Album Review: Pearl Jam – Gigaton

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By Josh Hudson / March 27, 2020
Pearl Jam Gigaton

It has been seven years since the world has heard an official studio album from Pearl Jam, and a lot has changed since then.  Their previous two albums (Lightning Bolt, released in 2013, and Backspacer, released in 2009) came in the years of the Obama presidency. For a band that has made no bones about their progressive political stance, that period felt more like a time of optimism and hope, and a solid argument could be made that this sense was reflected in the band’s output at the time.

Yet here we are, over three years into the current administration that at times feels like its modus operandi is to undo anything and everything that was accomplished from 2009 to 2017.  It has also been the longest gap in studio productivity from the band, leaving speculation to build for an unprecedented amount of time as to what exactly this next release would bring. 

It never seemed to be a question of if it would be angry and reactionary, only to what degree.  After all, it doesn’t feel all that long ago that front man Eddie Vedder hit the stage with the head of then-current POTUS George W. Bush’s head on a stake only to give it a beating in front of a crowd that had, at best, a mixed reaction.

Surprisingly, the twelve tracks on Gigaton seem to reflect hope in the face of adversity.  For sure, there is an underlying anger even from the opening track, but Vedder’s main refrain shows he has chosen not to dwell on it, with him declaring, “Whoever said it’s all been said…gave up on satisfaction,” later adding, “But I won’t give up…No I won’t give up on satisfaction.”  These lyrics weave into the typically esoteric poetry Vedder is known for (generally more emotive than didactic) and tie into an overall theme of working past the negativity.

But make no mistake, the anger towards the political landscape boils to the top at times with explicit references to our current commander-in-chief.  In “Quick Escape,” Vedder describes “the lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet,” and the lyrics of “Seven O’Clock” contrasts the wrongs committed against Native Americans like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse to “Sitting Bullshit as our sitting President.”  The vitriol is still apparent but does not take center stage.

Musically speaking, there is not a lot here the band hasn’t done before (and they do it well), but there are a few left turns.  The first single, “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” a seemingly drum machine-driven song that comes as close to a dance song as the band has ever done (albeit, well-executed and with a sound and delivery that is unmistakably of the band), left a lot of people scratching their heads and wondering what exactly the rest of the album had in store.

What was in store was a satisfying, albeit front-loaded rock and roll album.  “Who Ever Said” and “Superblood Wolfmoon,” with guitar-driven sounds that include face-melting solos, chart familiar territory in the best way possible, and are sure to be instant classics. The band wears their punk rock influences on their sleeve (I would go so far as to draw similarities between guitarists Mike McCready’s and Stone Gossard’s guitar work combined with Vedder’s rapid-fire vocal delivery to some of the more mid-tempo tracks offered by Bad Religion; the comparison is not explicit, but it is definitely there upon closer listen). Yet they distill these influences through the filter that is so unique to what Pearl Jam does that none of it sounds derivative.

The aforementioned “Dance of the Clairvoyants” keeps the energy high while effectively executing the album’s first real sonic experimentation, before heading into the bass-driven song “Quick Escape."  Bassist Jeff Ament has his first few moments of center stage glory with this song, driving it forward with a powerful bass line that locks in with Matt Cameron’s solid and study drum beat.  The high watermark of the track is when Ament interweaves his bass line with the song’s final guitar solo that creates a satisfying build up and release to close the track.

This leads into the down tempo track “Alright,” which feels more like an interlude, with background keys and very simple song structure.  “Seven O’Clock” adds a degree of complexity to its structure but keeps the pace slow, until the band returns to the upbeat guitar prominence of the two opening tracks in “Never Destination” and “Take the Long Way,” both of which are adequate Pearl Jam songs, but not particularly special.

The band takes another experimental turn with “Buckle Up,” a song that feels like a sea shanty played in 4/4 time, almost as if they decided to speed up the main guitar riff of Ween’s 1997 track “The Mollusk.”  While sonically interesting, the song ultimately feels like another interlude, providing a moment of reprieve between the main events.

For better or worse, the final three tracks allow the high energy of the rest of the album to peter out.  “Comes Than Goes,” a song about the ephemeral nature of human relationships, leads into “Retrograde,” which comes off as the song most explicitly concerned with environmental issues (on an album with marketing that greatly emphasized this angle).  Finally, “River Cross” closes out the album, focusing primarily on Vedder’s lyrics over sleepy instrumentation.  Vedder sings, “Share the light, won’t hold us down,” and closes on a pensive yet hopeful note.

Ultimately, it is fair to say that the album meets fan expectations of a reactionary set of songs that are apropos to the times, but the band chooses not to wallow in their frustration.  They acknowledge the negativity that is felt by so many people these days but push through a message of hope. And frankly, God, Allah, Vishnu, or whatever deity you choose, knows we need that these days.

Gigaton is essential listening for 2020, and everyone should give it at least one spin.  And as you listen, remember that as dark as these times may seem, you absolutely should not give up on satisfaction.

Pearl Jam

Gigaton

Released: March 27, 2020

Track Listing:

1. Who Ever Said

2. Superblood Wolfmoon

3. Dance of the Clairvoyants

4. Quick Escape

5. Alright

6. Seven O'Clock

7. Never Destination

8. Take the Long Way

9. Buckle Up

10. Comes Then Goes

11. Retrograde

12. River Cross

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The following videos are provides courtesy of Pearl Jam's YouTube Channel.

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About the author
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Josh Hudson

Josh has been following music in the DMV area ever since he started to call it home a decade ago. When not seeing or writing about music, he is often making it with different groups of musicians around town.