Having inked a deal with PolyGram, Mother Love Bone promised great things, but Wood tragically died prematurely from a drug overdose and the band folded before their lone, critically acclaims album, Apple, was released in 1990. Devastated by Wood’s loss, Gossard began jamming with fellow Seattle guitarist Mike McCready, who encouraged Ament back into the fold. Mutual friend and ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons declined an invitation to join their new band, but he passed the fledgling trio’s first demo to vocalist and basketball buddy Eddie Vedder (birth name Edward Louis Severson III) who was then working in a gas station in San Diego, California.
Digging what he heard, Vedder composed early versions of key Pearl Jam tunes ‘Alive’, ‘Once’ and ‘Footsteps’. Suitably impressed, Ament, Gossard and McCready flew Vedder to Seattle for an audition, after which the new band’s line-up was completed with the addition of drummer Dave Krusen. The quintet initially played live as Mookie Blaylock (the real name of a favourite New Jersey Nets basketball player), but by the time they signed to Epic, they’d become Pearl Jam: the name reputedly (but actually erroneously) attributed to a peyote-based hallucinogenic preserve supposedly prepared by Vedder’s great-grandmother, Pearl.
Minus Krusen, Pearl Jam’s first proper studio session was with Soundgarden duo Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron, where they cut a self-titled album as Temple Of The Dog for A&M in tribute to the late Andrew Wood. As Pearl Jam, however, the band recorded their fully-fledged debut, Ten, in March 1991, with Alice In Chains/Blind Melon producer Rick Parashar manning the console.
Released in August ’91, Ten was a dark, anthemic rock record which introduced the wider world to the unforgettable sound of Vedder’s charismatic, honey’n’gravel-soaked growl. Capturing the mood of the times, his lyrics mostly dealt with disaffection and social dysfunction, with ‘Even Flow’ dealing with homelessness and the dramatic ‘Jeremy’ reputedly inspired by a true story in which a high school student shot himself in front of his classmates.
Ten initially sold slowly, but when the band’s reputation as an unmissable live act kicked in after they supported Red Hot Chili Peppers in the US during the autumn of ’91, the album gradually went gold and kept right on selling. It peaked at No.2 on the US Billboard chart in 1992, eventually going on to sell a phenomenal 13 million copies worldwide.
With Dave Abbruzzese replacing Krusen behind the kit, Pearl Jam toured Ten relentlessly across 1992. However, while the Seattle quintet quickly established themselves as one of the rock acts mostly likely to storm the mainstream, they were uneasy about some of the music industry’s standard promotional practices, later refusing to release Ten’s emotional centre-piece ‘Black’ as a single (or make a video for it) and insisting on scaling back their interviews.
The band’s anti-establishment stance ensured they again refused to make promotional films for the songs on their second album, Vs, released in October 1993. Commercially, it made little difference: Vs sold over a million copies during its first week of release and topped the Billboard 200 for five weeks. Overseen by producer Brendan O’Brien (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots), Vs significantly broadened Pearl Jam’s sonic palette, taking in everything from raw, feral punk (‘Go’, ‘Rats’), motorik funk (‘Animal’) and even wracked acoustic ballads such as ‘Daughter’ and ‘Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town’.
Like its predecessor, Vs sold in droves, eventually moving around seven million copies, but the next couple of years were a rollercoaster ride for Pearl Jam. Always admirably keen to keep concert ticket prices down for their fans, the band locked horns with music ticket colossus Ticketmaster across 1994, yet their attempt to play shows in non-Ticketmaster-controlled outdoor venues failed and they were forced to cancel that summer’s proposed US tour. There were personnel problems behind the scenes, too, with drummer Abbruzzese fired and replaced by Jack Irons after recording Pearl Jam’s third album, Vitalogy.
