Once upon a time, Pearl Jam seemed to live for a reaction, a trait that catapulted it to the forefront of grunge. The band blazed its brand of arena rock for the sole purpose of shoving it in listeners' faces. Their faithful hung on every power chord and deep Eddie Vedder wail. In his lyrics, Vedder took on his identity crises as well as child abuse, suicide, the pitfalls of fame, abortion -- the hotter the button, the more passionate he became. Guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready and bassist Jeff Ament propelled the songs with a subtly controlled wall of guitar noise. They were easy to love, and just as easy to hate. Earnestness tends to have that effect.
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Now, with the warm spotlight on Seattle long dimmed and the group members pushing a comfortable 40, Pearl Jam has become what once was unthinkable -- boring. Its seventh studio album, Riot Act, stands as a disappointment. While Pearl Jam is still as musical, well-practiced and diverse as any band in rock -- Vedder's country ballad "Thumbing My Way" is quietly majestic, and drummer Matt Cameron's "You Are" and "Wanted to Get Right" recall the brontosaurus Sabbath thump of his former band Soundgarden -- its relevance has been stripped to the bone, to the point of osteoporosis. Even the rockin' stuff just doesn't quite rock its balls off anymore. Can it be possible that Vedder, afloat on his millions, just doesn't care about the little guy? Contrast "I will scream my lungs out/Till it fills this room/But how much difference does it make?" (from 1993's "Indifference") with "The full moon is looking for friends at high tide" (from "I Am Mine") and "Far from lights of a city/The elements they speak to me" ("Half Full") and we see a former Gen X spokesman turning wussily celestial.
Only on the amazing, psychedelic rumination "Love Boat Captain," penned by Vedder, and the punkish "Save You," a group effort, does Pearl Jam approach its former romanticism. Sadly, a band once so fiery it landed on the cover of Time is now just sorta there, leaving its minions to wonder about the limits of hero worship.