In popular music, we tend to think of our greatest artists as originals. Be it Chuck Berry or Bob Dylan, the Beatles or James Brown, it's much easier to think of artists who've imitated these greats than it is to name acts they've copied.
Pearl Jam is a perfect example. From Stone Temple Pilots to Creed, there are plenty of alt-rock acts that owe at least a little of their sound to the Seattle-based quintet. But is there a similar source for Pearl Jam? Not that I can tell. Most of the acts that emerged during the Seattle grunge boom of the early '90s fell into one of two camps, hewing either toward the clangorous punk of Nirvana or the neo-metal of Soundgarden or Alice in Chains. But Pearl Jam not only absorbed elements of both, but managed to include other, more exotic elements in its sonic palette.
But however singular Pearl Jam's sound may be, the band is not immune to comparison. Indeed, after catching the group on its current tour, I'm convinced that Pearl Jam is to punk rock what Bruce Springsteen and the E St. Band are to rock and roll. That's not to say Pearl Jam sounds like Springsteen and the E Streeters. Sure, there are some similarities in the gruff passion both Springsteen and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder evince, but that doesn't make them sound-alikes. Nor is there much the two have in common instrumentally; compare Pearl Jam's grungy, guitar-based arrangements with Springsteen and the E St. Band's keyboard and saxophone-flavored settings.
What they do have in common, however, is an approach. Both are purists, with a deep belief in the saving power of music. It isn't just a matter of being lifted up by the music; both bands recognize that there's responsibility involved in making music.
For Springsteen and company, it means being honest and hard-working, of never faking it and pushing each performance to the sweat-soaked limit. If the fans don't go away utterly exhausted, then they haven't been given their money's worth. That's why the group is famous for its exuberant marathon shows.
Pearl Jam, though equally earnest, seems less concerned with exertion than with integrity. This doesn't simply mean giving a heart-felt performance; the band's faith in punk rock includes the belief that the music should not be corrupted by commercial greed. That's why, a few years ago, Pearl Jam decided it would rather not play concerts at all than let its fans be taken advantage of by the avaricious service fees charged by Ticketmaster.
There's also a similarity in the way the two acts use the basic vocabulary of rock and punk to create a larger-than-life musical statement. With Springsteen, it's easy to see how the dramatic sweep of such songs as "Jungleland," "Darkness On the Edge of Town" and "Born in the U.S.A." turn simple rock and roll into something almost panoramic in its grandeur. Even his party songs - silly stuff like "Cadillac Ranch" - somehow sound larger than life, because Springsteen and the E St. Band arrange them to make every note and instrumental voice seem big and important. But there's none of the overstuffed operatics that marks the similarly grand sound of songwriter Jim Steinman (the man behind Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell"), because Springsteen and the E Streeters always emphasize the music's roots over the arrangement's uplift.
Coming from a punk rock background, Pearl Jam is working within an aesthetic that is openly contemptuous of musical glitz and glamour. But just as Springsteen's band knows how to make its music seem bigger without making it seem bloated, so too does Pearl Jam expand on the sound of punk without making its music "inauthentic."
For instance, when Pearl Jam goes into thrash mode, what we hear isn't a headlong rush into the riff, but a show of power every bit as disciplined and controlled as the full-throttle roar Springsteen gets in "Cadillac Ranch." Even better, the members of Pearl Jam know how to make a lot out of a little, pushing the simple three-chord riff within "But Not for You" until it seems as undeniable as the anger in the lyrics. It's a grand moment, but one that carefully avoids grandeur.
Listening to the audience
Then there are the ways in which the two bands' songs invoke the voice of its audience. Both acts are populist, but in ways that reflect their musical roots. Springsteen is a socially-conscious story-teller who keeps regular folks at the heart of his songs while making points about social issues; Pearl Jam seems less interested in broad-stroke politics than in personal, internalized issues like angst and alienation.
In a Springsteen song such as "The River," we see the effects of a failing economy in the story of a man whose dreams dried up along with the construction work that fed his family. We know that he's working class, didn't go to college, and lives in the industrial East. By contrast, we know nothing specific about the characters who populate the Pearl Jam song "Daughter." There's no clue to their social status, their geographical location, or even their age. All we really know is how they feel - and that comes across vividly.
Sketched broadly, the two approaches seem worlds apart. But when seen in terms of their intended audiences, they work in almost identical fashion. As a rock and roller of the old school, Springsteen - like his audience - is interested in tales of "regular folk," the sort of characters who would turn up in songs by Woody Guthrie or Chuck Berry. Pearl Jam, on the other hand, is as inwardly-directed as its young, college-aged audience, and, as such, focuses more on emotional issues than on political ones.
It's different, but the same - not unlike expressing the same thought in two different languages. But isn't that precisely what we'd expect from such singular acts?