SOUNDGARDEN – DOWN ON THE UPSIDE (1996)

PEARL JAM – PEARL JAM (2006)

May 2nd, 2006, Pearl Jam released their self-titled eighth album through J Records, a subsidiary of Sony Music. Pearl Jam’s musical trajectory throughout the ’90s and into the early 2000s was never one of least resistance. The searing blast of honest, powerful rock on Ten and Vs gave way to the more reflective, experimental, offbeat Vitalogy and No Code. Yield reclaimed some of the more direct rock flair of old while keeping one toe firmly in the pool of experimentation before the band yet again set sail for unchartered waters with Binaural and Riot Act. “Pearl Jam” (or Avocado, as it’s become known since, due to the bisected fruit adorning the album cover) is arguably the band’s most consistently rocking record since Vs.

There are no pump organ-flecked spoken-word pieces, no ramblings about insects set to an accordion’s wheeze. There are no meandering Eastern-tinged meditations on life, no songs about Jeff Ament’s dog. Instead, we get thirteen tracks as direct and to the point as the band has ever been. The opening five tracks sound like a vicious clarion call—these tightly controlled ragers fizz with a barely contained vigour. “Life Wasted,” “World Wide Suicide,” “Comatose,” “Severed Hand,” and “Marker in the Sand” pile up like a glorious wreck at a demolition derby. The frantic energy gives the record a genuine feeling of urgency right out of the gate and sustains it.

Setting up at Studio X in Seattle, Washington, the band employed producer Adam Kasper, who worked with them on the album’s predecessor, Riot Act. Pearl Jam’s contract with Epic Records had ended in 2003, but they were not ready to release an album without label backing. Independent punk label Epitaph Records was considered, among others. Ultimately, manager Kelly Curtis signed a one-record deal with J Records, which ironically, during the album’s production, became a subsidiary of Sony Music after they merged with J’s parent company BMG, meaning Pearl Jam was effectively back on a parent company of Sony/Epic whom they just left. 

The album was a return to a more evenly spread approach to songwriting. Vedder admitted the band “really went in with nothing.” Instead, they sat around playing music together and discussed the song arrangements. This approach ignited a fire, and in just one week, they had completed ten songs. This approach may have contributed to the immediacy of the record. Gone were any overly complex ruminations; in its place, some straight-up, life-affirming rock n roll—albeit with a political and socially conscious slant.

Opening song “Life Wasted” thrashes in a way few Pearl Jam songs had since Vitalogy. The chorus refrain of “I have faced it, A life wasted, I’m never going back again” (inspired by the death of Johnny Ramone), it quickly becomes apparent the 2006 version of Pearl Jam was more closely channelling the screaming vengeance of Pearl Jam circa 92/93.

“World Wide Suicide” follows; it’s another scorched earth ripper. Stone Gossard and Mike McCready sound fully unleashed, as does Vedder, who delivers a vocal shredding performance. In fact, for most of the album, Vedder sounds as if the world-weariness that predominated his demeanour since the release of Vitalogy had been lifted.

“Comatose” is a two-minute twenty-second storm of punk rock vitality. The band hadn’t sounded this deliciously deranged in years. Channelling an almost hardcore rage mixed with the pop sensibilities of the Ramones, they thrash and burn through every millisecond of the song with a glorious squall of adrenalised punk rock defiance. 

“Severed Hand” begins with the breathing hiss of instruments in reverse before we’re sucked into the song proper. Cameron lays a bed of heavy toms as the band paints big sky atmospheric chords across the rolling percussion. Before long, we’re pulled into a powerful, tight groove. Vedder sounds maniacal, using his darkest lower register to convey a hushed threat, making his rise through his register all the more thrilling as the song unfolds. 

The seasick splendour of “Marker In The Sand” is infectious. Matt Cameron and Jeff Ament’s thundering rhythm section renders a simple three-chord guitar riff punch drunk. It’s a loose, swaggering groove that Vedder takes full advantage of, dropping his white-hot vocals in the perfect rhythmic openings. The chorus relents, giving way to a far more open, straight-ahead jangle of shimmering guitar strums and laid-back sun-kissed groove. It’s the first point on the record that the band take the foot off the gas, and it’s beautiful.  

“Parachutes” is where we hit the breaks on the raging slab of rock. Instead, we’re greeted with an almost polka-plucked acoustic guitar and a Beatles-esque feeling song. It’s dreamy, slightly off-kilter feel acts as a palate clenser for what came before. “Unemployable” sketches an image of a family man who recently lost his job. Musically, it’s whip-smart and instantly infectious. The song’s verse is powerful and catchy, topped off by one of the most beautifully life-affirming choruses the band had created in years.

“Big Wave” returns to the exuberant brilliance of the album’s first half. The song doesn’t contain many lyrical mysteries: It’s about Vedder’s love of surfing as he sings, “I used to be a crustacean in an underwater nation. And I surf in celebration of a billion adaptations. Got me a big wave, ride me a big wave, got me a big wave.”

“Gone,” a stunningly atmospheric acoustic soundscape, ruminates upon the dissolution of the American Dream while searching for an escape from life’s downward spiral, complete with a genuinely uplifting chorus. “Wasted Reprise” is a fifty-second interlude in which Vedder solemnly repeats the chorus of the opening track, “Life Wasted.” 

The jovial bounce of “Army Reserve” is always tinged with an edge of menace, which helps set the stage for the twin closers of “Come Back” and “Inside Job.” The former is a slow-burning cousin to “Black” that finds Pearl Jam tapping into the emotional lightning rod they so easily channelled in their formative years.

On Avocado, Vedder turned his attention to the world at large rather than tortured introspection, directing an eviscerate scream at the state of play.

The album is an invigorating listen because it can be easily enjoyed without digging into Vedder’s lyrics.  It’s an adrenaline rush of great rock songs delivered with visceral intent. 

Song for song, it’s arguably their most consistent set since the heady days of Vitalogy. They sound engaged and purposeful as sparks fly across its thirteen tracks in the most vital ways—the guitar interplay between McCready and Gossard incendiary. Matt Cameron and Jeff Ament are the glue that ties the band together with a swinging, inventive rhythm section, and they all work together to help Vedder soar. The songwriting here sounds fresh, with inspiring dynamics and hooks.

By 2006, Pearl Jam was the last band standing. Their contemporaries had scattered like dust in the wind. Pearl Jam turned their backs on the machine and focused inward. They made some brave decisions along the way, which, in hindsight, saved them.

With Avocado, it felt like they were emerging from that phase of self-protection. The shackles of expectation were off. Despite this record’s energy and velocity, it also showcases more than an “everything turned to eleven” credo. A new level of sophistication is racing through the band’s bloodstream and, at its pumping heart, a joyous love for the power of rock ‘n roll. It’s Pearl Jam’s evolving maturity, gracefulness in ageing, and tightness as a unit in full effect.

Essential…!