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Overrated, Underrated, or Properly Rated: Pearl Jam

From albums to drummers to hats, a conclusive guide to alt rock’s enduring giant.

Pearl Jam

This week Pearl Jam releases its 10th album, Lightning Bolt. Like rock music in general, a new Pearl Jam album doesn’t have a clear cultural value in 2013. On one hand, Lightning Bolt will probably debut at no. 1 on the Billboard albums chart. And Pearl Jam is currently supporting the record with a run of concerts in arenas, several of which are already sold out. So, Pearl Jam is obviously still a huge band. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that Lightning Bolt will matter to anyone who doesn’t already like Pearl Jam. It’s been at least 15 years since any Pearl Jam album had a seismic impact on the pop culture mainstream. So, while Pearl Jam is obviously still a huge band, it has been marginalized. Twenty years ago, Pearl Jam was the world’s biggest rock band back when “the world’s biggest rock band” meant something. Today, Pearl Jam is still in the running for that distinction, if only because the competition has been significantly depleted.

How did we get here? Pearl Jam has a long, rich history consisting of grand triumphs and crushing disappointments that has been guided by a steady survivalist instinct. But how does this band rate? Is Pearl Jam overrated, underrated, or properly rated? Because the business of rating things is serious and requires close attention, this question cannot be answered simply. We must break down Pearl Jam’s career into a series of key components.

Studio Albums

Pearl Jam Ten (1991) It’s Pearl Jam’s best-selling record, it’s the one that even people who don’t care about Pearl Jam know fairly well, and it’s generally regarded as the most essential entry in its catalogue. All of this seems just. Ten has Pearl Jam’s signature song (“Alive”), its most affecting song (“Release”), its most popular deep cut (“Black”), its best song to hear live (“Porch”), its most iconic/caricatured song (“Jeremy”), its dumbest fun song (“Even Flow”), and its funnest dumb song (“Once”). If Pearl Jam’s career had abruptly ended in 1992, it could still draw a couple thousand people at any county fair in the country tonight based solely on this album. PROPERLY RATED.

Vs. (1993) I’m strongly tempted to argue that Vs. is underrated, since it seems to be somewhat overshadowed retrospectively by later, more cultish entries in Pearl Jam’s discography. (More on that in a second.) I suppose if this were 1993, I’d argue that Vs. is overrated, since it sold the most copies in its first week of release (just over 950,000) of any album ever at the time. But in reality the truth about Vs. lies somewhere in the middle. The density of Pearl Jam classics on Vs. (most notably “Daughter,” “Rearviewmirror,” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”) makes it attractive for newcomers to check out after Ten, and it will always be the second most overly familiar album for hard-core fans. This is exactly how Vs. should be regarded: as the Pepsi to Ten‘s Coke. Vs. actually sounds better than Ten, due to the reliable physicality of Brendan O’Brien’s production. But the songwriting lags slightly behind, if only because of the occasional clunkiness of Eddie Vedder’s political commentary. (Poe-liceman! Poooooe-licemaaaaaaaan!”) PROPERLY RATED.

Vitalogy (1994) This was the album that skeptical rock critics who had initially dismissed Pearl Jam as grunge carpetbaggers decided was OK to like, probably because it was easily the least likable Pearl Jam album to this point. The typeface on the album cover nods to Harvest, but the album’s aesthetic is Time Fades Away. Half of Vitalogy is brilliant, and the other half is terrible; that this was by design doesn’t make the tiresome parts any less tiresome. I’ve loved this album for nearly 20 years, but only recently did I realize that my version of Vitalogy consists of only six songs (“Last Exit,” “Not for You,” “Tremor Christ,” “Nothingman,” “Corduroy,” and “Immortality”) out of a possible 14. That is not a good percentage of plays for a supposedly classic record.1 I think other people similarly misremember Vitalogy‘s quality — it ranked no. 2 in a Rolling Stone readers’ poll about Pearl Jam albums, which is far too high. More than 877,000 people bought Vitalogy the week it came out, and I’m guessing at least 416,000 were disappointed. OVERRATED.


