“Mapping out 10 Essential Pearl Jam Songs and Positing as to Why They Should Thereby Be Considered Undeniable Greats”

One thing is sure, anyway: the votes are still coming in on Pearl Jam. The Nirvana biography, appropriately enough, can provide an apt examination of this development, with its author Everett True basically in accordance with Kurt Cobain’s assessment of them as a “real commercial rock band,” and with the reference to the Beavis & Butthead characters saying “Pearl Jam, like, suck.” [1]

Most recently, this NYU professor and considerable Facebook celebrity Tim Sommer made light of them in an article as being something like an “overeducated fart,” the kind of statement that along with being obviously overly spiteful sort of stinks of general opinion concordance, like jumping into the tradewinds of generally extant verbal bile instead of having the synergy to generate such winds yourself. [2]

Now, while I personally was more or less sold on them by the stately brilliance of “Nothingman” pumping from the stage at Alpine Valley at a ’98 show my dad took me to, I can kinda, sorta, see where the detractors are coming from, at least to an extent. The “overeducated” part I don’t really understand, as from what I know no publicity has ever been made of any of the members attending college whatsoever (Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament were in bands from time immemorial, from Green River to Mother Love Bone and on), unless they’re discussing the concept of education in terms of the unofficial pedagogy of being immersed in the Seattle scene. Still, arguably they indeed can veer toward the hazard of overproduction, owning to 10 (whoa) studio albums and of course laying on us all those slightly underwhelming “live albums,” at some of which the crowd sounded more like they were at a little league baseball game than a big rock concert.

And hey: the first song on their first album does really suck. Gee, I can see what the naysayers have to say, in hindsight. It’s overproduced, with that big grimy ’80s snare sound, it’s not memorable musically and the bass-heavy instrumentation is like some bad permutation of Extreme performing porno music. [3]

At the ’92 MTV Video Music Awards, during the acceptance speech of their second award (for the first of which they’d planned this Michael Jackson lookalike to declare himself the “king of grunge”), Kurt Cobain said, “Boy, it sure is hard to believe everything you read, isn’t it?”

My point is supposed to be that not everything is necessarily explainable. Sometimes you’re just stuck in the whirling vortex of life and, well, sh** happens. I can’t sum up with any authority why Pearl Jam would have recorded “Once” (as far as I know the song isn’t a staple of their live shows anymore… it’s not featured on the excellent Live on Two Legs, for instance).

The lyrics to “Once,” likewise, don’t really make an impression, on me at least. Well, let’s venture off into the territory of the very next song on Ten, “Even Flow,” a colossal mega-hit and one that is a feature of their concert. Already, in my opinion, we get a strong sense of Eddie Vedder’s humanistic lyrical knack, his incessant concern for other people and for sympathizing with them, specifically the lyrical set “Oh dark grin / He can’t help when he’s happy he looks insane”.

I mean, what even IS this? It just rocks, that’s all there is to it. It’s just lyrics that rock, which with the music taken away, granted, might read as some junkie Burroughs rant (I hate Burroughs now… maybe I’ll realize his genius and come crawling back to him in 10 years who knows), but with the riffy, Neil Young and Mudhoney-influenced blues-rock in tow play out as the perfect imagistic compliment, depicting this world in which everything is constantly shifting and “nothing (is) as it seems,” another great Pearl Jam song, appropriately enough. In this way, right away Pearl Jam were in pretty good agreement with Nirvana’s similar lyrical trend of portraying unsavory or ironic social landscapes (“With the lights out / It’s less dangerous / Here we are now / Entertain us”).

Oh yeah, I’m supposed to explain what makes all of these songs I’m about to list great. There’s just one problem: I have no idea how to do that. I just really like them. They give me goosebumps. They give me a smile that looks insane. I have lots of Facebook friends who like them. I have this one junkie FB friend who likes Pearl Jam as much as Alice in Chains and dag nabbit that’s sayin’ somethin’.

One time I drove all the way down to Bloomington, the college town housing Indiana University, from my hometown of South Bend. Bloomington has the number two music school in the U.S. and has a separate “music library” on its campus. I went into that library, basically, trying to discover what made rock and roll so great, what gave the dominant/subdominant chord progression in Reel Big Fish’s “You Don’t Know” that incredible gravity and color. I’d heard something about “Aeolian cadences” from some scholar, I forget who, so that was sort of casually positioned as my primary focus. Bless their hearts, all I found were a bunch of “overeducated farts,” if I may use Tim Sommer’s sophisticated terms, trying to explain something that’s unexplainable.

It’s PHYSICAL, I think. And just like all great grunge music, Pearl Jam’s is quintessentially PHYSICAL, too, roaringly evident from the Vs. album cover and that rapacious drum beat that comes in, exits and then comes in again, from behind the kit of Dave Abbruzzese. I mean, what’s the musical value in that? It’s not. It’s pure intimidation.

