Pearl Jam’s Gigaton Advocates for Hope in Uncertain Times
As is often the case with Pearl Jam, it’s the message that carries the music. Gigaton is no exception.
“Who ever said it’s all been said/Gave up on satisfaction” sings Eddie Vedder repeatedly in “Who Ever Said,” the opening track of Pearl Jam’s new album Gigaton. The satisfaction he sings of is definitely not the carnal type that Mick Jagger sang about fifty-five years ago though. The song, and Vedder’s declaration, are apropos to the times we humans find ourselves living through right now. Real crises like climate change, coronavirus, economic and political upheaval, and inept political leaders might give concerned citizens of the world a reason to tear their hair out, or at least switch off-their TVs as well as their sense of concern and action. The talking heads on TV, as well as respected artists-like Pearl Jam themselves-might, be seen to have already said everything they can on what plagues mankind and how to combat it. Believing this to be true though is dangerous. Nothing hopeful, or cautious, can ever be communicated enough, especially if it is done so passionately and intelligently. To believe so is to give up and settle for something less than satisfactory: complacency in the face of said crises. Pearl Jam refuses to remain satisfied, to the benefit of us all, and Gigaton illustrates that for them at least, everything definitely has not been said.
Musically, Gigaton is not so disparately different from their previous work as one might think based upon the album’s first single “Dance of The Clairvoyants”. True, the album is more slickly produced than just about any other album of theirs. The experimental moments on Gigaton though are not without precedent. One only has to queue up “You Are” off of Riot Act, “Push Me, Pull Me” off of Yield, or even “Who You Are” from No Code as examples. All of those songs are much more experimental than anything on Gigaton as far as unconventionality is concerned. Much of Gigaton might be embellished with atmospherics, both of the electric guitar and synth-driven kind, but the structures are a straightforward mixture of hard and fast as well as slow and contemplative rock. The synth intros to “Alright” and haunting atmospheres that open the majestic “Retrograde” are unique sounding, but only to Pearl Jam’s repertoire.
In fact, many of the musical expansions that Pearl Jam indulges in here are obvious nods of respect and admiration to Pink Floyd. The intro to “Who Ever Said,” if you listen carefully, recreates the trippy David Gilmour guitar sound that drove the atmospheric intro and bridge to “Take It Back” off of 1994’s The Division Bell. The spoken recording of numbers “611523” and “523611” (or so it sounds to my ears) in the middle of “Quick Escape” is reminiscent of the recorded countdown inserted into the middle of Pink Floyd’s “Learning To Fly” off of 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason. The band has been showing major love towards Pink Floyd recently. They’ve been covering “Mother” and “Comfortably Numb” off The Wall live for almost a decade at various times during their live sets. Mike McCready even admitted to writing Lighting Bolt’s “Sirens” during a burst of inspiration after seeing Roger Waters’ “The Wall” live show. It’s not surprising that they incorporate influences from Pink Floyd at this point in their career. Pearl Jam always have been, and continue to be, rock fans as well as rock stars.
Pearl Jam are a special type of rock fan though. They are, and also always have been, believers in the power of rock music to change lives, indeed even the course of nations. To be sure, the revolution that Pearl Jam advocates in their music is a revolution of the self, but Vedder has never shied away from taking on the powers that be. He makes obvious references to Trump (by name no less-but remember he did the same with W) but never fails to turn his powers of perception, and criticism, on himself, as he does in the uptempo rocker “Take The Long Way.” The aforementioned “Alright” showcases Vedder singing about how “It’s alright, to be alone/To listen for a heartbeat, it’s your own/It’s alright, to quiet up/To disappear in thin air, it’s your own.” While he might appear to be advocating a switching off here, he’s actually emploring the tired to take a break, not give up. “You can’t hide your eyes” he sings as the song ends. You can disappear in thin air for a bit, but you can’t hide what you see…or forget. Sometimes though one has to unplug so as to remain strong enough to rise to the occasion when one plugs back in and takes back up the good fight.
It’s in these quieter moments on Gigaton where Pearl Jam really shows its spiritual and emotional power to connect with their listeners in ways that the casual fan might not realize they are capable of. Hard driving tracks like “Superblood Wolfmoon” and “Never Destination” summon up the blood as only Pearl Jam can, but the introspection of the beautiful “Seven O’Clock” reminds the listener that “Freedom is as freedom does, and freedom is a verb” and there’s “much to be done…much to be done.”
As it often is with Pearl Jam, it’s the message that carries the album. Pearl Jam has always artfully illustrated the problem and motivated their listeners to search for solutions, without explicitly laying any out. That’s okay as it’s the call to action, personally and publicly, that great art should inspire. Pearl Jam have rarely done so as creatively, artistically, and passionately as they do here.