1.

I have not listened to “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” on purpose since December ’94.

No Code (1996) Pearl Jam’s fourth album was underrated when it first came out, and now it seems a little overrated. No Code is the departure point in Pearl Jam’s discography. Loving Ten means you were young and engaged with rock music in the early ’90s; loving No Code (and everything afterward) is what makes you a “real” Pearl Jam fan. Let’s split the difference: Arguing that No Code is Pearl Jam’s best record is bogus, but not counting it among Pearl Jam’s best is plain old ill-informed. Looking back, it’s a little amazing that No Code, and not Vitalogy, marked the end of Pearl Jam’s “biggest band in the world” period — this is a far more consistent and overall better record. (As Eddie would say, it’s more “open.”) It’s also more successfully “weird” — investing time with No Code and endlessly traversing its prickly corners pays much higher dividends. “Hail, Hail” is a top-five Pearl Jam “rock” song, and “Off He Goes” is a top-five Pearl Jam “slow” song. “Sometimes” is my dark-horse pick for best side one, track one on a Pearl Jam record, and “Lukin” is its most credible “we’re pretending to be a punk band” song. At the time, it appeared that No Code might end Pearl Jam’s career, but ultimately it’s the record that set Pearl Jam on a course away from being a strictly ’90s phenomenon. PROPERLY RATED.

Pearl Jam Yield (1998) This is the last Pearl Jam LP to go platinum, and the one with the worst album cover, which, given the high standard of awful Pearl Jam album covers, is saying a lot.2 Yield looks like one of those mid-’80s Roger Waters solo records that only dudes who work in used-CD stores claim to like. All of that aside, Yield is the single most underrated entry in Pearl Jam’s oeuvre, a solid no. 4 behind Ten, Vs., and No Code, even though it marks the start of the band’s “post-mass” period. Yield is the most purely enjoyable and least pretentious record that Pearl Jam made in the ’90s; if it had come out after Vs., Pearl Jam might be bigger than U2 right now. It’s a testament to Pearl Jam’s perversity that it waited to deliver the album that many people wanted after those people had already evacuated the bandwagon. UNDERRATED.


2.

Pearl Jam album covers in ascending order of awfulness: (10) Vitalogy, (9) Binaural, (8) No Code, (7) Vs., (6) Riot Act, (5) Backspacer, (4) Lightning Bolt, (3) Pearl Jam, (2) Ten, (1) Yield.

Binaural (2000) I once had a conversation with this guy about Pearl Jam in which he claimed that the band’s best era was 1998 to 2002. This is the sort of argument a person makes after digesting so much of a particular artist’s work that it has driven him to the brink of insanity. It’s like saying, “You know, Raging Bull and Goodfellas are solid, but they pale in comparison to Scorsese’s output from 1997 to 2002.”3 The early ’00s were clearly a bad time for Pearl Jam — Mike McCready4 struggled with drug addiction, there was the Roskilde tragedy,5 and the band was perceived by many casual observers as passé. Pearl Jam should’ve taken an extended break after Yield, but instead it plowed forward with the most dispiriting and deeply confused record of its career. Binaural represents the worst instance of Pearl Jam attempting to make music least suited to its specific skill set — it’s a record of dense atmospherics and measured brooding by the most stridently anthemic and emotive band of its generation. What’s supposed to be a pained, delicate sigh comes off as a dull, thudding roar. Binaural is a three-dimensional sonic representation of a band being flattened against a psychic brick wall. PROPERLY RATED.


3.

Those films are Christopher Moltisanti favorite Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead, and Gangs of New York.

4.

The most underrated member of Pearl Jam.

5.

At a festival in Denmark in 2000, nine Pearl Jam fans died during an audience stampede.