Pearl Jam set out to soundtrack our lives. Sure, Gossard and Ament might have had commercial success as an objective, but Eddie Vedder, as a frontman and as a lyricist, carried with him in the band’s galvanizing days a fervent concern for humanity and for telling their story. In getting into music, he likely perceived a chasm between culture and reality, and sought to bridge that chasm.

I guess that’s just what all of these songs do for me. They’re so undeniably real and that’s why they’re permanent — that’s why they’re as much a part of the world these days as Coca-Cola and political corruption.


“All Those Yesterdays”


Sometimes it’s funny how things can end the same way they start and vice versa. In Single Video Theory, as far as I know the most comprehensive and utterly awe-inspiring documentary of a band in the recording process of a meaningful album, you get alternate versions, or demos, of each and every song, and “All Those Yesterdays” materializes first, even though it’s the last song on the album Yield. The scene in the movie shows the beautiful, hilly Seattle surroundings of their recording studio, and a sunset, with “All Those Yesterdays” soundtracking the proceedings by way of a stubbornly, deceptively intricate guitar riff. It’s a great rock and roll song by any standard, with, as I allude to earlier, those signature Eddie Vedder lyrics of sympathizing with people (“What are you running from? / Taking pills to get along / Creating walls to call your own / So no one catches you / Drifting off and doing all the things / That we all do”). What could be a more centrally unifying message for humanity than that? Jaded and disillusioned by what I believe is some foul play in the industry by this time in the form of that Grammy for their gag-single “Spin the Black Circle,” the band position this beautiful ode last on Yield, as if to dedicate it to their true fans who listen to whole albums, and of course who watch the video documentaries of their rudimentary activities.


“Amongst the Waves”


Arguably the band’s last great song, “Amongst the Waves” comes on 2009’s Backspacer, which I have to admit came out during the prime of my “indie rock” craze and which for such a reason I sort of wrote off as, well, commercial fodder, the same mistake Kurt Cobain made in the band’s salad days. “Amongst the Waves,” I think, more than anything, avoids the usual mistake a band makes in its latter days of overthinking, or becoming too complex, like jazz-fusion or something, and just hauls back and rips it with a simple three-chord progression under the lyrical anthem “Riding high amongst the waves / I feel like I have a soul that has been saved”. It’s great for the same reasons for which Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Jimi Hendrix’ “The Wind Cries Mary” are: it’s really simple but really genuine, hypnotic, with a poignant and repeated chorus, and for this reason, memorable and permanent.


“Aye Davanita”


“Aye Davanita” is a creation wholly unexplainable with words. Likely the most extensive sung bit of music in history to feature no actual words, but rather just scatting gibberish and primal cries, every bit of it still mourns in the listener’s ear drums as a message that’s very specific, unmistakable, almost more so than actual words can be sometimes. What’s more, the intense feeling that the song conveys is even in perfect correspondence with the Italian title which is apparently meant to address a divinity, either an actual god or else a love interest. Best enjoyed within the context of the album Vitalogy, and not extrapolated as a single or a playlist selection, the two-minute “interlude” is a shining token of the capabilities of producer Brendan O’Brien, who somehow oversaw the recording of this album in such a way that produced these blindingly organic and affective sessions, in starkly gravitational contrast to the severely overproduced Ten, the last PJ album not to feature O’Brien at the helm.


“In Hiding”


In many ways I think this song is the epicenter of Pearl Jam’s career, and of grunge, and of… er… music of the last 50 years, probably. You were right when you said “We’re all just dust in the wind.” Do you ever think about it? The only surviving singer of any of the four main grunge bands (as well as being as I might point out the only one not native to the Northwest personally), Eddie Vedder climbs a certain musical mountain, to me, with his vocal here, ironic of course in that it’s a song about just sitting in your own living quarters and completely shutting out the outside world. Of some consolation to the concerned listener, I think, should be the fact that Eddie Vedder is able to self-chide within this selection in concert, changing the “They were upside-down” line about the “visions” and “cracks along the wall” to “I was high as he**”. And isn’t that just a model for living life, if there ever was one? As much as you want control, and as much as you want things your way, at the end of the day, you’re going to have to get your head shrunk and just start living again, or you’re not in it at all. Ah, I once enjoyed this song. Now it just kind of scares me. Maybe those two things are actually on the same continuum.


“Nothing as it Seems”


Ok. Enough gooey spiels. This song just rocks in a plain ol’ way — it comes as the lead single off of their sixth album Binaural and, belying the tune’s slow tempo, drives home a fervent and vociferous vision, a message of unrest, turmoil and one incident of domestic abuse in Jeff Ament’s native Montana (hence the “Don’t feel like home” line). Something about “Nothing as it Seems” is just so deliberate, and for that reason haunting — Ament did not need basically any unorthodoxies in terms of phrasing or song structure when he put this thing together. He knew that his muse was channeling something powerful enough to where all the bars could come in quantities of four, you could have the indulgent McCready licks and solos, and… it would still be unlike anything else that was playing on the radio.


