SOUNDGARDEN – DOWN ON THE UPSIDE (1996)

PEARL JAM – BINAURAL (2000)

May 16th, 2000, Pearl Jam released their sixth album, Binaural, on Epic Records. At the time of Binaural’s release, the rock world was ablaze with bubblegum frat punks and nu-metal bozos. A conveyor belt of beer-sodden jocks with guitars was churned out daily on MTV buzz bin shows like Total Request Live—bands who held tight to dreams of soundtracking or even appearing in an episode of Jackass. 

Nine years had passed since Pearl Jam’s debut album “Ten” hit shelves, and a lot had changed. They were now the last men standing. Gone were Soundgarden and Nirvana, with Alice In Chains on indefinite hiatus. While it would be entertaining to have seen Eddie Vedder appear in an episode of Jackass or write a handful of songs about how funny farts are or his endless search for nookie. The 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 sheer heights 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. Eddie would often turn up at the Jim Rose Circus events to join “Matt The Tube,” who would ingest all manner of food, liquids and general crap, then pierce a hole in his stomach, let the contents flow out into a glass and ask members of the audience to drink it. Eddie would be first in line to quaff down Matt The Tube’s Bile Beer. It was Jackass long before Jackass. 

So forgive Vedder and company for disregarding the shenanigans of the early 2000s; it was old hat. Pearl Jam 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, an eloquent statement against cynicism, passivity, and everyday life’s simple injustices. Within its fourteen tracks, the band rages against collateral damage, conformity and the randomness of tragedy. Even when they slow the pace, the songs are coloured by a heartfelt intensity. 

The album opens with “Breakerfall,” a boot-in-the-face ripper that tells the story of a girl contemplating her place in the world; much like the man in the song “Deep” from Ten, she finds herself on a ledge, Vedder sings, “There’s a girl on a ledge who’s got nowhere to turn / Because all the love that she had was just wood that she burned / Now her life is on fire; it’s no one’s concern / She can blame the world or pray till dawn.” Jeff Ament and new drummer Matt Cameron steady the ship with a tight rein as Stone Gossard and Mike McCready’s guitars shoot like burning shrapnel across a raging soundscape. 

Pouring indignation on the randomness of tragedy, “Gods’ Dice” wastes no time getting to the point. There is no intro; Vedder assertively starts in with the band right from Cameron’s opening gunshot snare crack. Musically, each verse is a winding maze of chord changes, with Cameron pushing the downbeat of every new note. The urgency is palpable. The band locks into a more straightforward Ramones-esque sixteenth-note drive for the chorus as Vedder wails, “Designate my life / Designate my view / Resignate my will.” The yin yang, push-pull of the verse’s incessant, cascading push beats, and the straight-ahead four-to-the-floor pull of the chorus create a thrilling ride. 

“Evacuation” opens with shards of dissonant guitars bouncing like sparks from a welder. Some off-kilter time signatures are thrown into the verse to add an exclamation to Vedder’s lyrics. Matt Cameron’s addition, while a very different setting from Soundgarden’s angular brilliance, adds a subtle new dimension to Pearl Jam’s sound. 

“Light Years” is more reflective than the onslaught of the opening tracks. Introducing the song live in 2000, Vedder said, “This song is about a friend who’s fuckin’ up, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You watch them go down, down, down. Then other times, you’ve got friends who don’t fuck up at all, and they’re great people, and you just lose them for some reason, and you never even get to say goodbye. If you’ve got good friends, love them while they’re here.” 

“Nothing As It Seems” was written by Jeff Ament, whose atmospheric upright bass adds a beautifully ominous weight to this introspective hymn. Ament wrote the lyrics about his childhood growing up in a rural area of Northern Montana. Jeff described it as “a dark, heavy tale”. He stated, “For me, it’s a song about judgment and not always understanding what is going on with another person,” later saying, “I looked back at my childhood as being a reasonably utopian situation where I had the freedom to ride my bike around town when I was five years old, and my parents didn’t have to worry about anybody harming me. But some darker things came to the surface of my childhood, which I had selectively forgotten.” 

Mike McCready shines through “Nothing As It Seems”; his motifs weave between Vedder’s delivery, which is never intrusive and always supportive. While his guitar solo is awe-inspiring, channelling the bearly contained chaos of Crazy Horse era Neil Young and the ephemeral blues of Jimi Hendrix. 