Riot Act (2002) This album barely went gold, which means that for its entire album cycle Riot Act sold about half what Vs. did in its first week. That’s an incredible tumble for the ex–world’s biggest rock-and-roll band in just under 10 years. But if Riot Act is truly considered Pearl Jam’s rock bottom, I think it deserves a smidge of redemption. I’m not saying it’s great (or even good), but Riot Act has two songs I like (“Thumbing My Way” and “Green Disease”) and Binaural has none. UNDERRATED.

Pearl Jam (2006) The “return to rock” album that every veteran band is legally required to make 15 years into its recording career, Pearl Jam was greeted with relative enthusiasm after the grumpy doldrums of the band’s previous two records. Pearl Jam is loaded with fast songs in the mold of “Spin the Black Circle” — it’s all flat, trebly riffs and flat, throaty vocals. Me, I never thought Pearl Jam did “fast” all that well. Its ideal tempo is exemplified by “Corduroy,” which I’d describe as “midtempo plus.” Pearl Jam is more like “unconvincingly rabid” — though I will ride for “Unemployable,” which is a fine Tom Petty rip-off. OVERRATED.

Backspacer (2009) This is my favorite Pearl Jam album since Yield, because in many ways it reminds me the most of Yield. Backspacer is just a batch of good, melodic rock songs played in straightforward fashion without a trace of fuss or furrowed brows. The first half is likable enough, but Backspacer doesn’t really take off until the middle of the record, with two fine examples of “midtempo plus” chest-beaters: “Amongst the Waves” and “Unthought Known.” Backspacer deservedly became Pearl Jam’s most popular album in years, debuting at no. 1 on the Billboard albums chart and spinning off a rock radio hit with the zippy “The Fixer.” But Backspacer still feels a touch undervalued. Fans loved it, but the album didn’t quite reestablish the concept of “new Pearl Jam” as an exciting proposition in the minds of non–Pearl Jam cultists. UNDERRATED.

Lightning Bolt (2013) When a band has lasted for 10 albums and 22 years, the best you can hope for out of a new record is a handful of good tunes that you’d happily put on your best-of-band playlist. For me, Lightning Bolt has two of them, and they’re both ballads: “Sirens” and “Future Days.” Thematically, these songs are close cousins, detailing the hard-won rewards (and potential pitfalls) of fidelity, whether it exists between romantic partners or a band and its audience. Pearl Jam arrives as a full-fledged nostalgia band on Lightning Bolt, but only in the anticipatory sense — this is music for ruminating on where you came from, expressing gratitude for where you are, and/or feeling wistful about how we are all headed toward the same place. As to how this album is rated, I can only speculate. I suspect that fans will love this record, critics will be respectful of it, and the rest of the world will be largely uninterested. And Pearl Jam will keep on marching forward. PROPERLY RATED.

B Sides, Non-Album Tracks, and Outtakes

If you were to compile an album of Pearl Jam’s best songs that didn’t appear on Pearl Jam albums — starting with “Footsteps,” “Yellow Ledbetter,” “State of Love and Trust,” “Breath,” “Dirty Frank,” and “I Got Id” — it would possibly be my favorite Pearl Jam album. Weirdly, the band’s proper odds-and-sods collection, 2003’s Lost Dogs, is merely OK.6 PROPERLY RATED.


6.

Part of my resentment toward Lost Dogs stems (unreasonably, I’ll admit) from the inclusion of an inferior version of “Footsteps,” which overdubs a dopey harmonica lick onto the original recording. This is the best version, from the “Jeremy” maxi-single.

Eddie Vedder

The Live Show

I’ve seen Pearl Jam twice — in 1998 during the Yield tour, and this summer at Wrigley Field. I don’t remember much about the first gig for reasons that are predictable and yet will have to remain cryptic. The second concert was fantastic. This is not surprising: Pearl Jam is known as one of the best live acts in its arena-filling weight class. After only fitfully listening to new Pearl Jam albums for more than a decade, seeing the band live reignited my interest in listening to them again. Pearl Jam will remain interesting to people for as long as it is able to tour.7 PROPERLY RATED.

