Pearl Jam released Binaural on May 16, 2000. Although it debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200, it was the first Pearl Jam album that would fail to achieve platinum status in the United States.
By the time Pearl Jam had gotten around to releasing their sixth record, Binaural, I was heading into my final year of high school and had fully traveled up my own ass into the magical world of music snobbery. I was a Pavement fan, for fuck’s sake. To me, Pearl Jam didn’t even register. Couple this with their diminishing mainstream popularity, and you’ve got the first PJ record that … doesn’t have a single song on it that I’ve heard before.
My only memories of this record stem from looking at the cover and getting it slightly confused with other albums that featured shitty eyeball art at the time. This is also the period of time when PJ started releasing a ridiculous number of official bootlegs of their live shows. I worked at a record store during this period, and having to keep track of all of the different PJ live albums that we had in stock made me hate these guys for a brand new reason.
Wrong to hold that against them, though. Let’s just hold their music against them. How does Binaural stack up?
Breakerfall – The chances that a Pearl Jam record will open with a song on the rockin’ side are pretty high. This isn’t a bad thing. Some of their best songs wind up as album openers. It does, though, set the listener up to feel kind of underwhelmed when throwing on a new Pearl Jam record. Expect some riffin’! Expect some rockin’ and rollin’! Get ready to Eddie!
“Breakerfall” isn’t a bad song. It just comes off feeling a little bit perfunctory and strangely … tired sounding. Like, Eddie Vedder literally sounds exhausted by the middle of this song. It is, however, competent rock music. Also – and this is saying a lot, coming from me … the bass guitar sounds pretty alright.
You know, for all of my moaning about the way that they always open their records this way, the one time that they didn’t was probably the worst PJ record that I’ve heard. So… stick to what you know, buds.
God’s Dice – Good track. There. I said it. Sounds like a catchier version of No Code‘s “Hail Hail”. There’s almost a hint of The Tragically Hip to this song that I can’t put my finger on. The chorus has a totally reasonable pop-rock hook and the song doesn’t overstay its welcome. This is fine.
Evacuation – Mixed feelings about “Evacuation”. The song’s willingness to be a little weird in terms of chord structure and time-signature is refreshing – and sometimes works. The verses, in particular, are wonky and wonderful. The chorus, with its repeated “Evacu-aaaaaaa-shunnnn” vocal line… is terrible. The bridge feels incongruent to the rest of the material, leaving the track feeling cobbled-together from parts rather than written with purpose. Some good work here, but this song winds up in dud territory.
Light Years – I like the guitar work on this track. The chord progression feels interesting and unconventional. I’m also appreciative of the fact that they could have taken the basic idea for the chorus and turned it into a huge rock anthem, but didn’t. This song is a little long, but there are plenty of interesting ideas and I enjoy the performance. As far as semi-plodding mid-tempo Pearl Jam songs go, this is one of the best I’ve heard.
Nothing as it Seems – Not into this solo guitar work off the top. Also, bass player’s got his fartiest bass out. So this song sounds pretty rough to me. With different production, this might work as a decent dark & moody track. Thing is, this is two 5 minute-plus songs in a row. More like Bi-snore-al, am I right? Hahah. Pretty good. This isn’t a good song.
Thin Air – Entering a new millennium didn’t stop Pearl Jam from putting together the most 1990’s sounding chords imaginable for “Thin Air”. That said, these chords sound pretty great together and the vocal harmonies are really well done. This song doesn’t break any new ground, but dances around pretty enjoyably on the existing ground. A lacklustre bridge, perhaps, but overall this track sounds pretty decent.
Insignificance – This song is actually pretty interesting and the chorus in particular feels like PJ was in the process of learning a few new tricks. The angular guitar figure in the pre-chorus is completely atypical for the band. It is a welcome addition. Beyond this, the chorus’ descending chord progression works for me. Totally reasonable rock song with some solid ideas. Also, this record sounds excellent.
Of The Girl – This album was touted at the time as having some “3D” recording techniques used in its production. “Of The Girl” must have been planned as a showpiece for these techniques, as there are interesting sounds all over the place on it. Unfortunately, all of these interesting sounds fight against each other and fight against the song. The resulting tune sounds half-baked, which is a shame. Another shame: Yet another song topping the 5 minute mark. These songs are too long, P-Jammers!
Grievance – This is definitely a Pearl Jam song. Like much of the Yield album, there are moments here that sound like they oughta be huge sounding, but wind up coming off sounding underpowered. This song doesn’t hang together at all. Just a bunch of parts smushed together. Not the worst PJ song I’ve ever heard, but one of the weaker spots on this record so far.
Rival – This song starts with a stereo recording of a dog growling, which is important, because it proves that they were in a studio with stereo microphones. There. We’ve justified this album’s title. The song that follows the growling is a slice of Pearl Jam fuck-around music that would have fit nicely on No Code. I hate No Code. This is my least favourite Binaural track so far.
Sleight of Hand – While it boasts some interesting syncopated drum & bass work in verses, this song is an atmospheric snooze-fest. The vocals are delivered so monotonously, this may as well be the album’s requisite stab at Eddie Vedder Poetry Slam. I can’t imagine ever sitting through this track again.
Soon Forget – A teeny little sketch of a song. Just Eddie & ukulele. There isn’t much going on here, but the song is sweet and the solo arrangement works for it. If Eddie played this at a coffee house, people would probably all line up to go “Awwww!”
Parting Ways – A really good argument for how good the production is on this album could be made by listening to this song. The sound is wide and rich, bringing in a string section with loads of stereo separation. It really does sound impressive. The song itself is relatively structureless, not featuring a chorus as far as I can tell. It’s pleasant enough, and a reasonable ending to an album. Bonus: The “secret song” is just 20 seconds of what sounds like an automatic playing card shuffling machine.
Verdict: Given that I never hear anyone talk about this record, I’m surprised by how good it is. There aren’t many truly inspired tracks, but I would argue that there actually aren’t many outright embarrassments either. It’s a competent rock record of surprising consistency. The addition of ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron might explain some of the (welcome) exploration of alternate time signatures. Also, there’s a surprisingly small amount of studio fuck-around nonsense.
I actually don’t have many snarky comments to make about this album that I haven’t already levelled at Pearl Jam in general, and I’ll go ahead and make the somewhat controversial statement that this record is more consistent than Vs or Vitalogy, but fails to reach the high points of either of those albums. It will be difficult to rank them.
Up next: 2002’s Riot Act.