One of my best friends, the head sports photographer for the Chicago Sun-Times, recently told a revealing story about Eddie Vedder. A longtime basketball fan who still roots for his former hometown team, the Chicago Bulls, Vedder naturally had courtside seats for the championship series between Chicago and the Seattle Sonics. At one of these games, Kenny G played an excruciatingly painful free-jazz version of the national anthem. It seems Kenny had to walk past Eddie on his way back to the sidelines, and Eddie stood there glaring at him the whole time, giving him both middle fingers.
It was an obvious gesture--aside from a few grandmothers and grandfathers and maybe the teams' owners, there probably wasn't anybody in the arena who didn't want to give Kenny G the finger--but it was touching nonetheless. Same with Vedder's addled "fuck you" to the folks who gave Pearl Jam a Grammy last year. A lot of cultural observers wondered why he turned out in the first place if he didn't believe in the notoriously conservative awards. But this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the two sides of the band's schizophrenic personality.
On the one hand, Pearl Jam has never wanted to reinvent the wheel. Its members are proud of their Everyman roots in classic rock--the Who, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, etc.--and they have come to excel at the larger-than-life musical gestures that make arenas seem small. They like being rock stars. On the other hand, they love to thumb their noses at the establishment, not because they're revolutionaries (though their brave and solitary battle against Ticketmaster is not to be slighted), but simply because it's fun in a snotty teenage way. And this, of course, is why snotty teenagers love them.
Since the phenomenal success of Pearl Jam's debut album, Ten, its recordings have been saddled with ridiculous commercial and artistic expectations. To its credit, the band has done its best to subvert those, refusing to make videos or play the usual promotional games, and being unafraid to let its warts show. Quick and dirty: Vs. was its angry effort (Q: Pearl Jam versus whom? A: Everybody); diverse and dissonant, Vitalogy was its arty album. These weren't intended to be masterpieces--or even especially coherent. On the rare occasions when the band members talked to the press, they said they wished they could operate like their heroes did in the mid-'60s and release two or three albums a year. Just throw it all against the wall and see what sticks.
A little bit angry, a little bit arty, Pearl Jam's fourth album, No Code, is another effort in this mold, and, like its predecessors, it's a considerable source of small, obvious pleasures. Inspired either by the time Vedder spent hanging out with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or by the guitarists' listening to "Kashmir" again, "Who You Are," the first single, glides along on a cool Eastern-percussion track underscored by a magical, mystical sitarlike drone. The band goes back to ersatz Crazy Horse mode for "Smile," does a fun Fugazi imitation on the one-minute-long, hard-core-punk tune "Lukin," throws a vocal bone to Stone Gossard on the catchy rocker "Mankind," and kicks out the jams in top Ten style on "Habit" and "Red Mosquito."
Yes, the group occasionally founders under the weight of its pretensions. "Around the Bend" is a country-tinged ballad that sounds sort of like a grunge "Happy Trails." Even worse is "I'm Open," a swirly, atmospheric portrait of the artist as a young man, complete with an all-too-serious Vedder voice-over: "When he was six, he believed that the moon overhead followed him. By nine, he had deciphered the illusion, trading magic for fact. No trade-backs. So this is what it's like to be an adult. If he only knew now what he knew then." Lord, get me the Maalox.
Vedder is at his best when he's just murmuring and emoting. One of the key lines on this album is in "Hail, Hail." "I don't want to think/I want to feel," Vedder sings--an admirable goal that places him squarely in the ranks of a lot of other soul singers who didn't make sense but didn't really have to (James Brown, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Iggy Pop, etc.). The other line is in "Smile," when Vedder innocently asks, "Don't it make you smile/When the sun don't shine?" Well, no, Eddie, but I understand what you're getting at.
It's hip to make fun of Vedder and his bandmates these days and ask why they aren't enjoying themselves more, but the truth is, they're having a blast being miserable. One of the promo shots that Epic is handing out with the press materials for No Code shows the band in its practice studio/clubhouse, surrounded by its totems and candles and collections of guitars, feeling insulated, isolated and wonderfully self-important by playing in a circle and reveling in its angst. It brings to mind any group of boys in a tree-house world of their own devising, and I don't mind saying that's a not-unappealing place to visit.