It’s been seven long years between Pearl Jam albums, but the quintet from Seattle are finally back with their 11th studio album, Gigaton, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. With most of the world practicing social distancing and self-quarantine, having a new album of Pearl Jam music to listen to makes the time pass with joy.
These 12 tracks are Pearl Jam at their finest, eschewing by-the-numbers production values and opting for more experimentation, and the end results are very welcome. It’s not uncommon on this record for a band member to step outside of their comfort zone and play a different instrument. Producer Josh Evans even lends a hand on a couple of tracks, and as a fan, seeing how they play these songs live on the upcoming (postponed) tour will be a treat for sure.
Pearl Jam have always worn their influences on their sleeves, and Gigaton feels like a collection of homages to the bands that came before, and yet the songs are still very much Pearl Jam. It’s an amazing feat to pull off, and they do it with aplomb.
Gigaton opens with the rocking “Who Ever Said,” a song that would fit perfectly with any of their early albums. Eddie Vedder’s lyrics and Mike McCready’s guitar are made for each other, and this track is an example of the synergy the band has had for almost 30 years. “Superblood Wolfmoon” keeps the rocking vibe going, but then Gigaton take the first of many welcome turns.
“Dance of the Clairvoyants” is very much an experiment, borrowing a sound from the Talking Heads and other new wave acts from the early 1980s. And it works on every level. When the track was released as the first single, many wondered just how experimental the band was going to be on this album, but it fits in nicely to complete a tapestry of sound as art.
“Quick Escape” is easily the best song on Gigaton. The music is pounding with McCready and Stone Gossard creating stunning riffs while drummer Matt Cameron and Jeff Ament lay a back beat that feels like a classic Led Zeppelin song, as played by KISS circa 1977. Vedder’s lyrics on “Quick Escape” also throws punches at the current administration, and they land. Every single one of them.
By the time this song fades, the listener’s blood is pumping and the urge to hit replay is incredibly strong. “Quick Escape” — after only three listens — has made its way on my 10 best Pearl Jam songs list, and in every subsequent listen, its place on that list rises.
Gigaton takes another turn with the next two tracks, “Alright,” which was written by Ament, and “Seven O’Clock,” which slow down the album and offer the listener more incredible lyrics that tell stories of the times we live in — with or without coronavirus pandemics and quarantines. This might be the most lyrically relevant Pearl Jam album since 1998’s Yield, or possibly even 2006’s self-titled, “Avocado” album. And with each listen, I find something new to grasp onto and think about.
“Never Destination” and “Take the Long Way” brings the energy back up on the album, with the latter song being driven by Matt Cameron as the songwriter, both music and lyrics. Who knew Cameron had this in him? Gigaton is stocked with these types of creative surprises on almost every track.
The ninth song on the album, “Buckle Up,” was written by Stone Gossard, and the cheerful vibe of the song’s composition belies some very thought provoking lyrics — which, if haven’t guessed, is a theme of Gigaton.
The next two songs, “Comes Then Goes” and “Retrograde,” seem to bring the band back together in their familiar roles. The acoustic guitar work on the former is simply beautiful and creates a perfect canvas for Vedder to tell a story. It’s also the second longest track on the album, clocking in at over six minutes, and yet when the song ends, the listener still wants more.
“Retrograde” is another song where the lyrics punctuate current world events. Vedder sings of the seven seas rising and how we as a species have to come together and fix it. It’s a poignant song that doesn’t seem to judge from the pulpit, but by the end, it makes the listener think, and that was most likely the band’s intention.
Gigaton ends with probably the most beautiful song the band has written this century: “River Cross.” Vedder has been playing this song on his solo tours for the last couple of years, and he incorporates a pump organ from the 19th century as the driving instrument. The result is a song that feels like a Genesis track from back when lambs were lying on Broadway, and whether intentional or not, again the musical homages shine.
“River Cross” is also a political statement, as Vedder contemplates the world we all live in with lyrics like:
While the government thrives on discontent
And there’s no such thing as clear.
Proselytizing and profitizing
As our will all but disappears.
Folded over, forced in a choke hold
Outnumbered and held down.
In many ways, “River Cross” feels like the band has matured, and the same guys who wrote and recorded “Leash” on 1993’s Vs., the song that wonderfully described my generation’s angst with the world around us, have now offered its spiritual follow up.
The same band that demanded our leashes be dropped so we can live our lives, now begs for this generation and generations to come to “Share the light,” because the world “Won’t hold us down,” which is repeated over and over as the song — and the album — comes to an end. It’s powerfully poignant and a great way to wrap up Gigaton.
In their 30 years of existence, Pearl Jam have managed to rise and fall and rise again, like a skilled surfer mastering the ebbs and flows of the mighty ocean, a favorite subject of Eddie Vedder. Gigaton is definitely an ebb in the band’s discography. This is the band flexing their creative muscles, telling stories both musically and lyrically that are made for the times we live in.
And as we sit at home in self-imposed quarantines, hiding from each other as much as from a deadly virus, it feels like the band predicted this outcome and have delivered what will always be remembered as the soundtrack of this unprecedented time in our collective history. How they knew, we will never know, but instead of trying to figure it out, I’ll just press play again and lose myself in an album I love from beginning to end.
- Who Ever Said
- Superblood Wolfmoon
- Dance of the Clairvoyants
- Quick Escape
- Seven O’Clock
- Never Destination
- Take the Long Way
- Buckle Up
- Comes The Goes
- River Cross
Pearl Jam’s Gigaton is available now in digital, CD, and vinyl formats from Monkeywrench/Republic Records.
Images courtesy of Pearl Jam.