Reevaluating PEARL JAM Part 8 – Riot Act

Pearl Jam released Riot Act, their seventh studio album, on November 12, 2002. It has been certified gold by the RIAA.

When Pearl Jam’s Riot Act was released, I was still working away at what went on to become the last-ever Sam The Record Man store (located in Belleville, Ontario). I have memories of hawking plenty of their live discs, and plenty of copies of Binaural, but I don’t have any recollection of this album’s release, or of having sold any copies.

I hope that’s my memory’s fault and not an indication of the quality of this record. Otherwise…

Can’t Keep – I hadn’t really been expecting PJ to open this record with what might be one of their more successful stabs at an “experimental” number, but “Can’t Keep” is a pretty interesting song. It simmers without ever boiling over, but manages to achieve that without leaving me feel robbed of an eruption. Save for Vedder’s unmistakeable vocals, this doesn’t sound too “Pearl-Jammy” to me, but it’s a direction that they oughta explore, if they can manage to do that without throwing in any fretless bass, spoken word or whipping sound effects. Not too shabby.

Save You – The core riff in “Save You” is a great example of the kinds of “rockin'” guitar lines that have worked pretty well for PJ since Vitalogy. This could have been a fairly good rocker, but it’s held back by Eddie Vedder, who barely even sounds like he’s conscious or in the same room. Super low-energy performance from him. This is a shame, because there are points in this song that even the bass player is doing a good job. But pairing Eddie’s apparent lack of interest in sounding interested with the song’s semi-awkward transition moments from verse to chorus, and you’ve got an unfortunate stinker.

Love Boat Captain – Decent chord progression during the verses, but again – we’re dealing with a band that sounds utterly exhausted, here. The chorus is tuneless, and they all just kind of seem to be strumming away with lethargy. I really prefer it when they’re making music that I truly hate, because hating them is way more fun than this. This is just making me sad.

Cropduster – Another example of interesting work in the verses that leads to a completely underwhelming and tuneless chorus. It feels like they wrote a bunch of chords on scraps of paper, threw ’em in a hat and then took turns drawing them to decide where the song should go next. The bridge/outro has a bit of the energy that I’ve been missing, though. This album has been a real bummer so far.

Ghost – This rocker feels fairly straightforward when taken in context with the rest of PJ’s career, but on this record it’s a highlight. I’m still kind of worried about Eddie, though. What was happening for Eddie in 2002? Depression? Upset stomach? The original Xbox’s failure to capture a reasonable market share? What was it?!

I Am Mine – Oh, I’ve heard this one. At least this has a hook. It’s tough for me to hear him sing in this register without singing along with “Youuuu’ve got to hiiide your love awayyyy”, but he’s singing this song with more confidence than I’ve heard on the record so far. The instrumentation is nicely done, if a little hokey. It actually sounds like a bunch of dudes who realize that they’re getting old and that rocking out feels a little put-on to them. So instead… pleasant soft-jammers?

Thumbing My Way – Yeah, they’re totally abandoning the rock music thing. This is a delicate acoustic number. The verses are sweet, but the song is pretty mediocre overall. This feels like Eddie Vedder solo material. With lyrics cribbed from Eddie’s book. He’s gotta have a book. Does he?

You Are – Whoever told the guitarists in this band that they should try to pull of Tom Morello style guitar wacky effects oughta be ashamed of themselves. Not even Tom Morello makes those sound good, and he basically invented guitar turntable-ism. The song itself is a plodding and glum affair. If this song were a person, I would need to hold a mirror up to their nostrils in order to determine whether or not I need to call an ambulance.

Or maybe I’d just let them go, I don’t know. It’s not a good song.

Get Right – This almost sounds like a fun Pearl Jam rocker, but with vocal delivery that sounds like Eddie doing lounge vocals as a joke. But hey, at least jokes aren’t generally the glummest shit ever recorded, so it’s a step up for this record. It should be mentioned – as it features heavily in the guitar solo of “Get Right” – wah-wah pedal is back with a vengeance on each and every “rock” number on this album. Not a good sign.

Green Disease – We manage to reach something like “peppiness” on “Green Disease”, and it’s a welcome diversion. It doesn’t amount to much and I’ve already forgotten what this song sounds like. I know that there’s something about a disease in there somewhere.

Help, Help – Another bit of an experimental number. There are a few interesting ideas going on here, particularly during the “tell me lies” section, but too much of this just sounds like a band trying to intentionally evoke psychedelia. Pretty lame track.

Bushleaguer – For those of you waiting for some spoken word, Eddie is bee-boppin’ along in spectacular form here. About George W Bush, no less! I’m glad that he was able to get all of this off of his chest on a record that was already terrible. It’s so sad when Eddie does this kind of thing and ruins an otherwise pretty good record. This song is terrible.

1/2 Full – Oh, perfect. Blues-rock vibes! My favourite thing to hear white people do! This song is a bit of a mess. There’s so little on this entire album that I would consider “catchy”. What a drag this has been. Oh man.

Arc – We’re in the Gregorian Chant section of the record. Every record has one.

Oh.

Wait.

No good record has one. That’s what I meant to write.

All Or None – True to the overall vibe of this album, “All Or None” is a pretty glum piece. It manages to work fairly well, though. Certainly one of the more listenable songs on this record, guitar solo and all. But boy. Downer.

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The Verdict:
Hoo boy. This one is a bit of a doozy.

This record might be worse than No Code, and I really hated No Code. But the thing with that record (No Code, I mean), is that I hated it because of all of the goofy experiments and general lack of good rock ‘n roll. And it was fun to hate it. I’m not having any fun hating Riot Act. It is just glum. The band sounds tired. It doesn’t help matters that there are fifteen songs on here, a full ten of them that just sound like someone figured out how to make a guitar sigh with resignation. It sounds like a bunch of folks who were once on top but had been supplanted. First by Fred Durst. Then by… The Strokes or something.

My posts about Pearl Jam are often negative and playfully adversarial. On some level, I want to be proven wrong. But on another, more honest level, I want to be right and I want to have a great time making fun of them. I want to win.

But not like this, Pearl Jam. Not like this.

I pray that they turn things around with their next record. That is… let’s see…

…there’s just a picture of an avocado on the front of it. Goddamnit, Pearl Jam.

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