SEATTLE -- On a typically blustery spring Seattle afternoon, Eddie Vedder sits in a blue vinyl booth at West Seattle's Easy Street Records and Cafe, catching up with the owner. The small shop is a favorite hangout, and Vedder is barely noticed. In this beachy district where many of the city's rockers - including the 41-year-old Pearl Jam singer - have settled and started families, everyone's equal.
Like Pearl Jam, which performs at the Verizon Center in Washington tonight, Seattle has grown with care. Its Uptown condos and upscale urban malls never overwhelm the no-nonsense pioneers who own its soul. The punk clubs circa 1980 developed into the paradigm for the quality rock that Pearl Jam represents, and Microsoft millionaires belly up to its tavern bars next to the skippers who still fish its harbors. For all its 21st century largesse, Seattle remains unpresumptuous. Like Vedder himself, it wants to be just folks.
It's been a while since Vedder has left this comfort zone. Fifteen years ago, Pearl Jam ruled rock, but its zealous high-mindedness - which led the band to abstain from music videos, to favor experimental jams over Top 40 fare and to take on big targets of the left, including Ticketmaster and the Bush administration - put the band in a strange category: celebrated, yet obscure. Its last four albums have received little radio attention and led to a sound that Vedder complained was too cerebral.
By keeping to itself and its subculture of fans, Pearl Jam lost momentum. Over the years, band members began bringing into the mix distinctive influences, reflected in outside projects, in a way that didn't always lend itself to coherence. Guitarist Mike McCready continued to play in side groups with some of his old hometown bandmates. Along the way, he fought, and overcame, various addictions. Now McCready battles Crohn's disease, and he has become focused on charity work to fight the intestinal disorder.
Bassist Jeff Ament, a bearded Montana native, went off to record with the world-music-tinged Three Fish and to check out skateboard parks nationwide. Guitarist Stone Gossard, whom you could easily picture working at a Seattle Internet start-up, co-led the soulful, Seattle-based band Brad. Drummer Matt Cameron became active in his son's grade school. Vedder, meanwhile, stumped for Ralph Nader and other causes. At best, the band was a cozy, slightly frayed home.
Then, after 15 years with Epic, Pearl Jam signed to Clive Davis' J Records label, though before he sealed the deal, Davis insisted on seeing the band. "I wanted to see their hunger, their freshness, their magic again," he says. "To see if in their songwriting they would come up with a vintage Pearl Jam album with its great storytelling that could put them on top again." The band passed the audition.
Known for creating comebacks for such stars as Carlos Santana and Rod Stewart, Davis saw those possibilities in Pearl Jam.
"I thought we could focus a laser beam on the band consistent with their artistic integrity," he says. Vedder and his mates have answered with a self-titled J debut that's focused, furious and outward-looking. Like U2, Pearl Jam has made a conservative choice with liberating results - an act of remembering that's pushed them into a new phase. The proof is in the first single, the anti-war cry "World Wide Suicide," the fastest-charting of the band's career. Pearl Jam will be called a return to form, but what's poured into that mold is very different from what the band produced in 1992.
Some of what's changed is the band itself, especially Vedder. The elusive, long-haired boy who captured the pain of youth in such hits as "Jeremy" has matured into a citizen activist who embraces his classic rock heritage. His politics have given purpose to the fame he once shunned. Just as Gen-X has grown up to become the Sustainable Lifestyle Generation, Vedder and his bandmates have hit their 40s seemingly uncompromised.
"If someone says this new album is returning to the energy of the first couple of records, that's great for me because those are the records people know, and it may make them more interested to hear it," Vedder says. "Whether it's true or not, I don't know. I feel our whole recording lifespan is really one long album."
Ament is having a morning snack at an espresso bar close enough to his West Seattle house that his wife pops by to say she's taking their dogs for a walk. The bassist is worried about the loss of the relative calm that had come with being a band that attracted minimal attention.
"People in this neighborhood who haven't said jack to me for years, now they're saying, 'Oh, you have a hit record,'" Ament says. "There's a part of me that thinks, 'God, it would be great if a song or two got played on the radio.' But part of me worries, especially for Ed. We're going to head into this storm; we have to be together and all be ready for it."
The years leading to Pearl Jam, Ament says, required more patience than caution. "All I wanted was to be out of our contract and have a big party to say we made it," Ament says of the final years on Epic, which concluded with 2002's Riot Act.
Industry watchers wondered whether Pearl Jam would become completely independent after leaving Epic. The band had released hundreds of "bootleg" live recordings through its fan service, Ten Club, and developed a thriving online music distribution system.
The deal with J, says Davis, takes advantage of Pearl Jam's understanding of the Web and the touring circuit while providing the worldwide distribution and promotional muscle a major label can invest. Most important, the label offered the band artistic immunity. "We can make an art record if we want to next year; we can make a punk record," Ament says. "We wanted this record to be a tight, concise thing."
"Making this album was the first time I wanted a 9-to-5 routine," Vedder says.
"I had 12 or 13 drafts of some songs on this record," he continues.
It was tough on the rest of the group. "His pace drives me crazy sometimes," Ament says. "But we've learned to trust his process. As hard as it is for him, he's the guy who's going to finish the best songs.
"There were a lot of tough moments making this record," he adds. "And that's probably what makes it feel good."
Pearl Jam performs at Verizon Center (formerly MCI Center), 601 F St. N.W. in Washington, tonight at 7:30. Tickets are $63. Call 410-54-SEAT or visit ticketmaster.com.
Ann Powers writes for the Los Angeles Times.