“Thin Air’s” acoustic jangle is light and inviting but tinged with baleful twists and turns scattered throughout. “Insignificance” questions the futility of protest. With his powerful, creative drumming, Matt Cameron elevates the song’s urgent dynamics. Vedder’s apocalyptic lyrics tell the tale of a group of people who go to a bar to dance while bombs are dropping on their town. He later stated in an interview that the song’s moral is “the ineffectiveness of political struggle.” 

“Of The Girl” is a guttural new-age blues, channelling Tom Waits’s junkyard vividness. Again, McCready is at his best, coaxing thick, liquid leads from his guitar, his notes shooting upward like sparks from a campfire disappearing into the night sky. 

Matt Cameron’s tom-heavy beat opens “Grievance,” a jagged rocker that swings between free-form tumbling and tight syncopated menace. In an interview, Vedder shared the inspiration for the song’s lyrics: “I think technology went wrong somewhere. It just went in the wrong direction. Instead of helping us and freeing us, it seems to enslave us. That’s what I talk about in ‘Grievance,’ about the dangers and what many people don’t see or don’t want to see.”

“Rival” staggers with a drunken 3/4 feel. The song is an examination of the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20th, 1999. Two students shot up the school, killing 12 kids and a teacher before killing themselves. It was written by guitarist Stone Gossard, who created the lyrics by imagining what the shooters thought the night before. “All my rivals will see what I have in store / My gun / I’ve been harbouring fleets in this reservoir / Red sun / And this nation’s about to explode.”

“Sleight Of Hand’s” glistening sonic landscape is panoramic and vast. The song’s gripping ambience is breathtakingly beautiful and engaging. Tchad Blake’s production inflates the song and gives it a broad atmosphere to wander in. It is a unique and gorgeous entry into the Pearl Jam song cannon. “Soon Forget” is a one-minute forty-six-second ditty featuring Vedder’s voice and ukulele playing. The song spontaneously appeared to him when he tried to shake off writer’s block during the album’s recording sessions. To change things up, he refused to pick up a guitar, his chosen songwriting instrument. He tried piano but then noticed a ukulele in the studio.

“I looked over and saw this ukulele, and I said, ‘Well, that’s not a guitar,'” Vedder said in Pearl Jam’s book Twenty. “‘Soon Forget’ probably took me 20 minutes, and it was done. And it has some merit to it.” The song is about how money can’t buy happiness, telling the story of a rich man who spends his time counting his money, but every day is one he’ll soon forget.

Album closer “Parting Ways” tells the story of a couple who realise their relationship is failing. They can see the end in sight, but neither wants to admit the inevitable. The band lay down a lush bed of mournful but inviting atmosphere that gradually intensifies as Cameron and guitarist Gossard and McCready splash shots of cymbal and chord works into the shimmering ether. 

From beginning to end, Binaural is a slow-burning, beautiful album. The band strives for a grander scale. Matt Cameron, who joined after Soundgarden’s dissolution, adds a new layer of depth. Pearl Jam always had great difficulty holding onto drummers. Matt Cameron steadied that ship and has since become their longest-serving stickman.

While Binaural puts its best foot forward, it’s not without its bumpy spots. Mike McCready reasoned in PJ20 that the album came out at a time when people were saying, “Well, maybe we’re over these guys now.” McCready’s candid assertion may have been correct. The rock world had turned its attention to bands such as Limp Bizkit and Korn. Pearl Jam, at this point, was now considered ‘old.’

The volcano of hype that erupted from Seattle had lain dormant for some time before Binaural’s release. Listening to the first exhilarating run of Pearl Jam records, one must remember that they were just five guys from Seattle. They were full of purpose, ambition, and an invincible desire to command an audience and jam as if their lives depended on it.

From this distance, we can also look back at their mid-career and see the growth, struggle, and transition they made from Binaural onward. Those five young guys were now gone; in their place were five men, still deeply passionate about their musical ambitions and galvanised by their will to survive as a unit. It’s a fascinating journey, full of great songs and memorable moments. It was a challenging 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 another great Pearl Jam record. Full of dynamic twists and turns. It rages and soothes. And above all, it kicks like a Jackass.

Essential…!