Underappreciated Masters: Pearl Jam Post 1996.
Pearl Jam might seem an odd choice for underrappreciated. After all, at one point in the early 90s, they were the most widely admire band in America.
Well I’m here to focus on the period after they began to fall out of the mainstream, after the unsuccessful battle with Ticketmaster. I’m going to show how some of their best music came out of this era. There’s a reason why they still have fans and haven’t broken up or ended up living off past glories like many of their contemporaries.
In August of 1996, after the unsuccessful fight with Ticketmaster, Pearl Jam released their fourth album: No Code.
While they had started experimenting on their previous album, 1994’s Vitalogy, it was on No Code that PJ began to move away from Grunge, the genre they had come to define. While this cost them many fairweather fans, it assured greater career longevity.
Indeed, Vedder and co realized they’d taken Grunge as far as it could go and that new territories needed to be considered. Much like Dylan could have kept writing protest songs and ceased to be relevant once the sixties were over.
No Code went platinum. But this was a step-down after the multiplatinum success of Vitalogy as well as 1993’s VS and 1991’s Ten. However, the post 1997 period in general was a lean one for the alt-rockers of the early 90s.
In 1998 there was Yield:
Yield outsold its predecessor and actually got a couple of songs on rock radio.
That video (their first since Jeremy) for Do The Evolution was directed by Spawn artist Todd MacFarlane.
Yield was their last album to feature Jack Irons on drums. Pearl Jam goes through drummers like Spinal Tap did. The Spinal Tap effect ended here however as Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron joined and has remained a permanent member since then.
By 2000, many of the leading rock bands of the 90s had either broken up or drastically changed direction. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Jane’s Addiction, Faith No More and Living Colour had all called it quits with Rage Against The Machine and Smashing Pumpkins to follow in October/November of that year. Alice In Chains were in a state of semi-permanent hiatus. The Red Hot Chili Peppers had become mature storytelling veterans. Green Day had also matured and would soon be following in the footsteps of The Who. Radiohead had moved into weird, experimental territory. Beck was messing around with funk. Tool were doing concept albums. Stone Temple Pilots were going back to basics. Even knock-off artists Bush were taking a failed stab at techno. Elder statesmen REM were trying to find their way in the new decade while fellow elder statesmen U2 had gone back to what they were good at and experiencing some of the biggest success of their career.
For a while, Pearl Jam seemed to be following in REM’s footsteps, not sure of where to go in the 2000s.
2000’s Binaural was when the last of the fairweather fans jumped ship. Even some serious fans consider it to be one of their weaker albums.
I’m somewhat mixed on it. It does have some very good songs and the continued experimental approach shows that they’re not content to just live off past glories. On the other hand, the production could be better and there are times on the album where it seems like the band is trying to find its footing. Not a bad album at all. But it’s one of theirs I listen to least.
Also in 2000, Pearl Jam began releasing official bootlegs of their live shows, a practice they continue to this day.
Sadly, 2000 was also the year of the Roskilde festival tragedy. During their performance at the festival in Denmark, 9 people were killed in a crowd rush.
The Roskilde tragedy, 9/11 and numerous other things would feed into the lyrics and sound of 2002’s Riot Act.
The tragedy is also explicitly referenced on “Love Boat Captain” with the lyric: “Lost nine friends we’ll never know/2 years ago today”
That last one “Bushleaguer” is a slam of former president George W Bush.
Riot Act is more straightforward compared to the experimental Binaural. It has some good songs. But to me, is likely the least of Pearl Jam’s studio albums.
If the state of things had left Pearl Jam contemplative on Riot Act, on their 2006 self-titled album they rocked out.
In an era where America seemed to be on the verge of imploding on itself, Vedder and co channeled their disgust with the state of the nation into a hard-driving album that’s their best since Yield.
Three years passed and then came Backspacer:
Backspacer continued to rock out albeit with a more optimistic sound.
After the success of Backspacer, Pearl Jam took a few years off (Eddie Vedder worked on a couple solo projects) before returning in October 2013 with Lightning Bolt:
Lightning Bolt mixes the optimism of Backspacer with the angst and rage of the self-titled album:
In addition to all of those, their’s Eddie Vedder’s solo work, such as his 2011 solo album “Ukulele Songs” and his soundtrack for the 2007 Sean Penn directed film “Into The Wild”.
So what I’ve tried to illustrate here is that many of the casual fans who jumped ship on Pearl Jam when they took a path outside of the mainstream missed out on some of their best music.
They may not be the leading band in America anymore. But in some ways, they’ve followed in Springsteen and Prince’s path. They stepped down form tehr oles of standard bearers and continued to make the music they want to make, totally on their own terms. They’re not living off past glories, pandering to the MTV crowd or turning into an adult contemporary variation on what they used to be. Indeed, they’re one of the few bands from their era who have legitimately earned the title of elder statesmen and can wear it with pride.