I’m a recovering Pearl Jam fan.
Well, I’m a recovering Pearl Jam fanatic, I suppose. I got into them around the release of their 2006 self-titled, and then started at (where else but) Ten, and worked my way up. It was the first or second time that I’d used the “come into a band at current album, use online media/reviews/chronology for rest of albums, enjoy” strategy that served me well between 2006 and 2009 before I had real expenses.
What made the process especially fun and easy with Pearl Jam was that by the time I got into them, music culture at large had written them a neat and tidy narrative: they appeared in 1991 and became the biggest band in the world with Ten, followed it up with two more classics (1993’s Vs. and Vitalogy in 1994), before checking out with No Code, the first in a string of four releases (No Code, Yield, Binaural, and Riot Act) that were varying degrees of meh, and then getting back in form with their self-titled. See? Simple.
It also ignores the fact that 90s Pearl Jam was a complicated band that put a lot of thought into its records. Vs., and more transparently Vitalogy and No Code, were all attempts at shirking that “biggest band in the world” status that PJ found themselves with in 1992. Vitalogy‘s a conflicted but compelling mix of anthems and alienation; it houses self-sabotage like this, but arguably the band’s most enduring single, as well. It’s a swirling mess of confusion and despair that mixes far too well to remove Pearl Jam from public consciousness the way frontman Eddie Vedder wanted it to.
Instead, that honor goes to follow-up No Code, which gets my vote for Pearl Jam’s weirdest album. Even duds like Binaural and Riot Act still sound like Pearl Jam, which isn’t always true of No Code. It’s something of a “rebuilding” album: after getting everything dark and ugly out on Vitalogy, No Code is the sound of a band trying to rediscover itself, which isn’t always a share-able process. I remember being fifteen, and completely weirded out at “Sometimes” for its tension without any kind of climax; only Ed Ved in his higher register over clean guitar and quiet instrumentation that meanders instead of builds. Years later, I can appreciate the approach, even if the song still strikes me as an odd opener.
But it really sets the mood for this album. No Code‘s weirdness stems from it being a truly different album for Pearl Jam. It’s the first PJ album where Vedder benches the roar that launched a thousand Creeds; on rocker/single “Hail, Hail” he sings the entire song clear voiced, and other overt rockers “Habit” and “Lukin” play his trademark style low in the mix and exaggerated beyond reason respectively. A lot of the classic rock influence/guitar soloing that dominated the band’s first three albums is gone, as well. Most of the rock songs on No Code strike closer to garage rock than anything else, and Stone Gossard sung “Mankind” drifts into power pop territory.
There’s a difference in tone, too. Calling No Code a personal record wouldn’t be entirely accurate, but the lyrics here are far less concerned with the outside world than those on the band’s first three albums. The band swapped writing about consumerism, police brutality, and homelessness for introspection, troubled relationships, and identity. Lyricism has always been a selling point for Pearl Jam, but Vedder really sets himself to work here. No Code is the first album where his lyrics don’t aim for the heart, but the head; “Present Tense” and “Who You Are” are loaded with affirmations of self and identity, and “I’m Open” is a meditation cum spoken-word. There’s a lot of retrospection here, too, on cuts like “Red Mosquito”, possibly about some of the band’s decisions, “In My Tree” places the narrator away from the world, and “Off He Goes” (the best crafted lyrics on the album) looks at friendships that have been lost. A pretty far cry from “Jeremy”, isn’t it?
The music fits this more mature tone, as well. Several of the songs on No Code use world and Middle Eastern styles of music as an influence (“Who You Are” and “In My Tree” are the most obvious sign posts), and the instrumentation is more sparse overall. “Around the Bend” and “Off He Goes” veer into acoustic country territory. Only “Red Mosquito” approaches Pearl Jam’s typical arena rock sound, the rest of the time, No Code sounds a little scattered.
When the album was released in 1996, scattered could also describe the year for alternative rock as a whole. After an exhaustive string of releases in the past two years, 1996 offered a medley of third and fourth string artists, quiet debuts of artists who would go on to do bigger things (including some Canadian upstarts named Nickelback), and a lot of ska. The year’s few big releases were Beck’s Odelay, Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar, Weezer’s infamous Pinkerton, and Metallica’s (downward) turning point Load. It could be argued that part of No Code‘s bum rep comes from it being a difficult record at a difficult time; it Pearl Jam’s first release that didn’t share record store shelving with brand new Soundgarden or Nirvana.
No Code‘s inconsistent, but breathed some experimentation into the band, and finally gave them the alienation that Eddie Vedder had wanted since 1993. That accomplishment came with plenty of struggles: the album’s recording process was ugly and filled with inner-band strife, none of the singles really took off, the album had the band’s lowest commercial/critical reception at the time, and the tour was loaded with stress (Pearl Jam wouldn’t use Ticketmaster venues or methods of distribution, which limited their options). I’m not going to make any claims that I “got” the album while listening to it for this Feedback, but giving it a few spins in 2013, I’m able to get some perspective on it. At the very least, it’s the soul-searcher that the band was looking for, even if their fans weren’t. Nothing about No Code is easy, but then again, looking for yourself never is.