The Fight Against Ticketmaster


7.

This is why I believe that releasing approximately 249 Pearl Jam live albums is also a “properly rated” decision.

In the mythology of Pearl Jam, this represents the band’s bravest act and its most foolhardy lapse in show-business professionalism. It also seems to be the last thing that most people remember about Pearl Jam. In terms of the popular consciousness, Pearl Jam appeared, became huge, battled an evil corporation over ticket prices, and promptly disappeared. But it wasn’t really that cataclysmic. When I saw Pearl Jam a few years later, I bought my tickets from Ticketmaster. Now, Pearl Jam links to Ticketmaster on its own site. Titans clashed, but the world subsequently kept on spinning. OVERRATED.

Mother Love Bone

I consider “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” to be the grunge “Stairway to Heaven.” The rest of the output by Stone Gossard8 and Jeff Ament’s seminal precursor to Pearl Jam sounds like Warrant covering Nothing’s Shocking. An important trial run, perhaps, but still a trial run. OVERRATED.

Eddie Vedder’s Vocal on Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike”


8.

The most properly rated member of Pearl Jam.

Actually, can “Hunger Strike” be the co-grunge “Stairway to Heaven”? If you know a white man between the ages of 33 and 43, there’s a 68 percent chance that he can sing every word of this song on command. (Just don’t ask him to explain it. “I don’t mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadence” was intended to be bellowed soulfully, not interpreted.) What’s remarkable about Vedder’s vocal on “Hunger Strike” is how fully realized it is, in spite of the recording predating the release of Ten. He basically invented the next generation of rock singers with a simple “I’m goin’ hungrrrrrrrrry!” UNDERRATED.

The 1992 MTV Unplugged Performance

It is impossible to overrate Stone Gossard’s ability to murder the rhythm guitar part on “Porch” while sitting with his legs crossed in tight ’90s jeans. UNDERRATED.

The Music Video for “Jeremy”

I know I should make fun of this video, as it is extremely mockable. I seriously doubt that a rock band (or any artist of any genre) could present itself in such a serious and “message”-driven context today without being lambasted by content-creating quipmeisters on the Internet.9 But in all honesty: This was the most powerful music video I’d ever seen when it premiered. It was even better than “November Rain,” which I also thought was incredible and is now 100 times more ridiculous than “Jeremy.” All music videos wind up looking stupid 20 years later; what matters is how a particular video felt at the time it was popular, and “Jeremy” undoubtedly made Pearl Jam seem like the most important rock band on MTV. Also: The mix of “Jeremy” in the video blows away the version on the album, wisely extending Vedder’s climactic “whoa!” and ramping up the song’s melodrama. UNDERRATED.

The 1993 MTV Video Music Awards Performance


9.

I write this as a self-aware content-creating quipmeister on the Internet.

Before Vs., I pretended that I disliked Pearl Jam because I was a staunch Nirvana loyalist. This performance changed all of that. I had it taped on VHS and I’m pretty sure I watched it at least three times every day during my lunch break for a week. It seems strange to talk about a performance at the VMAs being musically exciting, but that’s how we used to rock in the free world. UNDERRATED.

Pearl Jam Drummers

Dave Krusen He played drums on Ten, which means he’s secretly the Pearl Jam drummer people know the best. That should make him an automatic “underrated,” but he later went on to join Candlebox, which seriously skews his rating in a negative direction. PROPERLY RATED.

Matt Chamberlain He played in Pearl Jam for a brief period, but wound up immortalized in the video for “Alive.” In terms of Pearl Jam’s history, he’s way overrated. Except he has arguably the best résumé of any Pearl Jam drummer — he went on to play in Saturday Night Live‘s house band in the early ’90s and became an in-demand studio musician who appeared on albums by Fiona Apple, Kanye West, Peter Gabriel, Morrissey, Elvis Costello, and Elton John. UNDERRATED.

