Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in 2016.
That was the only word Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman texted me late Monday night. As I shrugged off sleep to try and figure out what exactly that meant, the rest of his message came through: “Tonight’s set was so much better.” I stopped getting dressed and sank back into bed. I knew what he was upset about. No apocalypse, no emergency, just a Pearl Jam setlist that he liked better than the one we got two nights earlier at Wrigley Field.
I clicked on the setlist link, scanned down, and texted back: “Oh fuck…”
In words barely more eloquent than those, we spent the next hour, on and off, bemoaning that we had covered the wrong show — like two spoiled brats who had each found a shiny dime at his feet but grumbled that it wasn’t a quarter. He regretted missing his favorite, “State of Love and Trust”, and some deeper Ten cuts. I became nearly inconsolable after processing the trio of “Off He Goes”, “Immortality”, and “Rearviewmirror”. No doubt he, like myself, went to bed thinking about our show that should’ve been. By the morning, though, any disappointment or jealousy had subsided. We were content again. Grateful for our experience and happy for the experience of 40,000-plus fellow fans.
I only bring up this anecdote because I think it hints at precisely what makes being a die-hard Pearl Jam fan unique. At the risk of sounding creepy, I might draw the distinction that I don’t love this band — I’m in love with this band. Following them feels more like being in a relationship than merely being a fan of a rock band. A relationship where a couple setlist omissions can feel like a personal slight, but a good night’s sleep restores reason and makes you realize just how lucky you are. One where a dud of an album (looking at you, Lightning Bolt) after a long wait can never be a deal breaker because you have too much history and far too many wonderful memories.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. I’ve never run across a tighter, more friendly community than the Pearl Jam fan base, several of whom I shared a plane ride with the morning of last Saturday’s Wrigley Field show. I knew them by their tour shirts, empty poster tubes tucked into their backpacks, and willingness to swap stories. I feel that same sense of family among the congregations at shows, and it’s an energy no doubt felt and reciprocated by the band: whether it be Eddie Vedder conducting a crowd-wide sing-along, taking a moment to offer words of encouragement to someone he knows is in attendance and struggling through hard times, or halting a show mid-song to make sure a female fan is alright, as he did at Monday night’s concert. That’s the aura that wafts through a Pearl Jam show. Fans feel like they matter as much as the band, and there’s an unspoken pact of sorts that oversees the proceedings and adheres to the idea that either everyone will have a safe, fun celebration or we’ve defeated the entire purpose of coming together in the first place.
There are a lot of bands like Pearl Jam that have been with me since the early ’90s when I first started seeking out music on my own, but none that I feel this same type of connection to. Maybe it’s because Pearl Jam isn’t just a band that I grew up with; they’re a band I grew alongside and evolved with throughout the years. That separates them from so many of the other bands that might get dubbed legacy acts, if they’re even still around. Nobody goes to a Pearl Jam show looking to recapture their youth or bask in the fleeting warmth of nostalgia. We see a middle-aged Vedder still bounding around stage and summoning an inner fire or Mike McCready still every bit the guitar hero at 50, and we realize that the here and now, at least for our three hours together, is enough. That it really does make much more sense to live in the present tense.
It’s in this spirit of love and family that we humbly pieced together this project, a romp through a catalog that has made hundreds of unforgettable nights possible. If you’re reading this, you’re probably part of the Pearl Jam family. That being the case, feel free to comment or disagree in the comments section below, and we’ll look forward to seeing you the next time Pearl Jam rolls through town. Posters up!
11. Lightning Bolt (2013)
The Fixer (Producer): After a positive experience recording Backspacer, longtime Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien returned to the helm for Lightning Bolt. Sessions began at LA’s Henson Recording Studios in 2011 while the band simultaneously prepped for their Pearl Jam Twenty documentary and tour. In March 2012, the band reconvened at Henson and left with seven songs but later felt their output wasn’t up to snuff. It wouldn’t be until March 2013 that the band would return from other commitments to finally finish Lightning Bolt together. According to the band, the final result was an album that both simplified and expanded upon the types of compositions found on Backspacer, with Vedder consciously trying to make his writing more accessible.
