Evaluating Pearl Jam has become an increasingly difficult task over the years, because they’ve unwittingly found themselves in a class of rock that they shouldn’t really belong in. Between them, Nirvana and Soundgarden basically becoming grunge’s representatives within the ever-expanding classic rock sphere, they’re the only ones still around, and the balance between judging them as a legacy act and a band who’ve simply been able to ride their longevity into the 21st Century has become more and more precarious. If anything though, it’s worth leaning more towards the latter, as Pearl Jam aren’t a band who’ve sleepwalked into the position they’re currently in. They’ve not had a back catalogue that’s been entirely glowing, but in what feels like a rarity for an act of their vintage, it’s not their most recent material that’s proven to be that sticking point. 2013’s Lightning Bolt was pretty great, all things considered, and 2009’s Backspacer painted a picture of a band ageing gracefully and laid down a path that they’ve stuck to rather well. With the acceptance that they’ll never make another Ten or Vs., Pearl Jam are continuing to do rather well for themselves while moving into the mindset that’s natural for an older band to have. As such, Gigaton arrives with a good deal of hope in its corner; it might be the band’s first album in seven years, but with both penchants for experimentation and a decent method of easing back that have carried them through their later years, there doesn’t feel like much to worry about. The respect and good will that Pearl Jam have earned through the years is still palpable, and Gigaton is less of a test of that and more a reassessment of where it’s currently at.
And what this particular reassessment reveals is that Pearl Jam are definitely going the way of more placid, mellowed radio-rock – perhaps further into that territory than anything else they’ve done to date – but are able to pull themselves back from drifting into a stupor by still having enough interesting ideas and tactics up their sleeves. Despite the gulf in sound between Gigaton and Pearl Jam’s classic material, there’s not as much disappointment that factors in here as might be expected; sure, it’s far from their most engaging work to date, but it’s not phoned-in either, and the desire to at least try new ideas and have them work is more than many bands at this stage of their career would even attempt.
That is, even if the general theming of Gigaton is as measurable as it comes, where the worries of an incompetent government and inclement climate catastrophe provide the usual ominous backdrop that they always do. But even so, Gigaton sees Pearl Jam bringing their knack for interesting word choices and shedding off unnecessary roteness to good use, with the imagery on Superblood Wolfmoon or Comes Then Goes being just abstract enough to feel more monolithic in scope, but having the connective threads to find some way of linking back to the central concept. It’s a slightly awkward way of going about things that can really dip when not played to a similar strength (Buckle Up immediately comes to mind), but for what is ostensibly a radio-rock album, it’s interesting to see Pearl Jam run so far with their ideas. Quick Escape and Seven O’Clock each put a detailled, almost graceful spin on planetary destruction that still make the bubbling undercurrent of polical discontent known (the latter has the especially inspired line “Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, they forged the north and west / Then you got Sitting Bullshit as our sitting president”), while Never Destination and Retrograde feel more examining of the situation of how close the aforementioned destruction actually seems. None of it is really stellar at its most base level, especially when this has proven such fertile ground for music to occupy for ages, but it’d be unfair to say that Pearl Jam don’t put their own spin on it, if only from a purely lyrical standpoint, with the execution of their message feeling a lot fresher than the message itself.
It’s almost easy to get the impression that that’s what Gigaton as a whole was looking to do, especially when taking into the account the actual music and how much it comes across like Pearl Jam trying to take a radio-rock or post-grunge template and freshen it up a bit. That can yield some interesting results like the quick steps and prominent bass thrums of Dance Of The Clairvoyants that’s already fielded a good number of comparisons to Talking Heads, or the more standard hard rock sounds affixed to Who Ever Said and Never Destination that aren’t quite as precise as they could be, but have the scrappiness and verve to circumvent too many issues. That reliance on personality does act as an unwitting saving grace on Gigaton; the embrace of much cleaner production is palpable, as is the fact that Eddie Vedder’s voice can’t quite keep up with some of the faster passages (which isn’t helped when some of his lines can feel as cluttered as they are), but it’s almost endearing to see them try to make these elements work even when they don’t quite fit with each other. It’s certainly better than the wave of mid-paced slogs that rounds out the album, basically from Buckle Up onwards with placid, late-album tones that Pearl Jam prove elsewhere on this very album that they’re better than. The off-balance synth progressions on Alright or glances at Springsteen-esque rousing on Seven O’Clock hit the same approximations but do so far stronger, and to see Pearl Jam audibly run out of steam after them is really disappointing. It hints at a lack of sustainability within this sound, or the band not having faith in how far they can take their more experimental tendencies. The generally more subdued nature of Gigaton is teetering on that ledge to begin with, but it’s still more successful than fully tipping over it.
Thankfully that’s not the case too much here, but for all its strengths and efforts made to remain resolute, Gigaton isn’t the strongest that Pearl Jam have ever been, but nor is it supposed to be. At this point, Pearl Jam could easily afford to rest on their laurels with the legacy they’ve built, and even if they’re not turning to their past triumphs for inspiration, the fact they’re willing to attempt to plough ahead is a good move regardless. They’re taking chances when it comes to new music, and for a band now in their thirtieth year, that’s a rarity, and one that pleasant to see. Admittedly the intention can be more agreeable than the product, but it’s not like Gigaton in itself is bad, and for a late-period album, it has a couple of inarguably strong moments that show that the fire and drive is still there, even it has been dulled down. And again, the effort to try and progress is, in itself, a good thing, and regardless of how Gigaton as an entire album is, that can stand with top billing for Pearl Jam at this stage.
For fans of: Foo Fighters, Stone Temple Pilots, Bush
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Gigaton’ by Pearl Jam is out now on Monkeywrench Records / Republic Records.