Pearl Jam find both breakthrough moments and moments of complacency on Gigaton
The general listening public tends to have a certain idea of what it means to take a long time to make a record. Usually, it’s imagined that the band is in there chipping away day in and day out at the same dozen or so tracks that are destined to be on the album. Swapping notes, making incremental changes and coming out the other side with their finished Michelangelo’s. Then they are recorded, mixed and mastered in short order and dispersed to the masses. However, what typically happens is far messier and disjointed. After the cycle of release, press, and lengthy tour from the previous album there has to be a significant period of decompression. Spend time with the family, attend to legal issues, and deal with life outside the career. Then once they can begin to write again, there is a certain amount of finding your stride and redefining yourself. In this period many songs are written, fully fleshed out and cast aside all in the name of burning the album’s essence in the crucible to get to its core. This is all necessary to mine the gems.
The release of Gigaton marks the longest gap between releases in Pearl Jam’s 30-year career. The band continued to tour throughout this seven-year stint and the recording is marked between 2017-2020 so the band likely put together this collection piecemeal throughout the years. It’s understandable that as life goes on you can’t make things happen with the rapidity of a life lived out of a band van. The further down that road you get, the harder it is to get the band together, even if you are the last remaining entity from a beloved era whose fans clamour over your every release.
How does Gigaton fare after the seven-year stretch?
Well, good and bad. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, “After 30 years, you don’t booomb…” (with his suggestive eye raise. You know the one. If you read that right, you’re doing it right now). After 30 years, Pearl Jam certainly have the craft down. The band is well-oiled and has tone for days! The guitar in particular sizzles, recorded with a crystal clarity to hear every inflection. This perfection becomes a detriment on some tracks. Mid-album prop-up ‘Never Destination’ is a pumpin’ locomotive number designed to give the crowd a boost about 2 hours in to one of their 3 hour+ marathon live shows. It just doesn’t resonate with the same passion as their rippers used to. Late album heartstring tugger ‘Retrograde’ suffers from a similar two-dimensionality. The track doesn’t land the emotional punch quite like their other sentimental hits, which to be fair, set a very high bar. Stuck somewhere between earnest and grandeur, never quite hitting either. The grand crescendo finale is impressive but doesn’t make up for the lacklustre first half.
These are exceptions to the rule. On the whole, Gigaton finds new inventive hybrids and unexplored crevasses in the Pearl Jam sound. ‘Who Ever Said’ makes a valiant non-single opener. It surges with some of that Gary Numan/Cars Ric Ocasek 80s New-Wave energy. An off-kilter synthy hook to offset the standard four-on-the-floor rock. The lead single ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants’ is Pearl Jam at their most psychedelic disco. The band sounds like they’ve been hanging out with Mr. Parker from Tame Impala. Gated drums, sleek bass, and a signature synth shape the spacious verses. McCready reps a funky Prince Strat, fraying and splitting at the seams. Vedder manages to find a genuinely unique vein for his voice. He finds a new way to croon as well as a new expression for his frustration, no longer personal angst but an outrage for the future of civilization. Tied in with the environmentally provocative image of an ice sheet melting on the cover, he grits the lines through his teeth with rage but also disappointed exasperation:
“Not one man can be greater than the sun
That’s not a negative thought
I’m positive, positive, positive
Falling down, not staying down
Coulda held me up, rather tear me down
Drown in the river”
‘Dance of the Clairvoyants’ makes a bold step forward for the band originally tied to plaid and school-boy outsider-ism. Yet it’s that outsider’s ethos that gives them the perfect perspective to attack an establishment still blind to the worldwide destruction it has caused and continues to cause. ‘…Clairvoyants’ is one of the best songs in their catalog.
‘Quick Escape’ lands heavy with a Bonzo-footed stomp. Relentlessly driving bass steers the verses leading to a massive shedding solo to carry it home. This one will actually have fans’ minds exploding 2 1/2 hours into the set before the classic hit parade comes to finish off the night. ‘Alright’ and ‘Seven o’Clock’ are affecting and transportive second quarter jams. The fourth quarter may contain the aforementioned ‘Retrograde’ but it finishes strong nonetheless. ‘Comes Then Goes’ gives the band a break, leaving just Eddie and acoustic guitar. Broad open chords accented by punchy fast changes mesh perfectly with Vedder’s steadfast vocals. The record’s closer ‘River Cross’, as one might expect from the album’s theme, is a nature gospel of sorts. Vedder pleas for reason in this chaotic time. A battle cry for the progressive-minded among us who have seen their vision fade at an alarming rate.
With every year between albums, the pressure to push out a masterpiece grows. Just look at the frenzy surrounding Tool’s latest album after a 13-year hiatus. With Gigaton, Pearl Jam breaks some cool new ground but also have some filler to round out the album. They can’t all be zingers. However, if waiting seven years and wading through of couple duds is the price of getting a great song like ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants’ or ‘Comes Then Goes’, then the wait is well worth it.