Sheets of Empty Canvas (Album Art): Skateboard graphic artist Don Pendleton produced the artwork for Lightning Bolt upon the request of Jeff Ament. Pendleton’s idea was to create a cohesive package, with logos and icons that could be reproduced throughout the artwork and other mediums. To that end, Pendleton ended up painting Ament’s bass, Pearl Jam-themed t-shirts, and even posters for a series of the band’s Barclays Center performances. Mission accomplished, I guess, because the album won Best Recording Package at the 2015 Grammy Awards. Um, word of advice, Don. Don’t let Eddie make that acceptance speech for you. Trust us.
Making Waves (Controversies): At this point, Pearl Jam are sailing peaceful waters. Lightning Bolt topped the charts, they play to sold-out crowds worldwide, and they have an unbreakable bond with their fans. But that doesn’t change the fact that their last two albums have also arguably been the weakest of their career. They’re in the unique position of not needing a game-changing record to keep on being kings of the road, but wouldn’t it be nice? Perhaps one thing worth noting is that delays to Lightning Bolt were caused by the band’s other musical commitments: a solo tour for Eddie Vedder, Matt Cameron rejoining Soundgarden, Stone Gossard dusting off Brad, Jeff Ament recording a solo album and starting RNDM, and McCready forming Walking Papers and returning to a brief Mad Season reunion. It’s inspiring to see forty/fiftysomethings seeking out other creative outlets, but one wonders if those types of outside projects actually recharge Pearl Jam or drain its battery, especially during the middle of recording sessions. Just a thought.
10 Club (Best Live Cut): It’s telling that the band is still technically touring in support of Lightning Bolt but have already abandoned playing most of the record on a regular basis. That being said, the title track still carries a bit of current, “Mind Your Manners” can incite some minor chaos, and “Sirens” can get there when Eddie Vedder does. However, give me the more brooding and understated “Pendulum” for a cooldown that doesn’t feel like a letdown. Besides, how often do you get to see Mike McCready play guitar using a bow? At least this once.
Lost Dog (Best B-Side, Outtake): Not much to report here, though the early Lightning Bolt sessions yielded “Olé”, which the band made available as a free download. As always, here’s hoping some more stray dogs eventually scratch at our backdoor.
WWWdotED: Pearl Jam took to their website and social networks to give the rollout of Lightning Bolt an online jolt. The band posted not one, but two different countdown clocks. The first announced a 24-date North American tour, and the second, which reached zero 10 days later, dropped the news about Lightning Bolt and unveiled lead single “Mind Your Manners”. While the surprises (a tour and an album) were predictable, I still remember spending an inordinate amount of time staring at that clock and wondering. Good campaign, boys.
It’s Time To Play the Music: As mentioned earlier, Pearl Jam recorded at Henson Recording Studios in Los Angeles. Yes, that Henson. Once A&M studios and the site of legendary recordings like the “We Are the World” sessions, The Jim Henson Company purchased the studio in 2000. Sadly, since Disney now owns the Muppets, there’s virtually no chance Eddie and company bumped into the frog, the pig, the bear, or the whatever and collaborated a la Weezer or OK Go. Would have been cool to at least let Animal sit in on “Animal”. Oh well, maybe they hung with the Fraggles.
Rearviewmirror (Analysis): Lightning Bolt, in many ways, finds Pearl Jam coming to grips with their own mortality (“Sirens”) and looking ahead to what the future might hold (“Future Days”, “Pendulum”) in very straightforward, relatable terms. As Vedder asked near the album’s release, “It’s going to be their [his children’s] world, and what is their future?” It’s the type of question we only face once we’ve reached a certain point in life and accept that our roads are finite and that the next stretch belongs to someone else. It’s an idea historically at odds with rock and roll, which traditionally gives no care for tomorrow and offers no blueprint for how to grow old in a rock band. Vedder and company seem to be entering that next phase in their lives and are one of the first bands ever to remain relevant and sharp enough at that age to help create that blueprint. But, as always, it comes down to great songs, and there’s just really nothing on Lightning Bolt that the listener wishes would strike twice let alone many more times.
