WELCOME BACK to Debate Club, the printed equivalent of two puppies unable to share a squeak toy. More than 20 years after their first album, Pearl Jam are about as fossilized as dinosaur bands come. Are they the last survivors of grunge? Or are they Grateful Dead-like classic-rockers, playing to their substantial cult following while remaining essentially irrelevant to the rest of popular culture? And are they any fucking good? Mercury music writers Mark Lore and Ned Lannamann explore their conflicted feelings about the most enduring American rock band to come out of the '90s.
Pearl Jam performs Friday, November 29, at the Moda Center. Dudes in cargo shorts will be in attendance.
NED: So you have mixed feelings about Pearl Jam, but you're excited to see the show. I'm the same way. Why do you think that is?
MARK: I know they're a great live band, so I'm sure it'll be a great rock show. I've never seen them before, but they'll play songs I know, the older stuff.
NED: They do seem like one of those bands that you need to see live at some point in your life. Their new album, though, is not great.
MARK: Lightning Bolt. I listened to it today, and was bored by song four.
NED: Yeah, song four is the worst one. "Sirens"?
MARK: Oh, it's awful.
NED: It's the kind of easy-listening power ballad that Pearl Jam has been threatening to make since day one. Actually, it sounds like the natural but unwelcome progression from all of Eddie Vedder's soundtrack stuff, like Into the Wild, and things like that.
MARK: Yeah, I think that experience rubbed off on a lot of this album. Not just that song.
NED: The question I kept having, though, is that I had heard from people that Lightning Bolt is a "bad" Pearl Jam album. But how can you tell? It just sounds like all their other stuff.
MARK: I've heard the opposite. I've heard people say it's a good Pearl Jam album, from people who are not necessarily avid Pearl Jam fans. But I guarantee it's because they haven't listened to the last five or six of them.
NED: There was another relatively recent one that was lambasted. The one with the avocado? If they play a lot of new songs, I'll be bummed.
MARK: The cool thing about Pearl Jam, and this may be part of why we both want to see them, is that their setlist could be anybody's guess.
NED: Yeah, they could play B-sides that no one's ever heard before, and they'll probably cover the Who at some point.... They have a good live reputation, I guess, is what we're saying.
MARK: I think that's why they've survived as long as they have. Their history is interesting. I did watch the documentary Pearl Jam Twenty, and enjoyed it.
NED: Oh, I hated it. Entirely because of Cameron Crowe. He was so slavishly fanboy-ish, and I guess that's sort of his deal, but in this movie it was overbearing. His whole spiel of "Pearl Jam is the most important thing to happen to rock 'n' roll since 1972," or some shit.
MARK: It did reinforce the things I do like about Pearl Jam, though. There was a sincerity to the whole thing. I'm usually a good bullshit detector, and I think their hearts are in the right place.
NED: I guess I wanted a little bit more analysis—like, here's why they stood out from the pack in the early '90s and how they stayed consistent over the years. There was some of that, but also way too much hero worship. It wasn't objective. And there are those shots of Eddie Vedder sitting by the campfire speaking platitudes. Ugh. I have to say, though, all the stuff about the early years, with Mother Love Bone and the Seattle scene before the grunge explosion, was fascinating. The Mother Love Bone story almost makes Pearl Jam look inconsequential by comparison. There's the cultural movement that was getting underway, and Mother Love Bone was the connective tissue between what came before and what came later; that band was at the top of the ladder for the shift that was happening. And then disaster struck, and when Pearl Jam came in to pick up the pieces, they were not at all interested in being a part of that cultural movement. Yet they became huge anyway.
MARK: It's interesting that Pearl Jam formed by accident, after Andrew Wood [Mother Love Bone's singer] died. The result was a very different band.
NED: I guess the question is, are they a better band? No one can answer that. Pearl Jam was, for better or worse, the go-to meat-and-potatoes rock band throughout the '90s. I was looking through my CDs and was shocked to discover how many Pearl Jam albums I owned.
MARK: They're like AC/DC. All you need are three albums or so, and you don't need to own anything else.
NED: I think their best album is the one where they're Neil Young's backing band. Mirror Ball. But in your mind, which are the three Pearl Jam albums that one needs to own? Surely Ten has to be one of them.
MARK: No, I don't like Ten at all. It's from the time of Soundgarden and the Melvins, and it just sounds stately and boring to me. My three Pearl Jam albums would be, in order, Vitalogy, Yield, and Vs.
NED: Are those their three hardest-sounding albums? Despite owning multiple albums I feel like I can't make that assessment.
MARK: They might be. Vitalogy is probably their hardest. Yield is more of a classic-rock album.
