Reconcilable Differences: Unity and Division via Pearl Jam’s Gigaton
If I may, may I (if necessary) reintroduce you to Pearl Jam who just released their 11th record, Gigaton. You can take Pearl Jam’s pulse by the political climate and their prior record, 2013’s Lightning Bolt, captured the band more or less at repose. The band had just passed the 20-year mark. Obama had won his landslide reelection, the Democratic party was ascendant. Conservatives and Republicans alike were wringing their hands because Progressive ideals seemed an unstoppable juggernaut. Apparently a whole hell of a lot happened in the seven years between because Gigaton, which (finally) dropped in April 2020, comes across more like dynamite.
I say “finally” as a fan. Pearl Jam is my lodestar band. When they announce a new record, I hand them my money, get the good headphones out, and spend an hour catching up with old friends. That first hour or so is about the sound, of which words are a component, but are so as one piece of a sonic whole. All that is to say, an objective piece of criticism this is not. This isn’t an album review, it’s a grappling with the next chapter in a story that is 30 years long.First off, it’s named for the unit of measurement large enough to record melting polar ice. Gigaton wears doom on the album sleeve.
Pop music is a weird concoction. Infectious sounds bundled with all sorts of strange and unusual declarations. Sound and text, pathos and ethos. I grew up in the hangover of the Moral Majority. In a time when Tipper Gore and everybody else over 40 thought pop music was weapons-grade propaganda Trojan-horsing unseemly ideals into the impressionable minds of an American youth like me. But you know why I think the Trojans opened up the gates for that horse? Because they thought it looked cool.
When you listen to a pop song, you’re stepping into a wedding between the ephemeral and the concrete. Pitch and timbre swirl around the right hemisphere of your brain. Sound colliding and collapsing, tension and eruption. Every culture on earth has made music. There’s something universal in the way organized sound stirs our hearts. But then the left hemisphere of your brain digs into words. Paeans of love and joy and loss and sadness. Declarations of anger and activism both moral and im-. Every culture on earth has also made words, but words are different. More fractious. I don’t think anyone ever went to war over a melody, but the right guy gives the wrong speech and it’s “man the battlements.” Now pick a side. But how do you pick between the two halves of your own brain?
So here’s the outside of the Trojan horse. Sonically, Gigaton reminds me of 2000’s Binaural. Back then, Pearl Jam was coming off a roller coaster: exploding to an intolerable level of fame, reacting in fury against it, retreating and shedding Relevancy like a skin that had caught on fire while nearly imploding as a band, and re-emerging ready to be a rock-and-roll band again minus the crush of attention and expectation. After all that, Binaural was Pearl Jam trying to figure out what else they could sound like besides Pearl Jam™. Gigaton catches Pearl Jam in a similar mood of aural experiments. The arena-sized punk roots still come out to play first but I was surprised to hear drum machines and other electronica swirling in the mix. First heard on the lead single “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” a heavy 80s/Stranger Things vibe surfaces often. A nice surprise.
If there’s anything I’m listening for most in a Pearl Jam record, it’s the four-armed Garmadon attack of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard’s guitars. Gigaton finds McCready laying down guitar leads tending to veer from what he’s put on record before, which is saying something for a guy who’s been at it 30-plus years. All told, Gigaton sounds invigorated. My favorite musicians doing what they do best and simultaneously working to break their own mold. Case in point: “Quick Escape,” the clean-up hitter in the lineup. With a guitar hook that blares like an alarm klaxon and a bass line that thuds around like a ten-ton robot, the song is a glorious monster on an unwanted trip to Mars and kind of mad about it. The third verse has been stuck in my head since the first listen: “Here we are the red planet; Craters across the skyline; A sleep sack in a bivuoac; And a Kerouac sense of time.” I love how those lines evoke disorientation and unreality, and they give way to a musical outro that, if we ever get to have concerts again, I hope the live version gets stretched out until all the tubes in the amps explode.
That’s the pathos. The pure pathos anyway, the strings and the drums. So, where is Gigaton, ethos-wise? I would say it’s a troubled record. First off, it’s named for the unit of measurement large enough to record melting polar ice. Gigaton wears doom on the album sleeve.
As I said before, you can take Pearl Jam’s pulse by the political climate, and let’s just say the Trump years are no Obama years. And while you can read anger and determination in Gigaton, Vedder’s lyrics repeatedly belie something else. A bewildered ache. A sense of, “How did we get here?” Given his love of surfing, he understandably uses water imagery throughout. But he’s not riding the waves anymore. He’s swimming in an undertow (a word he uses in two different songs, elsewhere referencing a river that suddenly turns and widens before he can reach the far shore). Vedder had a world in view, one he had been laboring toward, and seemingly in the blink of an eye either he or it got swept away and now he’s back out at sea and tired. While turning his words continually to resolve, there’s no denying that Vedder’s taken a punch to the gut.
I can relate. Like Vedder, I have in my heart a deep sense of elapsing. It invigorates a grasping and clawing urge to get back to somewhere safe. Way back when it all first went to hell, back in the Garden, the most dire consequence of Adam and Eve’s rebellion was death, but a close second was exile. And there’s a part of the story that often gets omitted. Once Adam and Eve packed up and left, God put a cherubim at the edge of Eden with a flaming sword to guard the way back to the tree of life. You can’t go home again. Not that way.