10. Backspacer (2009)
The Fixer: Although he mixed both 2000’s Binaural and 2002’s Riot Act, Brendan O’Brien hadn’t actually produced an album for Pearl Jam since 1998’s Yield. So, it was something of a moment when he returned for Backspacer, bringing his trademark brand of no-nonsense recording to the band’s punchy, touch-and-go ninth studio album. In another nostalgic twist, the band actually came into the sessions with some rehearsed, articulated material, something they hadn’t done since their debut. As such, the entire experience was relatively swift, spread out over a couple two-week blocks at both LA’s Henson Recording Studios and O’Brien’s own Southern Tracks in Atlanta — all with great vibes. McCready credits the traveling for that: “It was a great idea to get us out of Seattle. You’ve gotta get out [of] your comfort zone, and we’ve talked about doing that for the past 10 years and kind of haven’t, so we trusted Brendan’s judgment.” Of course they did; he’s the fixer.
Sheets of Empty Canvas: If we’re being totally honest, the cover art is probably the best part about Backspacer. That’s not to say the album is awful, bad, or even mediocre; it only speaks to the power of cartoonist Dan Perkins, aka Tom Tomorrow. His work here is vivid, colorful, and downright gorgeous, a blistering assortment of creativity that catches the eye nine different times. Sadly, it came to fruition after the veteran artist lost dozens of contracts in 2009 once Village Voice Media suspended any syndicated cartoons across their network. Vedder, ever the bearded god, brought him on board and even penned an open letter on the Pearl Jam website. Shortly before the album’s release, the band teased the swanky album cover with an online scavenger hunt that ultimately led to a rough demo of “Speed of Sound”. This writer recalls it was quite fun.
Making Waves: So, about that Target commercial… When Pearl Jam decided to partner up with the company to exclusively distribute the physical album, fans were a little split, and for the right reasons. After all, this is the same band that has forever lobbied against any big corporations, and it was a little weird to see portions of their music video for “The Fixer” rolled over into a commercial. But things have changed drastically over the years for musicians, especially those trying to make rock ‘n’ roll a thing in this day and age, and Pearl Jam had their own justified reasons for taking the deal — oh, and the one with Verizon. Okay, it was all a little weird and tacky and unbecoming of the Seattle outfit, but again, it was a sexy financial decision considering how dismal the market was for any physical releases, even as far back as 2009.
10 Club: There isn’t a song on Backspacer that comes even remotely close to “The Fixer”. The poppy track is arguably the band’s greatest single since “Do the Evolution”, a blissful three minutes that sounds fresh no matter how many times you’ve spun the black circle. Onstage, sadly, it lacks a certain punch that the studio recording offers, but it’s still a mandatory addition to any setlist, if only for Vedder’s vocal performance — see: “Fight to get it back again”, “Yeah, yeah, yeah” — and organist Boom Gaspar’s heavenly piano work. It’s a shame they’ve yet to find a way to stretch the song out to six minutes live, but maybe that’s why all good things end so fast in life. Though, if we were pressed to name a second pick, we’d likely jot down “Unthought Known”, even if it sounds a little like “Love Boat Captain”.
Lost Dog: Move along, nothing to see here. Okay, not technically, but there really aren’t any B-sides from this album in the conventional sense. While the band hit the studio with “17 to 20 ideas”, according to McCready, those that didn’t make the 11-track album have yet to see the light of day. Again, that’s not true, either. “Pendulum” off Lightning Bolt was originally from these sessions, but outside of that … nada. We know they exist, too, because McCready told MTV back in 2009, “We still have other songs that are out there that are from this session that we may do something with in about six months.” Well, dude, it’s been years and years and years and we’re still without any B-sides. What’s funny about all this is that Backspacer is their shortest album in their catalog, so you’d think there would have been something tacked on as an exclusive. Nope; total mind-blower.
As the Crowe Flies: Nearly two decades later, Pearl Jam reunited with their longtime friend and feel-good filmmaker Cameron Crowe. The two previously worked together on 1992’s Singles — ahem, more on that film down the road — and they tagged the Almost Famous director to film the aforementioned music video for “The Fixer”. Unfortunately, the final result wasn’t very good and a little messy, what with all the disorienting (and flat-out unnecessary) green screen work, but it did lead to something much, much better: 2011’s Pearl Jam Twenty. In celebration of the band’s 20th anniversary, Crowe followed the band throughout 2010 and 2011, while also digging deep into their video repertoire, to deliver one hell of a rock doc. It’s a must-see for diehards yet also an enjoyable watch for casual listeners, especially how he ably brings you back to their ’90s heyday.
