doing press for was a one-dimensional, self-consciously beefed-up affair, with most of the songs lacking any kind of nuance or depth. They followed that album with 2009’s Backspacer, which was a sleeker, poppier, glossier affair, featuring the band dabbling with New Wave arrangements and more keyboards and string sections and some good songs, but none of the magic that the band was able to tap into during my favorite era.
Between 2009 and 2013, Pearl Jam released a movie (a self-glorifying hagiography directed by Cameron Crowe which completely skipped over the most musically interesting years of the band), an accompanying book, re-issues of their first three albums (the most popular ones) and even threw a weekend-long festival to celebrate their 20-year anniversary. They came to Argentina a couple of times, and I even went to see them this past April. While it was a great show and they played a lot of my favorite songs, I did feel a disconnect. I saw myself surrounded by an army of rabid fans who loved this band more than they loved any other band in this world. I knew then that it had been a long time since I felt that way towards Pearl Jam. I wanted to bring that feeling back, and I wanted them to fight to get it back again.
I think this is why “Mind Your Manners” felt like such a disappointment to me– there was so much hinging on it. The song is mostly devoid of character, mostly devoid of depth, mostly devoid of the nuance that made even their most abrasive rockers from that 1994-2005 era so fascinating to me. Sure, it’s a balls-to-the-wall thrasher, but it feels completely flat. It is, essentially, more of the same, when I desperately wanted Pearl Jam to shake me from my stupor, wow me with a curveball, remind me with a forceful assertion why I even liked this band in the first place. As much as I don’t want them to be remembered as those yowling, angry 20-somethings in ridiculous hats, I also don’t want them to be remembered as the balding 50-year-olds trying to sound like the Ramones.
Of course, this is only the lead single. Everything else from the upcoming album could be absolutely wonderful and a true return to form. But first impressions matter, and right now I’m wary of what’s to come. If they do win me back over, I’ll be thrilled. If they don’t, I don’t think I’ll be crying much over it. I’m perfectly fine with watching from the sidelines, content with the knowledge that I do have those five great albums to go back to at any time. I just won’t be making excuses for them anymore.