Fuck, I hate Pearl Jam. Eddie Vedder with his weapons-grade laryngitis – making enough bad music himself but having undue influence on the awful Nu-Metal Years where the Creeds and Stainds of that world gargled marbles and spat out cliches. Bleurgh!
But, it wasn’t always that way. Sure, we had a few chats about Nirvana and Pearl Jam being the 90s version of the Beatles/Rolling Stones conversation, because this was before Blur and Oasis. And yes, I was Team Nirvana all the way, or at least until April of 1994. But back when Pearl Jam released its first two albums, and this Unplugged concert – which arrived right in the middle – I didn’t think they were shit. I really loved them actually. I had the first album with a bonus five-track cassette-tape EP. And I had a huge blue Volvo with 200,000+ kms on its clock. And it could drive through walls. Like some urban assault vehicle. Like a mighty fucking tank. And if I had a few too many beers – only once or twice – I could put it on autopilot and it would mostly miss the walls as it arrived back up the driveway. And I was still alive. And Pearl Jam’s song that said as much was either blasting from the speakers or ringing in my ears; wringing from my ears…
There are about 2,500 Pearl Jam live albums – all these silly official bootlegs of the same songs over and over and over and the thing more frightening than Pearl Jam’s eventual mediocrity was always the rabid fan-base. Girls that also loved Ben Harper. Guys that thought it was as important as any classic rock and better than a lot. Collectors buying those cardboard-sleeve rip-off concert bootlegs. Fuck those fans! And fuck that band.
But what’s this? They’ve just released the Unplugged album officially as audio – finally?
Even better, they haven’t tried to “fix” it. So there’s some messy bleeds and murkiness and that occasionally over-zealous but extraordinarily colourful drumming from the best drummist they ever had is never not-great but sometimes it does blur in under the acoustic guitar lines.
Also – for all my attacking of Vedder as a poison-throated singing-influencer, he nearly stole the fucking show at a Sting and Peter Gabriel gig I attended (STING! AND PETER GABRIEL!) he is in spectacular voice here, right from opener, Oceans, his wee poem he wrote about surfing (“a little love song I wrote about my surfboard”). The guitars frame the voice, the drums are malleted punctuation with cymbals crashing like waves. And it’s all very dramatic and just a tiny bit twee. But it was second-coming stuff at the time. And now, its actual second-coming – since it was only ever available as video footage for so long – it is such a reminder of the time and place. It is the very best of nostalgic music.
Next up is State of Love and Trust (which appeared on the Singles soundtrack) a straight-ahead pop-rock song, arriving like a whiff of 90s rock radio.
But it’s on Alive, the centerpiece of the band’s debut album that the Unplugged gig really gets properly going and really makes (proper) sense as a spiritual reckoning for me and many from my generation. Here is everything this band did well, and yes it’s dated beyond belief, but this is the snapshot of that time – not a bunch of 50somethings pretending to be in their 20s, actually a bunch of young kids in their 20s giving us the music we craved at the time. Dave Abbruzzese is so crucial to this sound, this version of the band, his splash cymbals and the wildness of where he places the bass drum. He gives them something they didn’t have either side of his efforts – something very improvisatory; he’s reacting to the songs as he’s hearing them, sculpting while playing.
Alive also features the thrill of a classic old-school stadium-rock guitar-solo deep inside what felt, at the time, like an indie/grunge song by an “alternative” band.
Black, Jeremy, Even Flow and Porch follow – all strong selections from that debut record, Ten. All songs we sang at parties and heard in our heads as we sat bored during maths or joked and sang out loud, “Jeremy spoke in class today”, when the kid named Jeremy, erm, spoke, in class, on, um, that day…
Black is a terrible cliché of white-whines to hear in 2020 but in 1991 and 1992 and even through the 1990s there was something so beautiful about lines like “I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life/I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky, but why can’t it be mine?” I mean, basically, lol. Right? But when you’re 14 or 15 it’s the poetry you aspire to.
And even better is the Doo-do-de-do-doo payoff. As the vocals and the guitar line merge. That’s the real poetry of the situation actually.
It allows lines like “And now my bitter hands chafe beneath the clouds/Of what was everything” to exist. To be wholeheartedly absurd and frankly fucking ludicrous. But still attached to the tune you wanted to croon to.
Look, I have no answers for why I am open to hearing this again – nor exactly why I closed the door on it some 25 years ago. But I’m here now. And so is it. And I needed this music in my life at the time. And I’m happy being reminded of that.
The bass line that opens Even Flow feels like a creaking door opening to my past. The hits on the toms are the footsteps down the corridor and back to my teenage years. I can close that door whenever I like. But for right now I’m enjoying looking around. Dog-eared pictures on walls, hand-scribbled lyrics from favourite songs, my own attempts at poetry, overwrought and untrue. But it mattered then. God how it mattered. And to hear this again now was like a phone call from an old friend. We’d lost touch. But we remembered each other. We cared enough to sit on the call. To hold the line. Holding it tight for the moments while it lasted.
All of that and a big blue fucking Volvo.
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