Review: Pearl Jam’s Gigaton Finds the Band Locked in a Holding Pattern

The more the band moves outside their comfort zone, the worthier they become of their apparent permanence.

Pearl Jam, Gigaton
Photo: Danny Clinch/Republic Records

“I changed by not changing at all,” Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder once solemnly intoned on 1993’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” That sentiment has become something of a guiding principle for a veteran rock band that, despite lacking Nirvana’s raw emotion and the Smashing Pumpkins’s sense of theatricality, has managed to outlast many of their alt-rock contemporaries. While Vedder has penned some indelible rock songs—“Yellow Ledbetter” is but one example—Pearl Jam has been locked in cruise control since the late ’90s, and their latest, Gigaton, is largely more of the same.

The album’s opening track, “Who Ever Said,” comes out swinging with some growling, interlocking guitar riffs. Vedder’s voice is likewise in fine form (he’s beginning to sound a bit like Chris Cornell, who was always a better singer) and he delivers some clever wordplay: “‘It’s all in the delivery,’ said the messenger who is now dead.” The song’s hook—“Whoever said it’s all been said?”—seems to directly confront the notion that the band is out of ideas. And for a couple of minutes, Pearl Jam sounds determined to prove their naysayers wrong—until the song shifts into a meandering second movement and ultimately peters out. In that way, it serves as a microcosm of the album as a whole: a few good ideas and moments of experimentation alongside some baffling head-scratchers.

Most baffling is “Superblood Wolfmoon,” which boasts a two-step rhythm with skittering cymbal fills, giving it a nervous energy that’s matched by Vedder’s clipped delivery. But the kludgy guitars feel oddly out of sync with the song’s too-muchness, and the lyrics read like an attempt to confront political catastrophe through the prism of personal loss and weird fiction. Elsewhere, “Buckle Up” suffers from a lyrical fuzziness: “Firstly do no harm, then put your seatbelt on, buckle up!” Vedder seems to be trying to address the importance of self-care, but the song’s loping rhythm and his warbly delivery make the lyrics sound like a goofy P.S.A.

Occasionally, Vedder and company’s experimentation works. Despite its silly title, “Dance of the Clairvoyants” is a successful reworking of the band’s signature sound. The track’s elastic, funk-inspired rhythm section and unsettling synth riff are a good match for Vedder’s vocals, which sound alternately enraged and exhausted. “When the past is the present and the future’s no more/When every tomorrow’s no more,” he sings, sounding like a man who’s lived more lives than he can remember. In sharp contrast to that track’s maximalism, “Comes Then Goes” is a gentle, country-inflected ballad that showcases Vedder’s often under-appreciated vocal range. Reliability may be what’s made Pearl Jam such a powerful mainstay, but the more they move outside their comfort zone, and away from their longstanding identity (or lack thereof), the worthier they become of their apparent permanence.

 Label: Republic  Release Date: March 27, 2020  Buy: Amazon

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