Pearl Jam, “Gigaton” (Monkeywrench Records)
When Pearl Jam released “Dance of the Clairvoyants” as the first single off their new album “Gigaton” in January, it left a lot of folks up in arms. Was this overtly electronic track a hint of what’s to come? Gee, it sure sounded new wave-y. Would the new record be a massive sonic departure for Pearl Jam – a band which has rarely strayed from the traditional instrumentation of a five-piece hard rock act? And how would this all work in a live setting? Would there be synths all over the stage? And more importantly, would we actually see Eddie Vedder (gasp!) DANCE???
In a word – no.
“Dance of the Clairvoyants” was a massive false alarm and one of the reddest herrings any band has released in recent years. Truth is, “Gigaton” is a fairly run-of-the-mill Pearl Jam record. That is not to say it’s not a good record, but any ideas about them suddenly turning into Seattle’s answer to Depeche Mode have been soundly squashed by its contents.
But you can’t blame anyone for wondering. After all, this is the first Pearl Jam record since 2013’s somewhat forgettable “Lightning Bolt.” After a hiatus of seven years it was anyone’s guess what the new record would sound like.
Turns out it sounds a whole lot like a lot of other late-period Pearl Jam records. It’s got a few fast rockers (“Who Ever Said” and “Never Destination”), a noisy punky one (“Superblood Wolfmoon”), an acoustic Vedder piece (“Comes Then Goes”) and a handful of mid-tempo rock tracks that sound like they could appear on any post-“Vitalogy” Pearl Jam record.
Now it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have your own sound and to revisit it regularly – hell, AC/DC has essentially recorded variants on the same album for 40-plus years and nobody seems to mind – but in Pearl Jam’s case, one can’t help but wonder why – since they are sticking to old formulas – they wouldn’t opt to revisit their early days, when melody actually seemed to matter to them?
In case anyone needs a refresher, their debut album, 1991’s “Ten,” was a treasure chest of monstrous guitar riffs paired with Vedder’s trademark baritone, all tied together perfectly by a never-ending string of majestic, grungy melodies. The band has been vocal about their distaste for the reverb-heavy production on that record, but that aside, the fact remains: The quality of that group of songs has yet to be matched on any Pearl Jam record since … including “Gigaton.”
These days the roaring riffs and anthemic choruses have been traded in for choppy, overdriven guitar parts, with vocal melodies that take five or six listens to etch themselves into your head. Much of this can likely be blamed on the fact that rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard, who was the main musical force behind much of the early material, has taken a backseat in the writing, with his name only appearing as the sole writer of one song on the record – the enjoyably laid back, triplet-filled, Dave Matthews-esque “Buckle Up.”
But despite falling short in some areas, “Gigaton” still makes for an enjoying listening experience. The first four songs out of the gate are each fun rides in different directions, with all three of the album’s singles (“Superblood Wolfmoon”, “Dance of the Clairvoyants” and “Quick Escape”) showing up in sequence after the buzzing lead track “Who Ever Said.”
The energy level seems to wane a touch as it heads toward the back of the record, but the midsection bounces along nicely at times, especially on “Take the Long Way,” which features a tight chorus soaring with overdubs that come to form a vocal collage and one of the best guitar solos on the record.
Things slow considerably for the final quarter of the record, meandering through to the final track “River Cross,” an almost funereal dirge heavily draped in pump organ and Matt Cameron’s sparse drum work that at times channels Phil Collins before fading out and bringing “Gigaton” to a close.
Ultimately “Gigaton” feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Though we get the feeling “Dance of the Clairvoyants” may have been a one-off experiment – or maybe even a little joke to spook the diehard fans – the fact remains that it is easily the most interesting and enjoyable track on the record. Maybe a full album of riskier tracks would have been a worthwhile experiment. Hopefully it won’t take another seven years for them to try it.