Initially released solely on vinyl in November 1994 (it emerged on CD and cassette two weeks later), Vitalogy was abrasive, grunge-y and highly eclectic, embracing everything from raw, frenetic punk (pro-vinyl anthem ‘Spin The Black Circle’) to Tom Waits-esque blues (the accordion-led ‘Bugs’) and the peculiar, mantra-esque funk of ‘Aye Davanita’. The experimentation was, however, balanced out by the inclusion of several of Pearl Jam’s most enduring tracks, such as ‘Corduroy’, the radio-friendly ‘Better Man’ and the haunting, anguished ‘Immortality’ – the latter reputedly a tribute to the then recently deceased Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
Despite its relatively left-field content, Vitalogy came close to repeating the success of Vs, quickly selling over a million copies in the US and earning multi-platinum certification. Pearl Jam toured Asia, Oceania and the US during 1995 to support the album’s release, and also realised a collective dream when they performed as Neil Young’s backing group on his gold-selling album Mirror Ball: a loud, aggressive record featuring long, Crazy Horse-esque tunes which was created spontaneously in the studio over just a few days.
Released in August 1996, Pearl Jam’s fourth album, No Code, was a transitional affair, mixing pent-up garage-rock (‘Hail Hail’) with world music influences (‘Who You Are’, ‘In My Tree’) and elegant acoustic flourishes such as Vedder’s moving ‘Off He Goes’. It was, however, largely well received by the critics (Rolling Stone’s David Fricke proclaimed, “No Code basically means no rule books, no limits and above all, no fear”) and it again topped the Billboard 200.
Welcomed as a return to their original anthemic rock sound, 1998’s Yield was trailed by one of Pearl Jam’s most enduring, radio-friendly singles, ‘Given To Fly’, which also provided Vedder and company with a US Top 30 hit and Top 20 success in the UK. The band had permitted several singles to be released from No Code and their stance towards promotional duties continued to soften with the release of Yield, for which they even consented to commission comic book artist Todd McFarlane to produce the Marvel-influenced promo video for the album’s fourth single, ‘Do The Evolution’.
Yield peaked at No.2 in the US and the album’s hugely successful US tour during the summer of 1998 was facilitated by the band’s decision to again work directly with the Ticketmaster agency. A celebratory live album, Live On Two Legs, appeared in November 1998, while in 1999 the band’s emotive cover of Wayne Cochran’s 1961 ballad ‘Last Kiss’ gave Pearl Jam their biggest single success, peaking at No.2 on the Billboard singles chart. The song also featured on the compilation No Boundaries and the band donated the proceeds to refugees of the Balkan civil war in Kosovo.
With ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron replacing Jack Irons, Pearl Jam cut their sixth LP, Binaural, in 2000. The record’s title referred to new producer Tchad Blake’s adoption of the binaural recording technique, wherein two microphones are used simultaneously to try and simulate the experience of being in the room with the band. Lyrically, this dark, brooding album frequently railed against injustice, with tracks such as Vedder’s ‘Grievance’ inspired by the anti-corporate World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 and Gossard’s ‘Rival’ based on the Columbine High School massacre.
Going gold, Binaural peaked at No.2 on the Billboard 200 and, in support, the band embarked on lengthy tours of Europe and North America. Having long since held a relaxed view of fans bootlegging their shows, Pearl Jam began recording their gigs professionally across 2000-01 and subsequently issued a Grateful Dead-esque series of official live albums available through both record stores and the band’s fan club. The group eventually released 72 live albums during this period and set a record for the most albums to debut on the Billboard 200 at the same time.
Both the European and US legs of the tour were well received, though tragedy struck when nine fans suffocated to death during the band’s set at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival in 2000. Devastated by the experience, Pearl Jam considered splitting up, but eventually poured their emotions into the making of their next album, 2002’s Riot Act. Perhaps inevitably, ruminations on death loomed large in the record’s lyrics, though the album included some of the band’s most sublime material, courtesy of the folksy ‘I Am Mine’, the Beatles-y psychedelia of ‘Love Boat Captain’ and the looming art-rock of ‘Save You’.
