Guest Blog: In defence of Pearl Jam Twenty
This week the inmates are running the asylum. You'll remember I challenged people, once again, to Right This Blog! With that in mind welcome: m0rph3us
I enjoyed Pearl Jam Twenty. And before I explain why, I think it's important to start by outlining exactly where I stand on the band, and their music, in general.
I have all of their studio albums, as well as the reissues of Ten, Vs., and Vitalogy. Ten is my favourite album, but Yield is not far off, and there are great moments on almost all of their albums. But Backspacer doesn't interest me at all, and Binaural is not much better. But putting the studio material, and the official live bootlegs aside, Live at The Gorge is, in my view, a brilliant and comprehensive statement of their work as a band - and the one I listen to most often. However, if I had to make a list of my 10 favourite bands, they would be a marginal selection at best.
And for someone who is a long-time fan, Pearl Jam Twenty was pretty cool. In saying that, it is a documentary that was clearly made by a fan and intended for fans. If you dislike the band this is unlikely to change your opinion of them (but that of course raises the question of why you would even watch it if you do not have some vague interest in the band, unless you are a reviewer like Simon).
(Incidentally, I have some sympathy for Simon's more vitriolic moments... after being subjected to the Glee soundtrack several years ago, I realised that being forced to listen to something you dislike is incredibly irritating and essentially a form of torture.)
Anyway, the film: I thought it was cool, and I enjoyed it a great deal, but I did not think it was perfect.
The Andrew Wood angle was overplayed a little bit - for those who do not know, Andrew Wood was the singer in Mother Love Bone, the band which was essentially the predecessor to Pearl Jam (think Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age, although perhaps less incestuous). In true rock-star fashion he died of a drug overdose. And perhaps seeing too many teenagers wearing Kurt Cobain shirts has made me cynical but I consider that the accomplishments of Pearl Jam as a band are the result of Pearl Jam's hard work as a band. It's important that they remember Andrew Wood, who was a great friend and colleague; but their music (or at least most of it), is undoubtedly their own.
I would have enjoyed it more if they'd spent more time talking about their songs, their albums, the songwriting process and their inspiration. A lot of time was spent on the Ticketmaster fight - it's not hard to respect their stance, but the extended coverage afforded to it smacked a bit of "Hey! Let's fight the Man!" That's all good and well if you win, but they didn't, and they never really bothered to explain the implications of that. I'd rather that time had been spent addressing the sad lack of in-studio footage. For a band that have written so many great songs, and who have such a collaborative song-writing process, I thought that was an oversight. At least it was explained why No Code makes no sense (even if it does have some good songs on it). And there were things hinted at that never got fully explored, such as the creative shift away from Stone and towards Eddie.
Nor was the pacing perfect. When things got a little slow, Crowe's default approach was to throw in some live footage or shenanigans (like Eddie climbing the stage) to kick-start things again with a Big Rock Moment.
But I really loved the way that the band came across as regular guys who were passionate about their music. I mean, Cameron Crowe was never going to portray them in a negative light, but they came across as refreshingly ego-free and genuine. Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard in particular come across as guys who just love making music. So does Eddie. They don't take themselves too seriously. The comedic portrayal of the Pearl Jam drummer saga was a nice touch. They do not live big rock-star lives in big rock-star houses. They avoided any major angle around the usual clichés of sex, drugs and booze, or their occasional consequences - unintended children, rehab, and Finding God. Maybe there was one there, or maybe there wasn't, but it was a nice change from the standard inclusion of "we did all this crazy stuff, but you shouldn't, mmmmkay?" Or in Dave Mustaine's case "I found God and now I refuse to play that really cool song about crazy un-Christian voodoo stuff."
The last Rockumentary(!!) I watched was the Foo Fighters' Back and Forth. I thought Pearl Jam, individually, came across as a lot more interesting, engaging and not-dickheads in the interview segments. In Back and Forth, I struggled with the segments that involved Sincere Honest Dave, mostly because I kept expecting him to say something funny, and I didn't think Chris Shiflett came across that well either. In Pearl Jam Twenty we instead discovered that Stone Gossard doesn't wash his dishes, Jeff Ament had almost nowhere to buy records when he was growing up, that good ol' uncle Neil Young is really Uncle Neil, particularly to Eddie.
I think that where Pearl Jam Twenty really succeeded was in reminding me about the things that, in my opinion, make Pearl Jam a great band.
When it comes to diversity of their back catalogue, I'd suggest they have few equals in the current era. They've written catchy, hooky songs like Even Flow, Better Man and World Wide Suicide and they've written dense, intricate numbers like Black, Rearviewmirror, Can't Keep and Inside Job. They've done loud, they've done quiet, they've done slow, they've done fast. And so many of those songs have a genuine meaning, a story, typically conveyed in a way that is relatable without being contrived, much like Stone's unwashed dishes. Take Corduroy, The Fixer, Jeremy, Love Boat Captain or countless other examples - again, across the band's career.
Importantly, they've been unafraid to head off in different musical directions at times. The results might have been variable at times, but it is an important reminder that this is not a band that is content to play the same riff for 30 years. I'd take No Code over a rehash of Vitalogy any day.
Eddie Vedder is a unique frontman. You might like his voice - and there is some great footage and audio in the film. Or maybe you hate his voice. But even if you hate his voice, you can't blame him for the likes of Scott Stapp and Chad Kroeger being inflicted on the world - an unfortunate and unintended consequence. Some find Chris Cornell's voice similarly polarising - but that's pretty good company for a singer to be in (and if we're talking about his contemporaries, both are far better singers than Kurt Cobain). And you can't deny the man's charisma, which seems more genuine for the fact that he comes across as the shy, sincere, almost unlikely frontman.
As a band, their relationship is very much built on mutual respect. They are all talented musicians, and clearly music geeks. Matt Cameron famously recorded half of Save You having somehow sent his headphones flying and not being able to hear what the rest of the band were playing. The best example of this, in my opinion, is the band's set lists, which the film reveals are generally decided by Eddie on the day of the show, and which could include any 30 songs from a catalogue of over 150. It takes a lot of trust between band members, and a lot of talent, to be able to manage that - I can't name any other band that does so to anywhere near the same degree. Dream Theater used to, but that went out the window with Mike Portnoy. The Auckland and Christchurch shows in 2009 were two days apart and had almost completely different set lists - and those who attended will tell you that both were great shows.
But when it comes down to it, the core message of the film is that Pearl Jam are five pretty regular, honest guys that enjoy making and playing music. Whether or not the media spotlight was on them, all they've ever wanted to do is play music - and they're pretty good at it too. They've never gone out of their way to be cool, they didn't make documentaries about band counselling, and they haven't done any collaborations with Timbaland. That they're still doing that after 20 years straight, having outlived grunge, nu-metal, Rock Star Supernova, the garage-rock revival and God knows what else while still maintaining a huge following is surely a remarkable achievement that deserves to be celebrated.
You can read the assorted ramblings of m0rph3us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Postscript: Click here to read Simon's post about Pearl Jam Twenty (aka "the attack" on Pearl Jam Twenty)
And follow Off the Tracks to read 'The Vinyl Countdown' - an album-by-album review of my record collection.
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