NED: Vitalogy was their third album, and at the time it came out, I was already over Pearl Jam. I liked Ten as a kid, and I had liked Vs. for a little while, but then I traded the CD—along with the Duran Duran album with "Ordinary World" on it—to a friend for a small practice amp, which I still have. Best trade I've ever made.
MARK: So you gave up on Pearl Jam before Vitalogy?
NED: Yeah, and that was the album that I remember all the jocks getting on board for. I have specific memories of bros singing "Better Man" around in school, and stuff like that.
MARK: Well, I didn't like Pearl Jam at all up until Vitalogy. I worked at a music store, so it was just unavoidable. I liked "Spin the Black Circle," and as I got into it, there were, like, five songs in a row that were really good. "Tremor Christ," "Not for You," and so on.
NED: There's some real garbage on it, though. There's that awful one-minute jam thing ("Pry, To") and that unlistenable "Bugs" song. Shit like that.
MARK: Oh, shit like that is why I do like Vitalogy. The weird little interludes. It makes it a little quirkier and not as strait-laced as Ten.
NED: What about a song like "Better Man," which kind of points the way to Pearl Jam's future? It's simple and sort of pretty, like it was designed to have 15,000 people in an arena singing along. Do you like that song at all?
MARK: Not particularly. They've probably made 10 versions of that song since then.
NED: Yeah, it seems like the sort of mid-tempo song that veers into ballad territory is Pearl Jam's real bread and butter. "Yellow Ledbetter," "Daughter," "Elderly Woman Behind the Register"—whatever that song is called. Those are the ones that have the most mileage.
MARK: "Corduroy" is a good song, too. Great sound, great riff... you don't like it?
NED: No. And this is true on their new album, too, in that the melody in the chorus is sort of poppy and dumb. If they actually went for it and made a real pop song out of it, it could be great. But they're still playing these dark chords in the intro and trying to be all heavy and "raawwwrr." And then there's this dippy melody in the chorus. It doesn't click for me. But I think that's why they have so many fans: They have this pop element that's difficult to deny, and then they have this tougher element—not that they're at all tough, compared to other bands—that lets the casual fan feel comfortable listening to them. It's still loud and rocking, and the guitars have crunch to them, so no one's gonna feel like a wuss listening to them. They're right in the middle.
MARK: You've got Soundgarden, who are psychedelic, and a little bit Black Sabbath-y, and kind of proggy. And then you have Nirvana, which is just ugly-ass punk—with hooks, obviously. And Pearl Jam had one foot in classic rock and one foot in punk rock. I think that's why I didn't like them for a while. With the other bands, you knew exactly what you were getting, but Pearl Jam didn't have as much of an identity.
NED: Vitalogy was a kind of fuck-you to the fans, with all those weird interludes. And Vs. was pretty different from Ten as well. A big part of their '90s identity was that they weren't comfortable with their own fame, with Eddie Vedder embodying the cliché of the reluctant rock star.
MARK: That's the big difference between Pearl Jam then and Pearl Jam now. They're not doing those kind of fuck-yous anymore. They're playing 100 percent to the fans, giving them stuff they'll like. That edge is gone.
NED: I wonder if they're still accumulating new fans. I have to imagine that every person in the Rose Garden [he means "Moda Center"] on Friday will be someone who started liking Pearl Jam in 1992 and just never stopped. And that they haven't acquired a single new fan since then.
MARK: Well, but there was the "Last Kiss" single in 1999. That got to number two; it's the biggest single of their career.
NED: Oh yeah. I remember liking that. It really stood out on the radio at the time, because I firmly believe that 1999 was the single worst year for music in history. But that's a topic for another conversation.
MARK: That's around the same time as Yield, which is another one of their better albums.
NED: Sure. "Faithfull" is probably the best song they ever did.
MARK: And "Do the Evolution" is on there as well.
NED: That's right. You know, I'm not sure if I like their fast, punky stuff that much. It just seems like other bands can do it better. "Faithfull," on the other hand, has that sort of midtempo classic-rock feel, which really plays to their strengths.
MARK: Yield was also in the middle of that terrible time for rock, when all those awful bands that took their cues from Pearl Jam were all over the radio. Pearl Jam paved the way for a lot of really bad music.
NED: Oh god, you're right. Creed and Staind and those terrible, terrible bands. Pearl Jam has a lot to answer for in regard to that shitty rock of the '90s. It's Eddie Vedder's voice, really, that was the main influence.
MARK: Yeah, and that fake-ass earnestness. You know, in the short minute since we started talking about that, I've completely turned. I loved Pearl Jam earlier in this conversation, and now I fucking hate 'em. And in a little while I'll probably love 'em again. And I'll go see that show.