Having concluded their Epic contract with the self-explanatory anthology set Rearviewmirror (Greatest Hits 1991-2003), Pearl Jam initially opted to self-release new records, including ‘Man Of The Hour’, a single issued in partnership with Amazon, and rarities collection Lost Dogs. Eventually, however, they signed a short-term deal with Sony subsidiary J Records for 2006’s long-awaited Pearl Jam, an exhilarating hard rock album which Rolling Stone cogently declared was “as big and brash in fuzz and backbone as Led Zeppelin’s Presence”. With the band’s loyal fanbase in wholehearted agreement, Pearl Jam debuted at No.2 on the Billboard 200 and climbed to No.5 in the UK, where the band also headlined the prestigious Leeds and Reading Festivals in 2006.
Pearl Jam’s ongoing resurgence continued with the release of 2009’s Backspacer, released through the band’s own label, Monkeywrench, via Universal Music Group. By some way Vedder and the team’s most uplifting and life-affirming set of songs to date, the album found producer Brendan O’Brien returning to the control room for the first time since 1998’s Yield, and the record delivered 11 songs in an exhilarating, brevity-fuelled 36 minutes. Ranging from the swaggering ‘Gonna See My Friend’ to the nervy, Elvis Costello-esque new wave of ‘Johnny Guitar’ and the heart-melting acoustic love song ‘Just Breathe’, Backspacer captured Pearl Jam on superlative form and it rewarded them with their first US No.1 since ‘96’s No Code.
Arriving in the wake of director Cameron Crowe’s acclaimed Pearl Jam Twenty documentary, hotly-anticipated tenth album, Lightning Bolt, continued the band’s renaissance. In many ways the logical extension of Backspacer, it was a tad darker in hue, yet every bit as accessible, with the muscular ‘Getaway’, soaring ‘Yellow Moon’ and shape-throwing, Who-esque titular song all up there with the very best in the band’s illustrious canon. Confidently becoming Pearl Jam’s fifth US No.1 album, the consistent quality of its content suggests that the best may be yet to come from this most formidable of rock’n’roll institutions.
Nirvana's Nevermind may have been the album that broke grunge and alternative rock into the mainstream, but there's no underestimating the role that Pearl Jam's Ten played in keeping them there. Nirvana's appeal may have been huge, but it wasn't universal; rock radio still viewed them as too raw and punky, and some hard rock fans dismissed them as weird misfits. In retrospect, it's easy to see why Pearl Jam clicked with a mass audience -- they weren't as metallic as Alice in Chains or Soundgarden, and of Seattle's Big Four, their sound owed the greatest debt to classic rock. With its intricately arranged guitar textures and expansive harmonic vocabulary, Ten especially recalled Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. But those touchstones might not have been immediately apparent, since -- aside from Mike McCready's Clapton/Hendrix-style leads -- every trace of blues influence has been completely stripped from the band's sound. Though they rock hard, Pearl Jam is too anti-star to swagger, too self-aware to puncture the album's air of gravity. Pearl Jam tackles weighty topics -- abortion, homelessness, childhood traumas, gun violence, rigorous introspection -- with an earnest zeal unmatched since mid-'80s U2, whose anthemic sound they frequently strive for. Similarly, Eddie Vedder's impressionistic lyrics often make their greatest impact through the passionate commitment of his delivery rather than concrete meaning. His voice had a highly distinctive timbre that perfectly fit the album's warm, rich sound, and that's part of the key -- no matter how cathartic Ten's tersely titled songs got, they were never abrasive enough to affect the album's accessibility. Ten also benefited from a long gestation period, during which the band honed the material into this tightly focused form; the result is a flawlessly crafted hard rock masterpiece. Words: Steve Huey
Pearl Jam took to superstardom like deer in headlights. Unsure of how to maintain their rigorous standards of integrity in the face of massive commercial success, the band took refuge in willful obscurity -- the title of their second album, Vs., did not appear anywhere in the packaging, and they refused to release any singles or videos. (Ironically, many fans then paid steep prices for import CD singles, a situation the band eventually rectified.) The eccentricities underline Pearl Jam's almost paranoid aversion to charges of hypocrisy or egotism -- but it also made sense to use the spotlight for progress. You could see that reasoning in their ensuing battle with Ticketmaster, and you could hear it in the record itself. Vs. is often Eddie Vedder at his most strident, both lyrically and vocally. It's less oblique than Ten in its topicality, and