“Off He Goes”


There’s this age-old saying in romance that a really good person “makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room.” Sorry to be cheesy but that’s kind of how this song is to me — there’s just this unmistakable genuineness about the way Eddie Vedder sings this song, again with the sympathizing with other people element fully present, and honestly probably where other people might call such a freespirited person a prick or a jerk for always running off. And really, Jeff Ament said it best in Pearl Jam Twenty too: it’s universal. We all go through these things, we all need to feel special and that our lives are poignant and meaningful in some way. I’d probably slightly favor the version on Live on Two Legs over the No Code cut, plus that album is just way better in general anyway.




Ok, here’s my science on “Parachutes”: I can just SEE the band recording this song and somehow reaching this heightened state togetherness that’s really the mark of a band that’s reached a certain summit. Again, as with probably Riot Act and Backspacer, I don’t think anybody would confuse the album at large with a classic on par with Abbey Road or anything, but I do elevate this particular cut into canonical status for just that uncanny sense of achievement, that sense of belonging, that Vedder takes to task in the proceedings, and for that great augmented phrasing in that picturesque chorus: “I would’ve fallen from the sky ’til you / Parachutes have opened now”. And parachutes had opened by this track here on the band’s status as authorities in the history of rock and roll — their declaration of such is part of the song’s beauty.




I have to say that with “Rival” my first impression of it and what I think of it today are definitely worlds apart. Originally, I’d pumped through Binaural and enjoyed most of it, by the end just being sort of astonished at the sheer amount of violence and devastation that takes place in the songs’ lyrics, from the opener about JFK, to a death of a friend to heroin usage to “You don’t give blood / And take it back again”. I was like, these Pearl Jam cats need to get out more. Go see Yosemite or something. But it always made an impression and probably about half a decade ago, when I got reacquainted with the classic material around the middle of the band’s catalogue, this one really sunk its teeth into me with its twisted major-minor chord progression and snarky, sauntering three-four time signature. Over time, the details would shine through too, like Tchad Blake’s dog barking to christen the proceedings and those twisted piano hits in the second verse, and in general, this was just brass-tacks alt-rock that was as immediate as it was intimidating, the band’s seasoned musical understanding coming forth by way of refreshing brevity, rather than oblong complexity.




One of my clear-cut favorite three tracks on Vitalogy along with “Satan’s Bed” and “Immortality” (the last of which the band performed for the first time all of one day before Kurt Cobain’s death), “Whipping” carries the undeniable SPIRIT of Pearl Jam, to me, with Eddie Vedder basically just throwing out the playbook and arranging his all-out battle with the world around him: “Don’t need a helmet / Got a hard hard head / Don’t need a raincoat / I’m already wet… They whipping…” Appropriately enough, one of the band bio’s is called Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder: None Too Fragile.


“Why Go”


I’m really not sure but I’d imagine this is around what Green River and Mother Love Bone, Gossard and Ament’s popularity-seeking former bands, sounded like – about Alice in Chains playing funk, or thereabouts. As you might guess, I’m particularly interested in this song for reasons pertaining to lyrics, and in a similar sense to my casual attention to “Bee Girl,” which is a song the band wrote about the chick in the Blind Melon “No Rain” video in which they advised her “You don’t want to be famous / You don’t want to be shy”. Almost as if verbally shadowboxing from within his own tiresome cage of acute sensitivity to the situations of other people, Vedder gnashes out in another superb vocal performance in which it sounds like he poured a whole bottle of Valvoline high-octane into his vocal chords, as if defiant before his insurmountable destiny of not being able to b.s. even if he tries. What do they CALL that disease anyway? Regardless, “Why Go” with its incessant mantra of “Why go home?” could seem to almost play as a prescient speech to Chris Cornell, who, in the immediate years before his death, was rather verbose on the topic of how Seattle had changed, gone from approachable, forthright music community to this unsavory miasma of urbane businessmen with no appreciation of tradition or of the truly local. Also, again in classic Pearl Jam form, “Why Go” closely precedes “Go” which would materialize as the first song on their next album Vs., a ploy which almost seems similar to their recurring joke of playing “Better Man”; “Leatherman” and “Nothingman” all consecutively in concerts.


[1] Of course, many would argue that the show’s creator Mike Judge would have written that line to poke fun at his dim-witted protagonists: well by that logic AC/DC and Metallica, the two subjects of the guy’s t shirts would also “like, suck” (something many would agree with, granted), and also by that logic t shirts with bands on them in general would “like, suck,” which I doubt anybody’s prepared to state at this time. Also the guys were into Nirvana, which I think we can all agree really rocked when they were bashing their instruments every night and causing basic unilateral devastation of the populace both in ear drums and out.


[2] Ironically, it’s also really trendy to hate Collective Soul: give Sommer 10 years and he’ll be pontificating on the brilliance of Pearl Jam with cocksure grandiosity, without question.


[3] And anybody who reads this blog should know how Nirvana, and I, feel about Extreme.


358 thoughts on ““Mapping out 10 Essential Pearl Jam Songs and Positing as to Why They Should Thereby Be Considered Undeniable Greats”

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