Into the Wild: Crowe wasn’t the only filmmaker the band linked up with during this time. Two years before Backspacer, Vedder collaborated with his Dead Man Walking and I Am Sam pal Sean Penn for his cruelly underrated adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s 1996 non-fiction novel, Into the Wild. The biographical survival film followed the at-times peaceful, at-times harrowing travels of the late Christopher McCandless, portrayed by a very gaunt and very bearded Emile Hirsch. Vedder was tasked to score the entire film, which wound up serving as his first solo album, and what came to be is some of the most beautiful music the singer-songwriter has ever stamped his name on. He dutifully captured feelings of adventure, loneliness, and transcendentalism through a number of stirring compositions, from “No Ceiling” to “Society” to “The Wolf”.
What’s this got to do with Backspacer? As Ament said, while previewing the album, “There’s a couple of great things that Ed brought in that could be real departures for us. Whatever wave Ed caught with [his soundtrack for] Into the Wild has taken him to different places.” This might explain why the album’s so achingly optimistic, a total role reversal for the band, whose previous effort (2006’s Pearl Jam, coming soon) was awash in anger, frustration, and pain. What we do know for sure is that his work on the film led to the soft-spoken ballad “Just Breathe”, which is more or less a re-purposed version of “Tuoloumne”. Those who worshiped the soundtrack like a bag of trail mix — this writer included — were likely surprised to hear the gentle instrumental bubble to the top again, and this time with vocals. It’s proof Penn can do some good.
Rearviewmirror: Backspacer arrived at a time when Pearl Jam was just starting to be canonized. By the early 2010s, music writers everywhere were already revisiting the ’90s and setting certain acts in stone. The band would proudly hop on that bandwagon, too, by releasing a documentary and throwing a two-day festival in Wisconsin to celebrate their triumphant two decades together. But this album was the start of all that, and Vedder was clearly in the right mindset to pop the champagne, which is why this is such a breezy, casual affair. Even more to the point, the country was enjoying its first year with President Barack Obama, following a disastrous eight years with the president who shall not be named. So, the band was smart to give their fans a 12-pack rather than a protest sign; it’s just that after you kick back a few, they all go down the same.
09. Binaural (2000)
The Fixer: Surprise, surprise. Brendan O’Brien returns for his nth album as producer … wait, oh, really. Um, ladies and gentleman, Tchad Blake (no idea if the ‘T’ is silent). Seriously, though, Blake is a veteran producer, engineer, and mixer who has worked with the likes of U2, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello among others, so the band was in more than capable hands. In fact, they opted for Blake because he specialized in capturing more atmospheric sounds using binaural recording techniques (more on that soon). The sessions took place in late 1999/early 2000 in Gossard’s Studio Litho, and while Blake’s mixes seemed to work on slower tracks, the band asked, surprise, surprise, O’Brien to beef up the album’s heavier fare. A reminder of why you should never remove your go-to producer from your speed dial.
Sheets of Empty Canvas: NASA granted the band permission to use the album’s cover photo of the Hourglass Nebula, an “expanding, glowing shell of ejected ionized gas” some 8,000 light-years from Earth. Now, hold up a sec before you dub this the forebearer of the Avocado (more on that later). The band opted for the photo because they felt it fit the more atmospheric sound they had hired Blake to capture. According to Ament, the awe-inspiring nebula also acted as a reminder of the band’s relative smallness in the grand scheme of the universe, a sense of humility that would serve the group well during the Binaural sessions.