I’m not scoffing at Vedder for getting burned on his way back to Eden. I’m saying I have been, too. On more than one occasion and on more than one route. I know that feeling of touching mud on that far shore only to find myself suddenly back out to sea. There’s a broken heart in Gigaton that I recognize all too well.
Still, if there’s anyone in the band I bicker with, it’s Eddie Vedder. It’s usually his words inside the Trojan horse, and our sacred cows are just out to different pastures sometimes. I’ll listen to him as long as he keeps singing. It can get fraught, though.
Circling back to “Quick Escape” illuminates things. As already entered into evidence, I love the song. And right in the middle there’s a line, a forked train of thought where Vedder and I diverge pretty sharply. The unplanned trip to Mars happens because Earth becomes uninhabitable. Before leaving the planet, the narrator travels the world and laments, “The lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t f—ed up yet.” The difference between me and Eddie Vedder on this point is the difference between “Trump” and “we.”
In Vedder’s lyric, the at-fault party in the destruction of the earth is their party. If you ask me, though, the destruction of the earth has roots in exploitation that go way, way back. Our entire industrialized and then digitized economy is fat on the fruit of that tree. Every party has benefited from it. His, mine, yours, theirs. We are all complicit (a point actually made on the Gossard-penned “Buckle Up”).
One-sided fault veers off into a brittle “us vs. them” spirit. There’s “us.” We realized the climate situation and are trying to turn things around. But “them” bullied and smeared himself into power only to take the leash off big business so it could burn toxic sludge until our geese were all thoroughly cooked. Even if there are nuggets of truth in the narrative, they’re cloaked in self-righteousness and a lack of humility that smothers any power the truth might have had to be productive. I don’t believe anything that calls itself progress if it acts like one-sided power. Vedder can say Trump messed it all up, and it’s punchy and it’s political and it alienates half the polis. In doing so, Vedder actually becomes part of the rhetorical tapestry that gives Trumpism such power. “See that Eddie Vedder? That liberal elite? He hates us. Well, we hate him. He’s preaching about climate change? Ha. Let’s gut the EPA.”
“Quick Escape” has a sonic and even lyrical landscape that I really like, but there’s a core idea in it that I bristle at. That I would call dangerous precisely because it leads down to the same sludge Trumpism crawls out of. Yet I listen to the song on repeat. The Trojan horse lives in my house.
I’ve been on a musical journey with Pearl Jam for nearly half my life now and ours has been a story of unity and division. I don’t take it lightly Pearl Jam and I are deeply moved by the same kinds of sounds. I weigh all guitar-driven music against Stone and Mike. I’ll never love a singing voice more than I love Eddie Vedder’s on the run of albums from Vitalogy to Riot Act. Sometimes he sings and I am in the moment with him like he’s singing my own thoughts. Other times I’m across the table saying, “No, no, no, can’t you see?” You step out of the present tense, though, and you can see division floats on the surface of unity. It isn’t war all the way down.
The reason I’ll always keep listening is the reason I think music is so magical. By uniting words and melody, pop music brings together a universal thing that binds us together and a fractious thing that can become a rift. It’s a minor miracle to hold both things at once, unity and division. It’s deeply human in the best and saddest ways. People, like the hemispheres of our brains, are divided but also inseparable. Pearl Jam and I are in this, our only world together, and we have been made to delight in its surprises. Like the way wood and metal strings and electricity come together to make loud guitar music. Our trains of thought may diverge, but this shared joy is a constant reminder that unity and division can exist together, albeit in tension. Beneath whatever may seem (and even be) amiss in the ethos there’s this sound. It moved us both and that’s a start.
1. I mean, they’re not literally friends as I’ve never met them. So, yeah, you can deconstruct this whole “old friends” thing, but I don’t want to. I am deeply thankful for this band and thankfulness, I think, is a form of love which is the basis of any kind of friendship, one-sided or otherwise.
2. I avoid all singles ahead of time so I can take in the album as a whole.
3. Yes, as in formerly married to Al Gore. Funny that what could unite the right and left would be using their power to antihistamize an allergy to kids hearing naughty lyrics.
4. Ten  and Vs 
5. Vitalogy 
6. No code . “No code” being EMT-speak for “do not resuscitate” since the band was ready to burn their reputation to the ground.
7. Yield 
8. Not that drum machines are completely unprecedented, but the last time they surfaced in a Pearl Jam song, they were running guitar chords through them. Which sounded really cool. “You Are.”
9. Which vibe being one of the sounds that so many 90s bands were reacting loudly against, so it’s just funny that it would show up in a Pearl Jam song of all places.
10. And whatever other sonic reagents get tossed in the brew in the recording studio.
11. The last time Pearl Jam was creating in a social climate so averse to their leanings, they blistered through an incredible tour and retreated just long enough to produce Riot Act, a record brimming with fury and a grieving weariness. The fury was 100% political (Bush/Cheney/Rove/Afghanistan/Iraq/etc.), but the grief was more personal, stemming from the tragic deaths of nine people in the front row during Pearl Jam’s set at a music festival in Roskilde, Denmark.
12. Cf. Ten’s album closer “Release,” Backspacer’s “Amongst the Waves,” Avocado’s “Big Wave,” et al.