sometimes downright dogmatic; having the world's ear renders Vedder unable to resist a few simplistic potshots at favorite white-liberal targets. Yet a little self-righteousness is an acceptable price to pay for the passionate immediacy that permeates Vs. It's a much rawer, looser record than Ten, feeling like a live performance; Vedder practically screams himself hoarse on a few songs. The band consciously strives for spontaneity, admirably pushing itself into new territory -- some numbers are decidedly punky, and there are also a couple of acoustic-driven ballads, which are well suited to Vedder's sonorous low register. Sometimes, that spontaneity comes at the expense of Ten's marvelous craft -- a few songs here are just plain underdeveloped, with supporting frameworks that don't feel very sturdy. But, of everything that does work, the rockers are often frightening in their intensity, and the more reflective songs are mesmerizing. Vs. may not reach the majestic heights of Ten, but at least half the record stands with Pearl Jam's best work. Words: Steve Huey
Thanks to its stripped-down, lean production, Vitalogy stands as Pearl Jam's most original and uncompromising album. While it isn't a concept album, Vitalogy sounds like one. Death and despair shroud the album, rendering even the explosive celebration of vinyl "Spin the Black Circle" somewhat muted. But that black cloud works to Pearl Jam's advantage, injecting a nervous tension to brittle rockers like "Last Exit" and "Not for You," and especially introspective ballads like "Corduroy" and "Better Man." In between the straight rock numbers and the searching slow songs, Pearl Jam contribute their strangest music -- the mantrafunk of "Aye Davanita," the sub-Tom Waits accordion romp of "Bugs," and the chilling sonic collage "Hey Foxymophandlemama, That's Me." Pearl Jam are at their best when they're fighting, whether it's Ticketmaster, fame, or their own personal demons. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
A strange phenomenon with anthemic hard rock bands is that when they begin to mature and branch out into new musical genres, they nearly always choose to embrace both the music and spirituality of the East and India, and Pearl Jam is no exception. Throughout No Code, Eddie Vedder expounds on his moral and spiritual dilemmas; where on previous albums his rage was virtually all-consuming, it is clear on No Code that he has embraced an unspecified religion as a way to ease his troubles. Fortunately, that has coincided with an expansion of the group's musical palette. From the subtle, winding opener, "Sometimes," and the near-prayer of the single, "Who You Are," the band reaches into new territory, working with droning, mantra-like riffs and vocals, layered exotic percussion, and a newfound subtlety. Of course, they haven't left behind hard rock, but like any Pearl Jam record, the heart of No Code doesn't lie in the harder songs, it lies in the slower numbers and the ballads, which give Vedder the best platform for his soul-searching: "Present Tense," "Off He Goes," "In My Tree," and "Around the Bend" equal the group's earlier masterpieces. While a bit too incoherent, No Code is Pearl Jam's richest and most rewarding album to date, as well as their most human. They might be maturing in a fairly conventional method, but they still find new ways to state old truths. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
If anything, Pearl Jam was even more in the wilderness -- at least as far as the mainstream was concerned -- at the beginning of 2000 than they were in the second half of the '90s. Even with "Last Kiss," their first big hit single since Ten, under their belts, they were an anomaly on the pop and rock scenes. They were the only one of their old grunge colleagues still standing intact, and they were genuinely alone. No peers, and too sincere to even consider fitting into a pop scene dominated by 'N Sync on one side and Limp Bizkit on the other. Not surprisingly, they chose to persevere, ignoring trends, completely in favor of being a classicist rock band. This should come as no surprise, since that's what they've done since No Code and, perhaps, Vitalogy, but the real surprise about their sixth studio album Binaural is that it finds the group roaring back to life without dramatically changing the direction they followed on No Code and Yield. Maybe the addition of a new drummer, former Soundgarden member Matt Cameron, has kicked the band to life, but that unfairly dismisses Jack Irons' worthy contributions. Instead, the difference is focus -- though Pearl Jam is trying a lot of different styles, certainly more so than on Yield, they pull it all off better. The songs are sharper, the production is layered, and the performances are as compassionate as ever, resulting in their finest album since Vitalogy.
