Sometimes it's hard to accept the fact that a band can't get its gears to shift anymore. Pearl Jam were carpenters, they built open spaces into the world of rock, and laid new track where only dirt roads had previously existed. They were important because they were the first rock band to succeed at rejecting the modus operandi of stardom, by actively sabotaging their own success in order to retain artistic vitality and longevity. The Pearl Jam myth is locked into its authenticity: what hasn't killed them has made them stronger.
And yet, with age, it seems that Pearl Jam has lost its gusto. Sure, they are still miles ahead of the pack, releasing seventy-two live "bootlegs" documenting their 2000 tour, consistently putting out solid music, and playing concerts with a sense of life and ferocity that could have toppled Bruce Springsteen in the '80s, but the band's inconsistency is starting to wear through. You can hear it on their newest record, Riot Act, which hints at greatness, but never quite sustains it. The Pearl Jam of today sound like they're lingering in the slow bend of a river, after having spent all their energy guiding themselves through the water and rocks of an unbridled rapid.
Love and politics are the driving themes of this record. There are stunning moments of brilliance, such as the heart-stopping "Thumbing My Way," and straight-ahead "Love Boat Captain," ("hold me, and make it the truth/that when all is lost there will be you/cause to the universe I don't mean a thing/and there's just one word I still believe/it's love"). "Save You" is equally arresting -- a solid angry-rocker, and a last-ditch call to a friend who's lost himself ("fuck me if I say something you don't want to hear/fuck me if I care/but I'm not leaving here"), but Pearl Jam have yet to learn that sometimes love isn't all you need.
Pearl Jam are at their best when they aren't hiding behind rhetoric, and it is only on tracks that focus on the political that Riot Act loses its center. "Bushleaguer" is self-indulgent and unnecessary, "Green Disease" and "Ghost" are lyrical disasters. "It's a disease and they're all green," "Selling me what I don't need... didn't know soap made you taller" -- huh? Everyone who contributed to the lyrics on Riot Act is equally guilty. Eddie Vedder: "the north is to south what the clock is to time," Jeff Ament: "the t.v., she talks to me," Matt Cameron: "Love is a tower and you are the key." I'm almost embarrassed for them. Lyrics like this wouldn't even go over well at amateur poetry night at a suburban Barnes And Noble.
If anything can redeem this record, it's the unyielding music of a band that has only grown stronger with age. Matt Cameron and Mike McCready shine on Riot Act. "You Are" and "Get Right," the two songs written by Cameron, are off-beat originals, and sound fresh in spite of their lyrical flubs. McCready and Stone Gossard groove like no other. Musically, this is one of the better albums that the band has written. It's no question that Pearl Jam have learned how to become great songwriters together, I only wish that the lyrics on Riot Act received half as much attention as the music did. Fans of the band's catalogue will no doubt notice the countless references to previous Pearl Jam songs in the lyrical text of Riot Act, but whether this is due to a lack of new material on Eddie's part, or just an attempt at being kitschy is anyone's guess.
I love Pearl Jam because after twelve years together they are still willing to take chances, but I often find myself cringing when their good intentions fall flat instead of standing up straight. Pearl Jam deserve to take their rightful place on the rock n' roll scoreboard right behind Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, and The Rolling Stones; they are THAT good. Yet something is missing from Riot Act that keeps the record from living up to Pearl Jam's legacy. It doesn't have the power or immediacy to draw an emotional response from listeners in the same way that each of Pearl Jam's previous records have been able to take hold. Riot Act doesn't connect because it exists in the space between heaven and earth, never quite soaring, and never quite touching the ground.
Pearl Jam: http://www.pearljam.com