Entertainment » Music


by Kevin Schattenkirk
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Mar 27, 2020

Their first new studio album in seven years and their eleventh overall, Pearl Jam returns with "Gigaton," an inspired and experimental work. Following the lean New Wave-inflected "Backspacer" (2009) and the disappointingly streamlined "Lightning Bolt" (2013), "Gigaton" finds the band once again pushing the boundaries of how we characterize Pearl Jam's music. To be sure, "Gigaton" isn't as willfully challenging as "Binaural" (2000) or, to a greater extent, "Riot Act" (2002), both of which reward with repeated listening — as evidence, the more accessible material recorded for, but stricken from, those two albums can be heard on the band's rarities compilation "Lost Dogs" (2003). With "Gigaton," the band work synths and loops into the sonic fabric, most prominent (but judiciously so) on the album's first single, the New Order-ish "Dance of the Clairvoyants," and to various extents on "Alright," "Seven O'Clock," "Take the Long Way," and "Retrograde." Piano and kalimba (a North African lamellaphone often referred to as a thumb piano) also add welcome texture.

The band's most regular collaborator, producer Brendan O'Brien, is replaced this time with Josh Evans. This is somewhat significant in that, since early in Pearl Jam's career, O'Brien has played a key role in shaping the sound of the band's recorded work — the only albums he was entirely absent from include their self-titled 2006 album and their debut "Ten" (though the band enlisted him to remix the album for a 2009 re-issue, bringing it more in line with a sound and aesthetic they've developed since "vs.," their second album). On "Gigaton," O'Brien isn't entirely absent, but his role is limited to playing keyboards on a handful of tracks. The overall sound is crisp and direct, unifying an eclectic collection of songs.

While Pearl Jam augments their sound, there is also familiarity throughout. The opening one-two punch of "Who Ever Said" and "Superblood Wolfmoon," along with "Quick Escape" and "Never Destination," are riff-heavy, distorted and catchy as hell punk rockers. Then there's the 'Uncle Neil' (Young, that is) pump organ on the solemn album closer "River Cross." The chord progression and vocal melody of the folky "Alright" are quintessential Pearl Jam. On its musical virtues alone, "Gigaton" is a decisively bold and energetic offering — energized in its sense of urgency, that is. Strikingly, the album initially feels like one of the band's heavier rock efforts. But let it sink in beyond the third listen and one will find that this is one of Pearl Jam's more eclectic albums.

The lyrics, primarily penned by lead vocalist Eddie Vedder, are thoughtful examinations of contemporary socio-political concerns. As far as the band's albums go, "Gigaton" is perhaps their most brazenly political statement since their 2006 self-titled album. Vedder's style negotiates the esoteric and poetic with straight-up no-bullshit. Throughout, Vedder is fully engaged with the anger, frustration, despair, and peoples' ultimate need for hope and connection that our current socio-political climate doggedly compels in many of us. Vedder's concerns are also reflected in the album's few songs authored solely by bandmates bassist Jeff Ament (the "Alright"), drummer Matt Cameron ("Take the Long Way") and guitarist Stone Gossard ("Buckle Up").

So then, what's the problem?

Invoking and specifically name-checking the current Commander in Chief. In two instances. That is the problem.

Pearl Jam has always been politically engaged, so this album is no exception. Here though, Vedder addresses environmental concerns and points his finger directly in "Quick Escape" ("the lengths we had to go to then to find a place Tr*mp hadn't fucked up yet"). Similarly though more through implication, "Seven O'Clock" is concerned with corrosion of truth and integrity: "Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse came forged the north and west, then there's Sitting Bullshit as our sitting President." In addition to both songs' concerns, their presence on "Gigaton" raises questions about the nature of protest in popular song. There is no question that, for decades to come, we will be suffering the ramifications of the current Administration's actions. And of course, Pearl Jam should address this in song. But, should art be sullied so pungently by its subject? This isn't to suggest a lack of artfulness in Vedder's aesthetic. These songs are far more substantial than, say, the noble failure of their 2002 George W. Bush protest "Bushleaguer."

But one suspects the larger point is that after this particular era is over, we will need to be reminded of this administration's willful affront to our cultural, social and political values and to the environment. "Gigaton" can be heard as a caution against burying our heads in the sand, and the problematic notion of returning to the business-as-usual that preceded and ultimately gave way to the current administration (Vice President Biden, are you paying attention?). And in songs such as "Quick Escape," "Seven O'Clock," "Who Ever Said," and "Never Destination," we need to be reminded of such devastation in order to rebuild. The band provides balance in the reflection, hope and spiritual searching in "Alright," "Take the Long Way" and "River Cross."

Overall, the virtues of "Gigaton" — an immensely rich and complex work — are most aptly described by guitarist Mike McCready: "Making this record was a long journey. It was emotionally dark and confusing at times, but also an exciting and experimental road map to musical redemption. Collaborating with my bandmates on 'Gigaton' ultimately gave me greater love, awareness and knowledge of the need for human connection in these times." And this is what good, challenging art should do.

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Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.

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