Making Waves: We’re taught to appreciate the good times because they can’t last forever. Well, if the Yield sessions could be described as calm, tranquil waters, then the seas during the Binaural recordings have to be considered choppy, very choppy indeed. Luckily, the band hadn’t reverted back to the poor studio chemistry that had plagued them prior to Yield, which is a blessing, because their maturity may be all they had going for them. What went wrong? Vedder hit a patch of writer’s block like you read about, leaving him pained to find lyrics for his compositions; Mike McCready’s addiction to painkillers landed him in rehabilitation; and the band was still trying to figure out how to best record alongside new drummer and Yield Tour savior Matt Cameron. To paraphrase Crash Davis in Bull Durham, “They were dealing with a lot of shit here.”
10 Club: The Binaural Tour accounts for my second and third times seeing Pearl Jam, and hearing these songs played live made the album, initially a disappointment, start to grow on me. While the record’s songs don’t pop up in setlists anywhere near as frequently as they once did, “Insignificance” would be my go-to here. Its circling build, stops and starts, whirling chorus, echoed lyrics, and sprint to the finish never disappoint.
Lost Dog: The initial tracklist announced for Binaural looked very different than the final product. In addition to altered sequencing, the original listing didn’t include “God’s Dice” and featured “Sad”, “Fatal”, “In the Moonlight”, and “Education”. Other tracks from these sessions or around this time that didn’t make the cut included “Sweet Lew”, “Hitchhiker”, “Strangest Tribe”, and “Drifting”. Most of these songs would later end up on 2003’s Lost Dogs compilation, which is a relief because these are probably the band’s strongest B-sides and outtakes since Ten. Gun to my head, “Fatal”, Blake’s favorite recording from the sessions, barely ekes out “Sad”. Fun fact: As Vedder points out in the Lost Dogs liner notes, Gossard’s original chorus (“The answer’s in Plato”) sounded too much like Play-Doh, so now and forever the answer will always be “fatal.” Missed an endorsement deal there, boys.
Nothing to Say: Eddie Vedder’s writer’s block grew so crippling that he had to ban himself from guitar and force himself to write lyrics before composing any more music. Luckily, Gossard and Ament, who penned lyrics to two songs apiece on Yield, were able to step up again for Binaural. Ament provided words for “God’s Dice” and lead single “Nothing as It Seems”, and Gossard completed lyrics for “Thin Air”, “Of the Girl”, and “Rival”. Vedder documented his bout with the hidden song “Writer’s Block”, which begins six minutes and 49 seconds into closing track “Parting Ways” and consists of only crunching typewriter noises. Tap your way out of it, Eddie!
What’s “Binaural” Mean?: “Binaural” simply means involving two ears. The album took its name because Tchad Blake often uses binaural recording techniques, the goal of which is to rig two microphones to create a 3-D stereo sound that makes the listener feel as if they are in the studio with the band. Check out “Sleight of Hand”, “Rival”, and “Of the Girl” to experience the best examples of this effect. Now, try without headphones. Notice a difference? If not, make sure you didn’t accidentally reach for your earmuffs.
Rearviewmirror: Forget that this somber record is Pearl Jam’s first to not go platinum or that Britney Spears prevented it from debuting at No 1. Binaural is a classic grower and one that’s become more appreciated as time has passed. The real miracle remains that the record turned out as well as it did. After a home run with Yield and a trot around the bases that enabled them to play stops they had skipped over during their Ticketmaster battles, the band were clearly ready to try something else. But how often does the combo of new producer, new recording techniques, new drummer, blocked songwriter, and rehabbing lead guitarist produce a fresh classic? Not often, and it doesn’t here, but for as scatterbrained and unsure of itself as Binaural may seem at times, barn-burners like “God’s Dice” and “Insignificance” and that impeccable run of “Light Years”, “Nothing as It Seems”, and “Thin Air” remain must-hears nearly 20 years later. No real grievances to pledge here.
08. Riot Act (2002)
The Fixer: The band parted ways with Tchad Blake after the Binaural sessions and brought aboard former Pearl Jam engineer Adam Kaspar to produce, per Matt Cameron’s suggestion. As was the case with both Yield and Binaural, each band member brought several ideas into the studio to hash out. Despite the dark subject matter of the record, the band felt relaxed with Kaspar, recording the bulk of the album live with minimal takes over the course of two sessions at Seattle’s Studio X. Also speeding up the recording process was Vedder overcoming Binaural’s stifling writer’s block, penning the bulk of the album’s lyrics himself and teaming twice with Gossard and once each with Ament and Cameron on lyrics for their own compositions. Apparently, one of the more memorable images from the sessions involved Vedder setting up his typewriter in the corner of the studio so that he could write while his bandmates played, a testament to his enthusiasm throughout the recording process.