Dave Abbruzzese My favorite Pearl Jam drummer; he played on Vs. and was later fired in 1994 in unofficial accordance with the Steven Adler clause for drummers.10 The funkiest Pearl Jam drummer, his sound was better suited for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But he still had a certain joie de vivre that the band has been missing ever since. UNDERRATED.


10.

Adler was fired from Guns N’ Roses for drug abuse; Abbruzzese was similarly let go for being too much of a rock star. Jeff Ament told Spin in 2001: “Dave was a different egg for sure. There were a lot of things, personality wise, where I didn’t see eye to eye with him. He was more comfortable being a rock star than the rest of us. Partying, girls, cars. I don’t know if anyone was in the same space.” For a rebuttal, please skip ahead to the section called “Jeff Ament’s Hats.”

Jack Irons This one actually was in the Chili Peppers. He had the tightest and most propulsive drum sound of any Pearl Jam drummer. But his most essential contribution to Pearl Jam was slipping his old pal Eddie Vedder the band’s demo when it was looking for a singer. Good drummer, fantastic referral service. PROPERLY RATED.

Matt Cameron The drummer with the longest tenure and most prestige among fans. I still think of Matt Cameron as the drummer for Soundgarden. In Soundgarden, he’s underrated. In Pearl Jam, he’ll always seem like a guest in my mind. It’s like Bill Ward keeping time in Led Zeppelin. PROPERLY RATED.

Pearl Jam Twenty

Eddie Vedder Award Show Speeches

The most notable Eddie Vedder award show speeches, in order of ratedness:

1996 Grammys “I don’t know what this means, I don’t think it means anything” might have been an applause line in 1993, but the public was doing furious jerk-off motions over très alt-rock gestures like this by ’96. Also: Eddie is totally upstaged by McCready’s scintillating Brigitte Nielsen/proto-Robyn ‘do. OVERRATED.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony for Neil Young, 1995 A short and sweet highlight of Eddie’s shoegazing public-speaking period, though I’m sad that the food fight with Ticketmaster never materialized.11 PROPERLY RATED.


11.

This speech coincided with Pearl Jam backing Young on 1995’s Mirror Ball, which was acclaimed at the time but is never mentioned among Young’s best work. I’d rank it as his third-best album of the ’90s, behind Ragged Glory and Broken Arrow. In Pearl Jam lore, I’d say it’s underrated.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony for the Ramones, 2002 Eddie is obviously shitfaced. His hair looks awesome and also profound as a statement against world events and bombings and things like that. He disses J.Lo and “Disney kids” and slurs Ssssex Pistols. He apologizes for talking too long and then tells the audience to go fuck themselves. When Jann Wenner dies, his afterlife will consist of sitting in the audience for this speech for eternity. UNDERRATED.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story “He’s been called the Drifter, also the Shapeshifter, the Master Chef, the Chameleon, the Problem Child, the Hard One, the White Indian, the Giant Midget — and, of course, many know him as the TV spokesman for his line of Dewey Cox breakfast sausages.” CANNOT BE RATED HIGHLY ENOUGH.

Jeff Ament’s Hats

Classic “puffy rasta outclassing Eddie Vedder” hat. UNDERRATED.

Classic puffy wool hat. UNDERRATED.

Quasi-beret worn in Singles. PROPERLY RATED.

Backward cap while testifying before Congress. UNDERRATED.

The red “MT” truck hat he wears in Pearl Jam Twenty. PROPERLY RATED.

Conclusion

Pearl Jam made some great records in the ’90s, some not-so-great records in the early ’00s, and some very solid records in the last several years. The band is always worth seeing live. Eddie Vedder is very good at giving speeches, and Jeff Ament is tremendous at wearing hats. The band has had many drummers but ultimately settled on the right one. Pearl Jam is not at its creative peak in 2013, but it is a dependable veteran that won’t ever embarrass itself. Overall, Pearl Jam is PROPERLY RATED.