Pearl Jam: Riot Act

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Pearl Jam

Album: Riot Act
Label: Epic

Pearl Jam has always seemed to bear a disproportionate burden next to the rest of the rock world, but its weariness isn't unearned: This is the band that battled Ticketmaster, was singled out for derision by Kurt Cobain, aspired to make high art even as it was selling a gazillion records, and unwittingly lent its worst habits to legions of bad rock imitators. Today, Pearl Jam's bombastic early sound (and worse, Eddie Vedder's passionate growl) is the sound of Creed and countless other soundalikes who adopted the melismatics and the messiah complex, but forgot the prickliness, subtlety, vision, and ethics. If Pearl Jam's last two albums seem adrift and unfocused, it's probably because so many others had come along with a more streamlined version of the band's trademark sound. Enter Riot Act, the most quietly adventurous, intriguing document the group has assembled in ages. Throughout its 15 songs, Vedder's voice rarely approaches grandiosity, and his angst seems deeper and harder-won. Typical is "Love Boat Captain," on which Vedder flip-flops between pessimism and optimism from verse to verse, with an emphasis on the latter: He actually sings "Once you hold the hand of love, it's all surmountable" with more conviction than the more characteristically bleak "First comes love and then comes pain." The only serious problem with Riot Act is that while it's unafraid to be bleak and difficult, it's often bleak and difficult. As Pearl Jam retreats further from stadium-friendly rock, it's also becoming less eager to please, giving the disc a bit of a joyless, eat-your-vegetables quality. But it's arguably Pearl Jam's most musically elastic record, and the abundance of brooding laments makes the moments of release that much more powerful. More importantly, Riot Act's most memorable trait—and Pearl Jam's ultimate legacy as a band—is that its unevenness exists as an offshoot of increasingly complex, difficult emotions and ideas.

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