When critics and fans can’t find consensus, it creates a divide. The Critical Divide finds Philip Cosores examining a different musical act each month, toiling with why an audience might embrace a band that experts are quick to dismiss, or vice versa. This month, as part of Pearl Jam Week, we look at how the Seattle rock titans’ mercurial nature put them at odds with both critics and fans at various points in their career.
Not to make this a column that always starts out by comparing a band to Nirvana, but it’s hard to begin any discussion about Pearl Jam without drawing in their Seattle counterpart. Yes, both shot to superstardom in the early ’90s on the back of a media creation called grunge. But at the time, and particularly in the later ’90s after Kurt Cobain had died and was heralded as a holy figure of sorts, Nirvana and Pearl Jam became something of a Beatles/Stones binary in which rock fans had to choose a side. Did you prefer the authenticity and complexity of Cobain or the populism and grandeur of Eddie Vedder? Did you relate more to hiding in cardigan or climbing on-stage scaffolding?
Or maybe the binary that separated Pearl Jam and Nirvana fans into two camps was always faulty. Plenty of people like both, and the two bands had more in common than opponents would like to admit. Though Pearl Jam’s early work was derived from classic rock and even shared some of the heritage of hair metal that grunge was ostensibly rebelling against, Pearl Jam also had a foot in punk music that played such an important role in Nirvana’s sound. What really separated Pearl Jam and Nirvana’s sounds wasn’t the affinity for punk, but more a dialogue with college rock from the ’80s. Cobain’s songwriting and vocal style owed so much to the Pixies and The Replacements, and these were certainly cooler references at the time than Pearl Jam’s beloved The Who and Neil Young.
But let’s be real. From when they both emerged to the mid-’90s, neither had much trouble intriguing the mainstream populous. Pearl Jam’s first three albums all were massive commercial successes that had numerous radio hits. Whereas Nirvana was an MTV fixture, Pearl Jam turned away from videos after their debut album, a move that, in hindsight, was a lot more punk than Nirvana’s willingness to accommodate the commercial video network. But once No Code came out, 20 years ago from this weekend, the conversation around Pearl Jam really changed.
In hindsight, Vitalogy should have been the record that threw most Pearl Jam fans through a loop. The album came out eight months after Cobain’s death in late 1994, and saw Vedder and co. shredding through their rawest material yet. Songs like “Spin the Black Circle”, “Whipping”, “Satan’s Bed”, and “Not For You” come across as unhinged, even dangerous; a quality that Pearl Jam had rarely displayed prior, except maybe on Vs. cut “Blood”. There were well-documented problems within the band at the time, from communication issues to guitarist Mike McCready’s drug addiction, but the sonic changes were also a response to the landscape they were living in. The band was the biggest in the world by then, and were having second thoughts at what to do with that fame. From fighting Ticketmaster to losing drummer Dave Abbruzzese, focusing just on the music had become an impossibility. Making an album that was scattered and unpredictable was a reflection of Pearl Jam in 1994.
Vitalogy, though, was held together by a pair of Pearl Jam’s best radio songs: “Corduroy” and “Better Man”, meaning that despite closing the album with a half-baked seven-minute experimental track like “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me”, the record didn’t lose much steam in terms of public appeal. It sold more than five million copies, was nominated for Album of the Year at the GRAMMYs, and won them their only music GRAMMY to date. When accepting their award, Vedder famously said that he didn’t think the award means anything, a move that was straight out of the Cobain playbook, but resulted in more hot water.
So what happened with No Code? Even leading up to the release, Pearl Jam still firmly had the support of alt radio. Right when the album was about to come out, Los Angeles radio station KROQ broadcast a complete Pearl Jam concert live from Australia, something that wouldn’t happen today for any band. And when first single “Who You Are” arrived, it still managed to top the alt rock charts, even though the song’s commercial appeal was a stretch by any imagination. Radio had a lot of faith in Pearl Jam, but No Code was Pearl Jam moving away from that, never to completely return.
Dad rock wasn’t even a coined term back in 1996, but No Code fits the bill pretty well. The crunchy, harmonica driven Neil-Young-esque singalong “Smile”? The Springsteenian folk-ballad “Off He Goes”? The polyrhythms influenced by Pearl Jam’s work with Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on “Who You Are” and “In My Tree”? All of these weren’t just a move away from the grunge boat they’d ridden in on. They were a move away from youth culture, from broad accessibility, and from casual fandom. Sure, over the years that followed, songs like “Last Kiss”, “Just Breathe”, and the music video for “Do the Evolution” would put them temporarily back in contemporary music conversation, but from No Code on, Pearl Jam freed themselves to carve out their own path.
Interestingly, it’s this middle period of Pearl Jam’s career, and not their earliest work, that holds up the best. While Ten and Vs are packed with hits, they’re also dated when played from front to back. The grand rock notions of “Glorified G” or “Why Go” sound like relics with modern ears, and it’s the next few albums, the ones that cemented Pearl Jam’s fate outside of hit-makers, that combine the best of good taste and the group’s penchant for anthems and hooks.
But these albums also resulted in Pearl Jam losing the good graces of both young listeners and the media. They were relegated to being treated like the legacy acts they adored, even when the band was only a handful of albums deep into their own catalogue. Their career has been sturdy for the next couple decades, consistently selling out arenas and headlining festivals, but never again after the mid-90’s was Pearl Jam considered particularly relevant. If you ask anyone close to the band, you’ll hear that moving outside of the pressure of success has been what has allowed the band to survive. When the members of the band were most at odds was when they were wilting under the limelight.
But the discounting of the importance of Pearl Jam’s career is still unfair when you consider the torch that they’re carrying. During the ’90s and ’00s, the band was responsible for taking a host of acts out for some of the biggest tours of their careers, particularly other Pacific Northwest acts like Sleater-Kinney, Band of Horses, and the Murder City Devils. And for acts that achieved any notoriety, they provide a road map for survival, when nearly all their contemporaries from the ’90s flamed out in one way or another. It’s interesting that Pearl Jam receives the most acclaim not from the public or from the critics, but from their peers.
And maybe the best thing that can be said about Pearl Jam, or any musician for that manner, is that the multiplicity of their identity, their mercurial nature, allowed them to be many things for many people. They’ve evolved from an MTV powerhouse to political aggravators, they’ve put radio-ready rockers next to uncompromising punk fuzz, they’ve felt comfortable as mellow acoustic peddlers and experimental noise makers. They’ve gone from a band that put its faith in vinyl before vinyl was cool again to a band known for the singularity of each of their live performances. They’ve comfortably worn so many hats, there isn’t a single one that easily fits the identity of the band. It’s been both their life blood and their achilles heel, an achievement that Nirvana didn’t last long enough to share. Endurance may not be the coolest trait, but it’s undoubtably the most sought after, and the one thing Pearl Jam have gotten completely right.