With a new record label, one naturally takes the eponymous titling of Pearl Jam’s eighth studio album to be something of a reboot. Consider that in line with their recent release of a pair of two-disc sets, one of B-sides and the other a greatest hits package, and the tide seems to have turned on the band named by some as “the” great American band. Their last four albums, it seems, existed only to churn out a handful of singles (some better than others), begging the question: Has Pearl Jam been remotely relevant since 1994’s Vitalogy? Grunge died pretty hard along with Kurt Cobain, and Pearl Jam, though they’ve always been a force to be reckoned with in concert, hasn’t really had an identity since No Code.
I’d like to tell you that Pearl Jam is here to fix all that, but even though it is indeed better than average and “World Wide Suicide” is another perfectly serviceable single to add to their canon, the album is at best another good step toward their once great state and not a full return to it. What’s true, though, is that it’s the group’s best full album since Vitalogy. While “not being phoned in” doesn’t make something great by default, it also indicates that Pearl Jam is back on track, so to speak.
There are elements of the band’s entire career in the eponymous new album: “Severed Hand” and, to a lesser extent, “World Wide Suicide” are the band’s best pure rock cuts since “Spin The Black Circle”; they get their Neil Young on with “Army Reserve,” a Binaural-esque track not unlike Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” in its handling of Iraq; and Young’s presence is similarly felt on “Inside Job.” “Marker In The Sand” reflects the band’s post-grunge best—catchy but not too hard.
Placed chronologically, the album would have made more sense following Vitalogy, as a sort of precursor to the “decline.” It’s got all the elements of a great album, but it doesn’t evoke the feeling of listening to the band’s first three seminal albums. Timing is everything: Had this album been released in 1995, I don’t think it would have garnered nearly as much attention as it likely will now. It’s getting at a return to form, sure, and it proves that their average work is still better than average (a good earmark of a solid outfit), but you’ll never get the feeling listening to Pearl Jam that it’s the fourth great album by a great band, rather another good album by a band that might be getting long in the tooth.