In some ways, Riot Act is the album that Pearl Jam has been wanting to make since Vitalogy -- a muscular art rock record, one that still hits hard but that is filled with ragged edges and odd detours. Vitalogy found the band sketching out their ideas for their brand of artsy rock, separating bracing hard rock and experimentalism throughout that fascinating album, and since then they bounced between those two extremes: indulging themselves on No Code, over-compensating with the streamlined Yield. Here, they manage to seamlessly blend the two impulses together in a restless, passionate record that delivers musically and emotionally. If it doesn't announce itself as a comeback or a great step forward, it's because the changes are subtle -- it's a process of their post-Vitalogy sound finally gelling, not making an artistic breakthrough. Given the appealing but haphazard nature of their late-'90s work, it's quite satisfying to have a Pearl Jam album play as strongly as Riot Act, and again some credit must be given to drummer Matt Cameron. He enlivened 2000's Binaural, but his forceful drumming gives the weirder songs and ambitions support and urgency. Also, the production is the best in nearly a decade -- a warm, burnished sound filled with details that enhance the basic song instead of overwhelming them (in other words, it's not No Code, nor is it the Spartan Yield). Again, these are subtle shifts in sound, but they are notable and, given several plays, this does indeed seem like the richest record Pearl Jam has made in a long time. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Nearly 15 years after Ten, Pearl Jam finally returned to the strengths of their debut with 2006's Pearl Jam, a sharply focused set of impassioned hard rock. Gone are the arty detours (some call them affectations) that alternately cluttered and enhanced their albums from 1993's sophomore effort, Vs., all the way to 2002's Riot Act, and what's left behind is nothing but the basics: muscular, mildly meandering rock & roll, enlivened by Eddie Vedder's bracing sincerity. Pearl Jam has never sounded as hard or direct as they do here -- even on Ten there was an elasticity to the music, due in large part to Jeff Ament's winding fretless bass, that kept the record from sounding like a direct hit to the gut, which Pearl Jam certainly does. Nowhere does it sound more forceful than it does in its first half, when the tightly controlled rockers "Life Wasted," "World Wide Suicide," "Comatose," "Severed Hand," and "Marker in the Sand" pile up on top of each other, giving the record a genuine feeling of urgency. That insistent quality and sense of purpose doesn't let up even as they slide into the quite beautiful, lightly psychedelic acoustic pop of "Parachutes," which is when the album begins to open up slightly. If the second half of the record does have a greater variety of tempos than the first, it's still heavy on rockers, ranging from the ironic easy swagger of "Unemployable" to the furious "Big Wave," which helps set the stage for the twin closers of "Come Back" and "Inside Job." The former is a slow-burning cousin to "Black" that finds Pearl Jam seamlessly incorporating soul into their sound, while the latter is a deliberately escalating epic that gracefully closes the album on a hopeful note -- and coming after an album filled with righteous anger and frustration, it is indeed welcome. But Pearl Jam's anger on this eponymous album is not only largely invigorating, it is the opposite of the tortured introspection of their first records. Here, Vedder turns his attention to the world at large, and while he certainly rages against the state of W's union in 2006, he's hardly myopic or strident; he's alternately evocative and specific, giving this album a resonance that has been lacking in most protest rock of the 2000s. But what makes Pearl Jam such an effective record is that it can be easily enjoyed as sheer music without ever digging into Vedder's lyrics. Song for song, this is their best set since Vitalogy, and the band has never sounded so purposeful on record as they do here, nor have they ever delivered a record as consistent as this. And the thing that makes the record work exceptionally well is that Pearl Jam has embraced everything they do well, whether it's their classicist hard rock or heart-on-sleeve humanitarianism. In doing so, they seem kind of old fashioned, reaffirming that they are now thoroughly outside of the mainstream -- spending well over a decade galloping away from any trace of popularity will inevitably make you an outsider -- but on their own terms, Pearl Jam hasn't sounded as alive or engaging as they do here since at least Vitalogy, if not longer. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Pearl Jam made peace with their hard rock past on their eponymous eighth album, but its 2009 sequel, Backspacer, is where the group really gets back to basics, bringing in old cohort Brendan O'Brien to produce for the first time since 1998's Yield. To a certain extent, the band has reached the point in its career where every move, every cranked amp, every short tough song is heralded as a return to form -- call it the Stones syndrome -- and so it is with Backspacer, whose meaty riffs have no less vigor than those of Pearl Jam; they're just channeled into a brighter, cheerier package. Despite this lighter spirit, Pearl Jam remain the antithesis of lighthearted good-time rock & roll -- they're convinced rock & roll is a calling, not a diversion -- but there's a tonal shift from the clenched anger that's marked their music of the new millennium, a transition from the global toward the personal. Ironically, by looking within the music opens up, as the group isn't fighting against the dying light but embracing how this most classicist of alt-rock bands is an anachronism in 2009. Of course, Pearl Jam were an anachronism even back in 1992, worshiping the Who instead of the Stooges, but this odd out-of-phase devotion to the ideals of post-hippie, pre-punk rock is better suited to bandmembers in their forties than in their twenties; fashion has passed them by several times over, leaving Pearl Jam just to be who they are, comfortable in their weathering skin. Pearl Jam battled their success for so long, intent on whittling their audience down to the devout, that it often felt like a chore to keep pace with the band because no matter the merit of the records, they always felt like heavy lifting, but that's no longer the case: here, as on the self-titled 2006 album, it sounds as if they enjoy being in a band, intoxicated by the noise they make. This means, all things considered, Backspacer is a party record for Pearl Jam -- a party that might consist of nothing but philosophical debates till the wee hours, but a party nonetheless -- and if 18 years is a long, long wait for a band to finally throw a party, it's also true that, prior to Backspacer, Pearl Jam wouldn't or couldn't have made music this unfettered, unapologetically assured, casual, and, yes, fun. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Perhaps it's destined that a band who considered the Who and Neil Young idols would have no quarrel with middle age; nevertheless, the settled nature of Pearl Jam's Lightning Bolt comes as a bit of a jolt. Long ago, Pearl Jam opted out of the rat race, choosing to abandon MTV and album rock radio, ready to take any fans who came their way, and in a way, Lightning Bolt -- their tenth studio album, arriving 22 years after the first -- is a logical extension of that attitude, flirting with insouciance even at its loudest moments. Often, this record seems to ignore the very idea of immediacy; even when the tempos are rushed and the amplifiers are revved up, Pearl Jam never quite seem to be rocking with abandon, choosing to settle into comforting cacophony instead. Then again, nothing on Lightning Bolt -- not the wannabe breakneck rocker "Mind Your Manners," not the tightly coiled title track, not the glam stomp of "Let the Records Play" -- proceeds with any manner of urgency, with even the loudest rockers unveiled at a measured pace that allows plenty of space for solos by Mike McCready. The guitarist has room to roam and the band has a supple, natural interplay that only comes from almost 30 years of collaboration, but here more than ever, all the emotional notes seem to derive from Eddie Vedder, who is not only the chief songwriter/lyricist but a spiritual touchstone. Eying the milestone of 50, Vedder is very comfortable in his skin: he's no longer raging against the dying light or tilting at windmills, he's choosing his battles, knowing when to lie back so he can enjoy the rush of rock pushed out from his familiar, but never lazy, colleagues. This unhurriedness may seem to run counter to the rebellious spirit of rock & roll, but for all their insurrectionist acts, Pearl Jam weren't upstarts: they eagerly accepted the torch of arena rock when it was handed to them. On Lightning Bolt, they've grown into that classic rock mantle, accentuating the big riffs and bigger emotions, crafting songs without a worry as to whether they're hip or not and, most importantly, enjoying the deep-rooted, nervy arena rock that is uniquely their own. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine