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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pearl Jam

Once again this year I'll be discussing the inductees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I'll start with Pearl Jam, one of only two artists to get in in their first year of eligibility.

I regularly bought Pearl Jam CDs throughout the '90s, and as I listened to their greatest hits retrospective, Rearviewmirror, this week I had to consider if they were the best rock band of the decade, and I've come to the conclusion that they were. They grew out of the "grunge" movement of the Pacific Northwest, but were more long-lasting that Nirvana (sadly) and better than and more consistent that Alice in Chains or Soundgarden.

That being said, I couldn't tell you when Pearl Jam released their latest album (a quick Google search turns up one in 2013 that went completely beneath my radar). They began with their greatest album, Ten, and seemingly with every release since then have been less noteworthy.

But that album Ten produced a few of the anthems of the decade, songs about not fitting in, a time-honored rock and roll trope, but with a kind of savage intensity. I think mostly of "Alive," in which a boy learns his parentage isn't what he thought it was (part of Eddie Vedder's biography):

"Son, she said, have I got a little story for you
What you thought was your daddy was nothin' but a...
While you were sittin' home alone at age thirteen
Your real daddy was dyin', sorry you didn't see him, but I'm glad we talked... "

And :Jeremy," about a bully victim who lashes back:

"Clearly I remember
Pickin' on the boy
Seemed a harmless little fuck
But we unleashed a lion
Gnashed his teeth
And bit the recess lady's breast"

Along with "Black," "Once," and "Even Flow" (about a homeless man) these songs lived throughout the decade, with impassioned lyrics, incomparable musicianship, and the unearthly sound of Eddie Vedder's voice, which rumbles in a bass but can be comforting as well as manic. Consider the quiet beauty of "Wishlist," one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs, or the intense screaming on "Do the Evolution."

From "Wishlist":

"I wish I was an alien at home behind the sun
I wish I was the souvenir you kept your house key on
I wish I was the pedal brake that you depended on
I wish I was the verb 'to trust' and never let you down"

Most of Pearl Jam's discography is fairly grim--these guys didn't do novelty songs. Even the one cover they had for a hit, "Last Kiss," is about a guy getting in a car wreck that kills his girlfriend. But even if their songs aren't finger-snapping ditties, there is hopefulness to them. After all, in that very first album, Vedder proclaims, "I'm still alive."

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