Sheets of Empty Canvas: Jeff Ament took the cover photo of the two metal skeletons wearing crowns. Not much else is known about the album cover’s intent, but it surely fits the vibe of the record. Two monarchs laid to waste on an album largely about mortality, combating hopelessness, and facing the realities of a society crumbling under the weight of its own greed and deceit. You could spend all day making the connections. Interpret as you will.
Making Waves: While Binaural saw the band contemplating bleak possibilities, Riot Act found depressing realities staring them directly in the face. Post-9/11 politics had shifted the American landscape so much in such a short time; the band were still coping with the accidental deaths of nine fans at their 2000 Roskilde Festival performance (alluded to in the lyrics of “Love Boat Captain”); and the death of friend and Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley (the subject of outtake “4/20/02” and possibly the inspiration for “Save You”) had cast a pall over the Seattle music community. “I’m optimistic yet disillusioned, hopeful yet frustrated,” Vedder explained, suggesting that the record captures his confused and ambivalent state accurately. In other words, “I smile, but who am I kidding?”
10 Club: Riot Act doesn’t get much attention these days in concert, but “Love Boat Captain” was a regular presence during that album’s tour. The metaphor of not just a boat but a captain being needed to steer us out of our collective troubled waters still resonates, as do the allusions to the fallen at Roskilde, and the conclusion that “it can’t be said enough/ All you need is love.” It’s a rock song that perfectly uses pace and soft-loud dynamics, along with Boom Gaspar’s inimitable organ, to navigate the audience through the storm and towards calmer waters.
Lost Dog: “4/20/02”, the Layne Stayley tribute, which Vedder wrote the day he heard of the singer’s death, got lost in the numbers crunch, according to Vedder. That’s probably for the best, especially considering “Save You” still made it on the record. But choosing between “Other Side”, “Undone”, and “Down” ain’t easy. Let’s go with the irresistible and absurdly upbeat “Down”, knowing full well that this poppy song, while thematically compatible, would’ve been an outcast among Riot Act’s darker-sounding fare. A lesson that no song, no matter how great, is guaranteed a home on an album.
“Bu$hleaguer”: Up here in my tree, I’m going to go far out on a very thick, trunk-like limb: I don’t think Eddie Vedder voted for George W. Bush — either time. During the band’s Riot Act Tour, Vedder’s vitriol boiled over in a series of stage performances in which he donned a Bush mask and then impaled it on his mic stand before singing. The stunt caused some fans to boo, chant back “U … S … A,” or even walk out at some venues. While it’s hard to imagine “Bu$hleaguer” ever finding its way into a setlist again, its short-lived run reminds us just how much the band and America have been through and changed since this record came out.
Who’s Boom?: Remember that story about Lana Turner being discovered while sitting at a soda counter? Well, Kenneth “Boom” Gaspar was discovered after 30 years of quietly playing local gigs in Hawaii. C.J. Ramone introduced him to Eddie Vedder, and the two became fast friends, which quickly led to the jam session that produced the beginnings of “Love Boat Captain”. Not only has Gaspar brought his piano, keyboard, and organ to Pearl Jam’s arsenal since 2002, but one senses that Vedder felt a fresh wind at his back by finding a new companion during a period colored by loss.
Rearviewmirror: Riot Act finds Pearl Jam in a dark place, consumed by bad feelings and frustrated by the state of the world around them. What keeps the album from sinking under the weight of its own grief is that the bulk of the songs take a stand, cling to an ideal, or actively search for hope and love. While the record can get overtly political at times, shaming the greedy, denouncing a president, or decrying a society that tramples each other to get on top, the album’s true power comes from its refusal to succumb to hopelessness. “Take the reigns, steer us toward the clear,” Vedder urges on “Love Boat Captain”. The waters may be treacherous, but Riot Act never loses its desire to endure or throw a life preserver to others weathering a similar storm.