When the world has ground to a halt, and we can barely leave our homes for fear of viral contamination around the globe, hope is in high demand and short supply. And when optimism has become a counterfeit commodity in a world gone mad, it’s rare that a signal can come through the noise with potency and promise. For Pearl Jam fans, the timing of Gigaton is an existential Goldilocks zone, seven long years after the coming-of-midlife anthems 2013’s Lightning Bolt provided. With shows & events postponed, stores raided, schools cancelled and people confined to their homes, the tide of madness seems to only be rising. And finally, we’ve got a rock record to reflect not just the crisis, but the resolve it’s going to take to get us through.
We’ve waited many years for this kind of record from Pearl Jam. Buoyed by a velocity of sociopolitical frustration and soulfire determination, Gigaton is a powerhouse of an album, a seasoned and nuanced meal prepared at length between studio sessions in multiple Seattle locations, as well as Montana. Gone is the dad-punk hamminess of recent records, replaced by richness in depth and experimentation, layered intricacies with reward for the attentive headphone listeners. The result is the most consistently potent & fulfilling release from the band in nearly 20 years.
The opening of “Who Ever Said” is the kind of adrenalizing promise we shouldn’t dare ask from a band whose members are pushing six decades on the planet. With show-opener energy, the track is buoyantly punchy, even when it breaks open at the halfway point into Vedder’s magnetically contemplative counter-cadence to the beat (“Blinking stars, beneath you roam… room to tomb and cradle to grave…”). The song builds seductively, to a frantic climax as the final chorus rides out the moment for a delicious false finish.
Following the magnetic Talking Heads etherea of lead single “Dance of The Clairvoyants,” the experimental first impression of Gigaton was followed by “Superblood Wolfmoon,” an earnest track among PJ’s finest dance-rockers – providing that fever-pitch blast of intensity that fans had been wanting. Outlining an empathy for the struggle despite the love and passion of a fully-engaged life, Vedder leans in: “But the world kept a’spinning, always felt like it was ending – and love notwithstanding, we are each of us fucked!”
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Lightning Bolt and 2009’s Backspacer were both produced by longtime collaborator Brendan O’Brien, and he appears on Gigaton – but in a minor supporting role (keys on “Quick Escape” and “Retrograde”). New producer Josh Evans brings a long-overdue freshness to the band’s studio mojo, with notable ingenuity in sound presentation (the album’s hypnotic, disarming opening or Cameron’s drums on “Never Destination,” for instance). He also plays keys on the majority of the tracks, folding seamlessly into the PJ sound.
The velocity-building narrative of “Quick Escape” is exotically enticing in its funk squall, a bass-chugging getaway tale with chopping guitar lines and flourishes of grandeur, backup vocals on the chorus calling all the way back to Ten. But it’s in Vedder’s second verse where the relatable catalyst lies: “Crossed the border to Morocco, Kashmir then Marrakech… the lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet,” with tales of rat-race tradeoffs for sunsets and starry nights unwasted, passion rediscovered. Then an incendiary minute-long McCready solo sends us off, a magnificent vehicle to launch us into orbit. One can just picture him leaning into the outro’s squealing psychedelic slurry onstage, eyes closed, eyebrows up, shoulders hunched…
As Jeff Ament compositions go, a stark, beautiful clarity rises in each that make their way through the band’s collective enhancing mechanics. His contributions are endlessly treasured: “Nothing As It Seems,” “Sleight of Hand” and “Low Light” are among the most wild-rooted downtempo songs in the band’s catalogue, bearing some of the most sacred sonic fruit. Adding now to the list is the eggshell-delicate “Alright,” a spacious breath of hope and reassurance despite the bad acid trip we may find ourselves trapped within, in the madness of headlines and headaches life seems to send our way each day. Evans’ programmed drum opening is reminiscent of a long-lost music box reanimated in the attic. While Jeff frames the scene on kalimba and keys, Eddie gently offers reminders not to lose ourselves in the noise – the unprecedented oddity and anxiety of now. It’s necessary to say no when we need to, to “be a disappointment in your own home” if that’s what it takes to be alright.
