“Tracking Pearl Jam Economically and Culturally through Rock’s New Faux-Infrastructure”

What does it mean for a band to “rock your socks off,” and is it still possible?

Pearl Jam are sort of a hotly handled act — people tend to either love them or hate them. At least, this was the case in 2005, and earlier. The dearth of good new rock music, though, is clearly evidenced by the manufactured enthusiasm in this new album Lightning Bolt. Hipsters are more interested in it than Eddie Vedder is, and for proof of this you need only look Pearl Jam’s setlist at Austin City Limits. They’re not angry, anxious or nervous, they’re just bored — they incite controversy into the anticlimactic with mischievous sequencing ploys like positioning “Go” next to “Why Go,” something they used to do with “Betterman,” “Leatherman” and “Nothing Man” in other dull moments. Also, their set list is a clear case of trying to rattle the North Face-wearing crowd with some boisterousness — the riffy, “punk” rudiments of their early selections are made clearly unorthodox even in the face of their more melodic primary career singles, “Jeremy” and “Daughter.” Never underestimate the power of a sense of humor in carrying you through the workday.

So clearly the quality of rock music has gone down. By the way, I’m back to thinking hip-hop isn’t dead, by way of Lord Steppington. Also, the last truly great show I saw was the Beastie Boys. There will always be instances of extraordinary singular achievement, such as the songwriting of Carl Newman of The New Pornographers, but then, that band never hit it big.

And it’s funny, you can look to Eddie Vedder’s lyrics for proof that he too is unsure. He doesn’t know why any of this crap is here either — in fact, he doesn’t know better than anyone else, and it’s his ability to not know that has given his music such artistic valence over the years (that and the brilliant post-Ten producing of Brendan O’Brien). He doesn’t know why humans have undergone “evolution, baby”… who knows. The record making process is just enough for him — Gossard, Ament and McCready are his friends, but maybe, like Andre, touring means nothing to him, though the Cincinnati setlist, for one, offers evidence to the contrary. Vedder’s Midwestern ties are a compelling thing.

But if Lightning Bolt were really that great, I would’ve purchased it. It’s definitely good enough for a library checkout and a computer rip, and I’ll go a step further — it is the best rock and roll album in recent history, maybe since Wolf Parade’s At Mount Zoomer, the incredible earnestness in Vedder’s voice complimented by full band rock opacity is still there. But what is the worth of this anymore, when we all get all this music for free, thereby logically, economically, sucking all the life, the worth, out of it? When there’s a “jazz festival” popping up around every corner, when LA’s Liars, Health and Abe Vigoda have all gone electronica, when the only ones even really giving it a go at rock are the dark, brooding British (rock music literally killed Chris Reimer of Women), why is it that Pearl jam is still so popular? Because it’s as a result of them, in the first place, that we even have this conception of feeling good under melodies buoyed by explosive, interactive electric guitar, morphing grunge into future classic rock, campfire rock, pub rock, little campfires of understanding under every skull. Rock music was left for dead in the late ’90’s if not for Pearl Jam, and we owe them a lot, not as fans of rock music, but simply as breathing, thinking Americans in need of unifying culture.

But it’s also because of Eddie Vedder’s divisive facets, over the years, that he’s continued to be so viable. I’ve enjoyed all his solo stuff — the “Into the Wild” song, the Ukelele Songs, and this has no doubt galvanized the band itself into furthering its own identity. Despite the fact that studio albums themselves, these days, are packaged addenda of relevant culture, devoured free of charge, Pearl Jam outputs have continued to stage some gravity, from the self-titled album’s “Parachutes,” to Backspacer‘s “Amongst the Waves,” to I dunno, most of the crap on this innocuous new string of four-minute guitar rations Lightning Bolt.

It is a noteworthy practical joke that Pearl Jam continue to make decent music, and because of this it’s understandable that they get hipster attention. But needless to say it’s apparent to Eddie Vedder that the people attending his $50 shows don’t need his music — real American men have already fallen in war, or been marginalized by this hipster movement, and he knows this. Maybe his own inner war has waned, but there still is the residual shape of it, which is more than enough for the entertainment-hungry American buying public.

In places like Asheville, North Carolina, at the best places, like the Mellow Mushroom pizza joint, Pearl Jam really is still the best possible music to put on. Asheville is mountainous and happy (like the Northwest?), not too crime/murder ridden, filled with placid minds not prone to addled destruction. In such destructive places, you’ve got to look for black music to be your savior, whether it’s hip-hop or that George Baker song from Reservoir Dogs (my fave).

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