Alterna-rock has been in an unhealthy state for some time. It isn't just the crush of shallow, sound-alike bands swamping the airwaves; there's also something sick about the absurdly self-flagellating attitude many alterna-acts assume. It's one thing, after all, to decry the piggish arrogance of the rock star excess, quite another to avoid even the appearance of having fun in the name of artistic integrity.
A lot of people blame Pearl Jam for this. For one thing, Pearl Jam is the band most sound-alikes sound like. (Would Seven Mary Three even exist were it not for Pearl Jam's "Ten"?).
But there's also Pearl Jam's ultra-purist public image to consider. Although the band's devotion to principles -- such as its refusal to make videos or make fans pay unreasonably high Ticketmaster service charges -- is admirable enough, it has also taken the notion of being made miserable by success to ridiculous extremes. When singer Eddie Vedder complained to Rolling Stone a few years ago that hearing fans sing "Black" bothered him because it took away from the personal nature of the song, he set a new standard for rock star self-righteousness.
Fortunately, Pearl Jam puts all that behind it with "No Code" (Epic 67500), its long-awaited fourth album. Not only has the band jettisoned the grunge-rock vocabulary it made famous, but it also seems to have outgrown the obnoxious cliche of alterna-rock's "poor pitiful me" pose.
"Present Tense" sums up the band's new attitude nicely. While a guitar, its sound as dark and chewy as treacle, sketches a nasty, minor-key progression, Vedder tackles the self-pity issue head on. "You can spend your time alone/ Redigesting past regrets," he sings. "Or you can comes to terms and realize/You're the only one who can forgive yourself.
"Makes much more sense to live in the present tense," he concludes.
Just how committed Pearl Jam is to living in the present tense is clear from the album's first song, a paean to impermanence called "Sometimes."
In place of the punkish aggression that powered much of "Vitalogy," the band's last album, "Sometimes" relies on space and understatement, as Mike McCready and Stone Gossard thread lean, interlocking guitar lines over the warm growl of Jeff Ament's doublebass and Jack Irons' gently churning drums.
It's a wonderful performance, in part because the music crests and recedes right along with the lyric, turning the song into a single wave of emotion, but mostly because the bandmembers are so in sync with one another that it's hard to focus on any one part without noticing what the others are doing. It's truly selfless playing, and as such, seems an ideal choice to set the tone for "No Code."
How so? Because in listening to the album, it becomes clear that instead of spending time on the road since "Vitalogy" came out, the members of Pearl Jam spent their time playing together -- not just woodshedding, but listening to each other. Perhaps that's why "No Code" conveys such a strong sense of musical community; as a listener, it's easy to imagine yourself inside the circle of musicians shown on the album's inside cover photo.
Certainly, that's the feeling that comes through in "Who You Are," the album's first single. Although other artists have explored the Middle Eastern modalities Pearl Jam plays with here, what carries the recording isn't the Zep-like exoticism of the tart, sitar-like guitars, but the almost tribal groove that pulses beneath the tune. Some of the song's magic lies with the hypnotic throb of Irons' tom-toms, some of it with the dub-like rumble of Ament's bass, and some with the Qawwali-like communion of Vedder's overdubbed vocals.
But its greatest strength lies with the way all of those parts come together, and that's true of almost every tune on the album. It hardly matters whether the music is brisk and aggressive, as on the dark and noisy "Lukin," or soft and dreamy, as with the almost tropical lilt lent the mostly-acoustic "Around the Bend" -- the feel remains the same. It's as if the members of Pearl Jam managed to forget both the pressures of fame and the constraints of their own self-image, and went back to the this-is-what-we-like simplicity of "Ten."
That would go a long way toward explaining how fresh everything seems here. Even when "Smile" and "Red Mosquito" revisit the amped-up folk rock approach the band took in "Mirrorball," its collaboration with Neil Young, it never quite seems as if we've heard this all before.
Maybe that's why the outchorus in "Red Mosquito" seems so resonant. Because as Vedder repeats "If I had known then what RTC know now," what comes across isn't forehead-smacking chagrin so much as an appreciation of how much Pearl Jam has gained by investing in emotional and musical growth.
Here's hoping other alterna-rockers cop that trend, too.
Pub Date: 8/27/96