Ed’s driven intent leads “Seven O’Clock,” an empathetic Springsteen-laced send-up of the now, a mornings-in-the-mirror reminder that we cannot afford not to be vigilant despite our exhaustion, despite our heartbreak. If the band’s age-old “Don’t Give Up” t-shirt were a song, it would be this. Invoking Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Vedder takes aim at the spray-tanned Sitting Bullshit and the consequence of bully domination (“Caught the butterfly, broke its wings then put it on display…His best days gone, hard to admit… throwing punches with nothing to hit…”) as well as our need to keep our eyes fixed on the horizon (“Theres still a fire in the engine room, know relief will be coming soon…”). He ends the track with the repeated mantra, imploring “Much to be done… Much to be done…”.
Following the fun-punk run of “Never Destination,” love-endurance anthem “Take The Long Way” is a nearly four-minute blizzard of kit-stomping from and by Matt Cameron. Without his hyperattentive fills and metronomic beating, this could be a completely different track, perhaps an earnest & solemn heartsong like those Vedder has mined thoroughly on his solo efforts. And that’s part of Matt’s magic in Pearl Jam – he provides a pulverizing backbeat to Eddie’s declarations of thick-and-thin dedication (“Now’s the time to resurface.. take back me and you…”), that keeps the ride from getting stuck in the molasses of sentimentality. He also provides backup vocals in the magnificent chorus, alongside Seattle singer/songwriter Meagan Grandall aka Lemolo.
Guitarist Stone Gossard wrote the words and music to the odd-bird delight of “Buckle Up,” a warmly brisk fingerpicking guitar-driven curveball under Cameron’s 4/4 march. Vedder’s long melodic exhalations shape the morose young existence of… a… murderer? It’s an enchantingly unique track, like a feather lifting on an unsteady updraft through a sunlit murder scene. It’s among Pearl Jam’s more perplexing offerings since “Strangest Tribe” mesmerized fans at Christmastime in 1999.
In keeping with PJ character, the back end of Gigaton is a contemplative downshift. The Vedder-penned “Comes Then Goes” beautifully asks the hard questions over a lone acoustic guitar, (“Sadness comes, and with it a sea of tears… Would some love be best had it not appeared?”), of which we already understand the answer. The experience is why we live at all, “incisions made my scalpel blades of time” nonwithstanding.
Is the song a salute to Chris Cornell? The idea isn’t improbable, and Vedder remains just vague enough to keep certainty out of our grasp. But there’s a sobering interpretive lens to be found: “Evidence in the echoes of your mind.. leads me to believe we missed the signs…”.
The closing hymn of “River Cross” may be the only track of the dozen that doesn’t beg for immediate replay – and that’s only due to the aching of its frequency under Vedder’s eulogistic pump-organ. And we’ve been here before with “The End” – a song that would stop an album in its tracks at the midway point. It’s beautiful, but the somber solitude is a cold wind on the heart.
We haven’t had a new Pearl Jam album in seven years, and apprehension matched anticipation for a great many fans as the lead-up to Gigaton played out. Age can temper a band’s passion and relatability as the course of life takes context and content down new paths of priority. But the songwriting on Gigaton is profoundly strong, the sound without gimmick – but rather nuanced and richly textured. The contributions from various members provide enchanting variation of feather on this wild, gorgeous bird. For a great many fans, Pearl Jam creations are heartsongs, sonic barometers we often measure and balance the storms of our own lives against. Thankfully, we now have a beautiful new chapter to see us through.
Previous Pearl Jam reviews:
PEARL JAM FIND THE MAGIC AGAIN ON ‘LIGHTNING BOLT’
PEARL JAM PULL A FAST ONE WITH BACKSPACER
PEARL JAM’S SOARING CHICAGO FAREWELL: A WRIGLEY FIELD REVIEW
PASSION POINTS: VEDDER’S ‘SAVE THE FLAG!’ RANT AT PEARL JAM’S 7/10/98 SHOW
PJ20 WEEKEND REVIEW: I LEFT MY HEART IN ALPINE VALLEY