‘Gigaton’ Marks a Welcome Return From a Newly Impassioned Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam spearheaded a sound that defined the ‘90s, and have stayed at it for nearly three decades, trying out variations of their particular take on grunge, to mixed results. Their last album, 2013’s “Lightning Bolt,” struck as something of a retreat, following a string of rather divisive, hit-or-miss releases. The ensuing seven years have left frontman Eddie Vedder stirred up and newly indignant, which is to our good fortune, as “Gigaton” finds the band showcasing a spark that seemed on the verge of fading away. Disillusionment and discontent with the political landscape and the state of the world, in general, have fueled a fire. There’s more experimentation, more energy, and lyrics that surpass anything else in Vedder’s oeuvre.
The band makes an immediate impact with “Who Ever Said,” emerging recharged and revitalized, with a heavy, robust sound. Vedder snarls over Stooges-esque guitars and throbbing bass, and the song builds to a massive chorus of histrionic rock gestures. Overdriven, energetic, and dynamic, the production gives the feel of being up front at a live show, making for an effective, mobilizing opener. Perhaps most striking of all is Vedder’s lyricism, more poetic than ever before. Every song has at least a few priceless couplets, in this case, “It’s all in the delivery / Said the messenger who is now dead.” In this vein, Vedder makes a call to action.
Promisingly titled single “Superblood Wolfmoon” is a chugging, instantaneous rocker, with a vaguely Queens of the Stone Age-feel — which if traced back, might ultimately be a Pearl Jam feel, bringing us wonderfully full circle. Vedder’s signature rasp and infections nod to decades of rock ‘n’ roll history. The ringing chords strike an elemental nerve, and a guitar solo is thrown in for good measure. Now this is proper comeback fare, and you’ve got to hand it to Pearl Jam. It’s not much of a stretch to say they didn’t even rock this hard in their ‘90s heyday.The cryptic lyrics generally suggest being enamored by a haunting presence, while lines like “We are each of us fucked” succinctly sum up the pessimism that runs throughout the album.
Lead single “Dance of the Clairvoyants” is the sound of a markedly different Pearl Jam. It starts essentially like synth-pop, and plods along until distorted guitar stabs frame it in a harder rock context. Vedder throws down some sprawling vocals that an overly imaginative mind might liken to everyone from Ian Curtis to Nick Cave. The take home point is that the song sounds decidedly gothic, in accordance with its title. The guitar work is perfectly messy and textured, and Vedder’s performance is top notch, with overlapping vocal lines and sprightly interjections over post punk rhythmic instrumental indulgences. Vedder is especially verbose here, as on most of the album, and while it could come across as a bit much, it’s generally well executed. Reiterating the call of action made in the opener, Vedder reflects, “Expecting perfection leaves a lot to ignore / When the past is the present and the future’s no more.”
“Quick Escape,” another single, serves as something of an extension of ideas already presented, with the same general sonic equipment left to its own devices. It’s heavy, noisy, and coarse, almost brutally so, and Vedder is seething and furious as he mentions Zanzibar, Kashmir, Morocco, and Marrakech, before remarking, “The lengths we had to go to then / To find a place Trump hasn’t fucked up yet.” While not the most melodically engaging, the song achieves potency from its energy, and the chorus is hummable enough to compensate for elsewhere. “Alright” suffers the same shortcomings — so much passion ineffectively channeled by lackluster melodies. Still, what the tune lacks, texture somewhat provides, and Vedder’s sonorous voice, relatively untreated for the first time on the record, makes for something of a throwback. A more restrained, spacious song, it’s a welcome lull after the album’s rather aggressive first third. Vedder employs numerous metaphors, always building up to the climactic line, “Keep it for yourself,” and singing it with a passion that drives the point home.
Vedder gets more explicit yet on “Seven O’clock,” alluding to Sitting Bull, then to “sitting bullshit as our sitting president.” These insults without explanations can seem a bit cheap, but Vedder certainly sings like he means it. Moreover, he’s generally effortlessly poetic. This time, he finds another way to emphasize his call to action: “Freedom is as Freedom does / And freedom is a verb.” Synth string sounds in the chorus, over Vedder’s strained vocal, make for a rather silly sound, rendered even more awkward by Vedder’s up-front, breathy utterances upon certain words. At any rate, “Never Destination” brings another propulsive rocker, with a driving main guitar riff. Vedder reverts back to his distorted croon, cramming his verbose utterances into bars with fury. Of course, there’s a guitar solo right on cue, and this is all undeniably stale, although you could as accurately describe it as “classic,” if you’re of that persuasion. Vedder’s bleak outlook and pronounced disapproval here finds the refrain of “Never destination, just more denial,” with the last word exclaimed. In general, the song is filled with classic Vedder inflections, likely to make it a hit with hardore fans.
If Pearl Jam ever seemed a bit out of place in the grunge category, “Take the Long Way” sounds more like a Soundgarden song, with 7/8 timing, and classic metal guitar riffage effectively repurposed with pop appeal. Lyrically, Vedder veers from political outrage back to tortured love songs, belting away, “I’ll always take the long way, that leads me back to you.” A soft moment follows with the largely acoustic “Buckle up.” Vedder’s crisp and clear voice over soothing, cascading guitars is a refreshing change. The lyrics too are an anomaly, far more open-ended than most. Whatever, they meet, they’re certainly vivid and powerful, with lines like “The drapes pull back / Reveal her wound / Her boy on her lap / A murderer groomed” — true horrorshow fare. Vedder sings the refrain of “Buckle Up” with an ironic composure, and the whole affair is delightfully absurd.
The acoustics continue on the next track, “Comes Then Goes,” with atypically intricate guitar work. The eponymous phrase seems to refer to love, and for this one, Vedder sings in that infantile way of his, in which he flattens his melodic lines near the end, as on the titular line of “Can’t Find a Better Men.” However he came up with this way of singing, and whatever its appeal may be, there are surely die-hard devotees there who will appreciate the return to form. “Retrograde” is again on the lighter side musically, but the heavier lyrically, in an already lyrically intense album. The amorous and political themes intersect here, with lines like “It’s going to take much more than ordinary love / To lift this up.” Vedder can be an exceptionally expressive singer, channeling emotions in real time with great potency — think back to “Black.” This song has a similar effect, and is perhaps closer to the classic Pearl Jam sound than anything else on the new album. By the end, it all swells to dramatic proportions, with resounding drums, ambient noise, and Vedder wallowing over the grand racket. Finally, “River Cross” introduces some fresh, new instrumentation — pump organ and kalimba — and from the onset has a conclusive quality to it, with sprawling, immersive washes of sound, and Vedder belting away at his most inspired. When he repeatedly bellows, “Won’t hold us down,” it is quite easily the album’s climactic moment. The epic ending will likely leave you with chills.
Pearl Jam has such a legacy that expectations will always be high. Still, recent releases have generally found a lukewarm reception, and it’s safe to say the bar has been lowered. That said, most will find “Gigaton” a pleasant surprise. If “Lightning Bolt” seemed rather tired and uninspired, the new album is just the opposite — impassioned and full of vitality. The biggest shortcoming, ultimately, is that there aren’t that many particularly memorable tunes. No song on the record is likely to stick in your head as stubbornly as, say, “Evenflow” or “Jeremy.” On the other hand, Eddie Vedder has outdone himself lyrically, and his words alone add an unprecedented richness to the new songs. Moreover, the band is more sonically experimental than they have been in many years, adding exciting new dimensions to their tried and tested sounds. Altogether, “Gigaton” is not the stuff to inspire revelations, but it does offer plenty to enjoy.
“Gigaton” is available March 27 on Apple Music.