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Pearl Jam Is Still Rockin’ in a Less-Than-Free World

‘Gigaton,’ the band’s new record out Friday, shows the ’90s grunge gods are still up for a fight

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

To quickly dispense with the unpleasantries, yes, there is a song on the new Pearl Jam record that refers to Donald Trump as “Sitting Bullshit.” The record is called Gigaton, the song is called “Seven O’Clock,” the song title does not refer to the time most of us lifelong Pearl Jam fans go to bed, the tenderly gruff Dylan-Petty-Springsteen Americana lope is in full effect, and the relevant lines are as follows:

Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse come forged the north and west
Then there’s Sitting Bullshit as our sitting president
Talking to his mirror, what’s he say, what’s it say back?
A tragedy of errors, who’ll be the last to have a laugh?

I grimaced a little while typing out the words “a tragedy of errors,” but a little valiant grimacing is a core component of the Pearl Jam experience, and extra-gruff frontman Eddie Vedder—his voice still a strident, scrawny, yearning weapon of mass introspection—is for sure not having a laugh. Love that guy. Love these guys. Real quick, my credentials are as follows:

  1. In 1991—the year Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten, invented grunge, Seattle, dudely romanticized moping, growling, and guitar solos—I rocked the classic PJ “Stickman” shirt under various flannels and was consequently the coolest kid in any junior high anywhere in America, along with the 80 million other dudely junior high mopers wearing the same thing. My favorite song on Ten as of this hour is “Release.”
  2. In 1998, I’d play one of my all-time favorite Pearl Jam songs, the exceedingly wistful and gentle “Wishlist” (that year’s Yield is their third-best album IMHO after Vs. and Vitalogy in whatever order) on acoustic guitar at college coffeehouse open-mic nights, to tepid applause and no tips or romantic prospects whatsoever, which IMHO only added to the artistic purity of the experience.
  3. In 2001, a magazine paid me ~$75 to listen to ~23 full-length official bootleg Pearl Jam live albums (first leg of the 2000 North American tour) at ~90 minutes per album and then write ~350 words, total. I listened to all of them, in full, and agonized over determining the best version of “Corduroy.” (I forget, but let’s say Saratoga Springs, 8/27/00.)
  4. In 2020, I have unironically played robust air guitar to a new Pearl Jam song called “Superblood Wolfmoon.”

That’s a rad riff, man! It swaggers! Rock ’n’ roll! Let’s do this! Pearl Jam albums in the 21st century follow a reliable pattern: righteously grouchy guitar-hero jams up front, craggily melancholy moonlit reveries in the back, and maybe a modestly gargantuan power ballad in the middle somewhere. (“Sirens,” from their last record, 2013’s extra-subdued Lightning Bolt, is a stirring escalator to heaven.) It’s the Neil Young dichotomy, which they learned from him quite directly. (In 1993, I watched rapt as Young and Vedder harmonized on “Rockin’ in the Free World” at the MTV Video Music Awards as the prelude to some wanton amp-trashing, which immediately became my second-favorite VMAs moment of the ’90s, after the Great Nirvana Bass Toss.)

An important thing to note about Gigaton, then, is that the hard-rocking songs, while sparser in number than ever, rock alarmingly hard. (“Take the Long Way” has a super-crabby riff and a robust air-guitar-worthy solo.) This reflects a global anxiety that has (one presumes, but come on) only increased in the interval between recording this album and releasing it into the middle of a world-seizing coronavirus pandemic that already, weeks ago, waylaid the band’s sure-to-be-lucrative 2020 world tour. (This record is out Friday, in what might be, given the rising wave of high-profile album-release cancellations, the last remotely normal New Music Friday for quite some time.)

A central value proposition of Eddie Vedder, for three decades now, is that he is extremely disappointed in society and not at all afraid to be grumpy about it. And so: “The looser things get, the tighter you become,” he seethes on the supremely weird and almost funky lead single “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” a bit of David Byrne–as-supervillain cosplay that sounds wrong on the radio in all the right ways. This is his moment. May the lord have mercy on us all.

Gigaton is indeed the band’s first album in seven years and 11th studio effort overall; to paraphrase my signature karaoke jam, they are Steely Veterans Behind the Eight Ball in the Midst of a Global Pandemic. It’s a little unnerving how apt these songs can be, how seamlessly the fears and gripes expressed herein (about climate change, mostly) translate to other terrifying current events. “It’s gonna take much more than ordinary love to lift this up,” Vedder observes, during a delicate shuffle called “Retrograde.” (Dangerous song title for a 30-year-old band, but it plays.) “I’ve got blood / Blood on my hands,” he croons, almost lovingly, on an even daintier lope called “Buckle Up.” The bass-driven and extra-extra-grouchy “Quick Escape” specifically proposes we all escape, quickly, to Mars, as Vedder’s yelping verses move from partisan rage ...

Crossed the border to Morocco
Kashmir then Marrakesh
The lengths we had to go to then
To find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet

… to broader societal lament.

And we think about the old days
Of green grass, sky and red wine
Should’ve known, so fragile
And avoided this one-way flight

A little pedantic, yes, sure, but that’s the gig. As for Trump, sorry, I got distracted: “Sitting Bullshit.” Yeah. Pearl Jam is historically not a band afraid to Take a Stand, even if that stand is both (a) absolutely correct and (b) near-ruinous. (At least their old foe Ticketmaster has, in this moment, also ground to a halt.) Perhaps you recall their clunky 2002 jam “Bu$hleaguer,” addressed to our then-president and somewhat less of an eye-roller than that title (love the “$”) would suggest, but only somewhat. (“The Haves have not a clue” was a decent line, though.)

Few songs on Gigaton are a threat to crack your own personal all-time top-10 lists, and “Seven O’Clock” ain’t one of the better ones, but as always, there’s something stirring in Vedder’s earnestness. “For this is no time for depression or self-indulgent hesitance,” he insists, the way few rock singers of his generation ever bothered to insist. “This fucked-up situation calls for all hands, hands on deck.” I’m just impressed and grateful that these guys are still in the fight.

For the record, my favorite song Vedder has ever sung is “Against the 70’s,” an unusually playful guest spot on punk icon Mike Watt’s star-studded 1995 album Ball-Hog or Tugboat? That song title was, as usual, quite literal. As the chorus advises:

Kids of today should defend themselves against the ’70s
Kids of today should defend themselves against the ’70s
It’s not reality
It’s just someone else’s sentimentality
It won’t work for you

Pearl Jam is a tough concept to explain in 2020. Yes, alternative-rock bands used to be so popular that they often got even more popular by publicly attempting to reject their popularity. (Here’s a 1993 Spin cover story in which Vedder smashes a teacup on the ground because he’s so pissed that his band sold out a Dutch sports arena.) Yes, in the alt-rock era, not making music videos for MTV was the height of rock-star defiance. Yes, this is no longer reality; yes, if you were born in this century, an emotional attachment to this band is likely someone else’s sentimentality.

But the fear and loathing and sweet resignation of Gigaton might still work for you. Under normal circumstances I’d joke, self-deprecatingly, that the kids of today should protect themselves against the ’90s. But right at this moment, what the kids of today really need to do is stay the fuck indoors.