By now, Pearl Jam has aged into many things. Perhaps the band is mere comfort food for middle-aged rock snobs. Maybe it represents one last steady, descending pulse from a generational sound and scene. Perhaps it’s remnants of an electrifying organism, still capable–like an aging athlete–of muscular bursts of old, albeit fewer and farther between.
Maybe it’s just five middle-aged rock guys looking at the world around them and just naturally doing what they do. Whatever now defines the band or fueled the effort, it resulted in the band’s best music in a couple decades.
It’s not a complete musical rejuvenation, Gigaton, the band’s first studio record in seven years, falls short of its 20th Century peak. Not that it really matters. If the loyal masses–or even newcomers–want to occasionally remember, or learn, what the fuss was all about, then Gigaton works. Especially for the latter. Discovering Pearl Jam in 2020 could be like perusing a garage sale and buying an original artwork for three bucks that someone threw on the driveway, not understanding its true value. Perhaps it prompts someone to see why it was such a big deal in the first place.
Despite making a statement about the modern natural world, nothing on Gigaton will stamp itself onto one’s brain after one listen. It’s just not that memorable. However, a few things still shine through. It may be missing the forest for looking at one tree, but the production is very good. The listener gets drums and guitar stuck in their ears; sometimes warmly, sometimes sounding vaguely distracted. The same could be said for Eddie Vedder’s voice. He still sounds like he means it; or at least, wants to mean it. That matters. Pearl Jam still plays like high-end pros, while still not tampering with too many rules. As usual, there’s a strong balance of craftsmanship and edge.
Even if they need some warming up. Opener “Who Ever Said,” plays to the band’s sonic strengths, even if Pearl Jam reverts to its semi-annoying habit of writing a less than complete song. You get to the end and realize they didn’t have much use for a chorus.
“Superblood Wolfman” riffs well, shows promise, then sputters. But like so much of the band’s work, it will likely work better live (something that fans will have to wait a little bit longer for). Single “Dance of the Clairvoyants” is ambitiously snappy in a New Wave kind of way but, again, misses. “Quick Escape” brings a thick riff and lots of dynamics but shows its hand early and doesn’t bring much else.
Then the band starts to stretch its creative legs with “Alright,” a song that breathes deeply with a hook embedded in the verse. Vedder goes to one of his strengths–storytelling–on “Seven O’Clock,” sounding almost desperately sincere (always a component of vintage Vedder). It also takes on another component of the best Pearl Jam: constructing power throughout.
The band keeps playing with purpose on “Never Destination,” which could be a leftover from the salad days and another rocker that likely will translate well live. The song improves as it goes; the trick is getting the listener’s attention in the meantime. Same for the aggressive “Take the Long Way,” on which—like on some of PJ’s best material—the band changes direction in a way that makes sense. However, they also revive an old habit of throwing in a transition that slows momentum, this time at the end. Same for “Buckle Up” a song for PJ veterans, which stalls for reasons that aren’t apparent. The acoustic “Comes Than Goes” is thick and serviceable.
“Retrograde” may be the best song on the record. It may be Pearl Jam’s best song this century. Warm and mellow, at some point it really grabs the ear while building into something gorgeous and hopeful. Drummer Matt Cameron emerges past the halfway point, pounding out huge accents to well-structured melody. It really brings back some of the band’s best moments. Vedder drives the album’s closer, “River Cross,” which meanders and builds toward a nice payoff.
Pearl Jam has outlived–literally, in some cases–its competition over the years. Whether Gigaton is a throwback or a new way to look at a middle-aged band, it works.
Follow music critic Tony Hicks at Twitter.com/TonyBaloney1967.