May 16th, 2000, Pearl Jam released their sixth studio album Binaural on Epic Records. At the time of Binaural’s release the rock world was a blaze with bubblegum frat-punks and schlock-metal bozos. A conveyor belt of beer sodden jocks with guitars were churned out daily on vapid MTV buzz bin shows like Total Request Live. Bands who held tight to dreams of appearing in, or even soundtracking an episode of Jackass were order of the day.
Nine years had passed since Pearl Jam’s debut album “Ten” hit shelves, and a whole lot had changed. They were now the last of the big four “grunge” band’s left standing. Gone were Soundgarden, so too Nirvana and Alice In Chains were on indefinite hiatus. While it would be entertaining to have seen Eddie Vedder give into the Jackass frat-punk behaviour, maybe ever write some songs about how funny farts are or the endless search for nookie. Truth was, he’d been there and done that, years before (well, minus the fart and nookie songs)
Vedder spent the first half of the ’90s flinging himself off every stage scaffolding he could find, climbing unmerciful heights only to swing, ape-like, above thousands of petrified onlookers, throwing himself into heaving masses of fans who carried him like a wave. And let’s not forget Lollapalooza 1992 and Eddie’s obsession with The Jim Rose Circus. During that show “Matt The Tube” would ingest all manner of crap, then pierce a hole in his stomach, let the contents flow out into a glass and ask folks to drink it. And who was on hand to take a swig of this man’s “Bile Beer ”..? you guessed it, Eddie Vedder. It was Jackass before Jackass. Albeit with a far more joyous and life affirming slant, and way better tunes.
So forgive Vedder and company for turning a blind eye to the shenanigans of the early 2000’s. They didn’t need to pander to the bottom feeder rock mentality of the day, they had nothing in common with it. Instead they turned their focus inward in an attempt to follow up the stellar “Yield” with an album that was true to themselves.
‘Binaural’ sounds gloriously out of time. It’s a seething, furious album, a declamatory statement against cynicism and passivity and the simple injustices of everyday life. Within its 14 tracks, ‘Binaural’ sees Eddie Vedder rage against collateral damage (the blistering ‘Insignificance’), conformity (the jerky post-punk splatter of ‘Grievance’), the randomness of tragedy (‘God’s Dice’). Even when the band slows the pace, the songs are coloured by a heartfelt intensity; the palpable loss of the painfully beautiful ‘Light Years’, or the acrid dark-hearted humour of the slight ‘Soon Forget’, for example. This is not the work of a band playing just to pay off the mortgage on their Bel Air mansion.
From beginning to end, Binaural is a seamless album. Much more grand than other Pearl Jam records. Tchad Blake’s production inflates the songs and gives them a broad atmosphere to wander in. New boy Matt Cameron, who joined after Soundgarden’s dissolution, was a lottery win for the band. Finding a drummer and holding onto them is tough, Pearl Jam had great difficulty in that department. Matt Cameron steadied that ship and has since become their longest serving stickman.
Binaural puts its best foot forward, but it’s not without its bumpy spots. Mike McCready reasoned in PJ20 that “Binaural came out at a time when people were saying, ‘well, maybe we’re over these guys now’”. As candid as any artist can be, McCready was right. It was bands such as Limp Bizkit and KoRn that were garnering the most attention in the rock world. Pearl Jam at this point were now considered ‘old’; they had to move through a difficult transitional period. Binaural was Pearl Jam’s raison d’etre.
The volcano of hype that erupted from Seattle has laid dormant for what now seems like a millennium. It’s easy to listen to the first exhilarating run of Pearl Jam records from the ’90s and realize that they were just five guys from Seattle full of purpose and ambition and an invincible desire to command an audience and jam as if their very life depended on it.
From this remove, we can now also look back at their mid-career, and see the growth, struggle, and transition they made from Binaural onward. It’s a fascinating journey, full of great songs and memorable moments. It was a more difficult period for the band. With hindsight they navigated themselves through with dignity and focus.
Listening to Binaural now, removed from the time and trappings of when it was released, it sounds like a really great Pearl Jam record. Full of dynamic twists and turns. It rages and soothes. And above all, it kicks like a Jackass.