Orson Welles crafted the menacing noir of “Touch of Evil” and “The Lady from Shanghai,” yet nothing the director-writer did came close, frame-by-frame, line-by-line, to the magic of “Citizen Kane.” As far as long shadows cast, jumping out of the gate with the epically angst-ridden “Ten” was Pearl Jam’s “Kane.” Its release, in 1991, meant that every slow boiling album that Eddie Vedder and company made since their bugged-out and brooding first full-length has had to live up to that bible of aggressive grunge rage.
“Vitalogy” (1994) and “Backspacer” (2009) are great, and greatly pissed-off, but, for the most part, Pearl Jam’s recorded catalog has been a spotty one when it comes to making albums that maintain the blister of its best tracks. IWhen it comes to poetically charged disgust writ large and testily for the Gen X-into-Y nation, “Ten” towers over Pearl Jam’s catalog hand-over-shaken-fist.
Along comes “Gigaton.” Sidling up to “Ten” like a wise-ass, grouchy older brother after having stolen his young sibling’s bag of weed, “Gigaton” is Pearl Jam’s brusque, experimental, not-so-graciously-aged doppelganger — more apt to stew soulfully and strangely, than just twist and shout. Its still-wet lyrics move from cheesy gibberish to rousing anthemic prose to dreamily romantic poetry to critically politicizing rhetoric without coming off heavy-handed in any respect. Its arrangements still move moodily across a set of genuinely hummable melodies, but that mood never weighs down the tangled guitar-strewn proceedings.
With all that, “Gigaton” is not grunge all grown up, made by older versions of boys more in love with their old Who and CCR albums than ever before. This is that same group of wooly-capped Seattle guys if they had truly taken their initial cues from the crusty contemporaries of their day – Sonic Youth or Slint or Shellac or Royal Trux – while holding tight to a snotty teen’s grasp of punk melodicism. With that, “Gigaton” has a real zeal that lasts over the course of the entire album. Even the album’s slow and less twitchy tracks such as “Seven O’Clock” or “Comes Then Goes” possess an ardor in league with the album’s most kinetic cuts.
Vocalist and principal lyricist Vedder, bassist Jeff Ament, drummer Matt Cameron, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready — along with new producer Josh Evans, known for knob-twiddling gigs with Soundgarden, Gary Clark, Jr. and several McCready solo projects — allow a goodly portion of “Gigaton” to burst hastily at the seams. Taking a break from their usual producer, Brendan O’Brien, Evans pushes every moment on “Gigaton” just a little further (and more frazzled) into the red than his predecessor.
The fussy muscle and might of “Who Ever Said,” with its hip-shaking, tambourine-heavy rhythm and power-pop guitars, features a loud, brash chorus as catchy as any the band has attempted previously. Using each Vedder syllable as part of his speedy, crunchy hook, “Whoever said ‘It’s all been said’ gave up on satisfaction” is the feel-good, chorus-contagion of the summer. “Never Destination” shares that poppier verve, but lends its guitars a jangly edge and its vocal a grittier soulfulness.
“Dance of the Clairvoyants” is Pearl Jam’s brand of death disco, complete with a sliding bass line and an overall vibe that’s a cross between PIL’s flanged and spiky guitars and Talking Heads’ churchy funk circa “Once in a Lifetime,” with Vedder doing his own mumbled version of David Byrne’s stunted preacher routine.
As angular and saw-toothed as it is harmony-filled and lush, “Quick Escape” finds Vedder warbling through some of his most whimsically romantic, beat-poetic couplets (“A sleep sack in a bivouac / And a Kerouac sense of time”) before nodding to his musical faves, then hitting up the wretched politics of the present day: “First we took an aeroplane / Then a boat to Zanzibar / Queen cranking on the blaster / And Mercury did rise… Crossed the border to Morocco / Kashmir to Marrakech / The lengths we had to go to then / To find a place Trump hadn’t f—ed up yet.”
Topping off Vedder’s disgusted vocal and catchy chorus — a la that of “Quick Change” —with a good, old-fashioned Leslie-affected guitar solo is like topping a bittersweet chocolate sundae with a sour cherry.
Not as catchy as its counterparts, but twice as infectious in its vibe, is the rapid-fire goof-off “Superblood Wolfmoon.” Commencing with a drunken garage band’s cheap beer-propelled pulse, “Wolfmoon” could have come from the soundtrack to “Singles,” writer-director Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy salute to Seattle’s grunge era that came complete with Pearl Jam playing Matt Dillon’s backing band. Citizen Dick still rules.
Careening as those tracks are, in a musical sense, a black sky’s worth of imminent danger is ripened by a dissatisfaction of the highest order when Vedder, with the full flower of his trembling baritone as a weapon, castigates the current president with a set of curt, angry comparisons and premonitions: “Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, they forged the north and west / Then you got Sitting Bulls— as our sitting president / Oh, talking to his mirror, what’s he say, what’s it say back? / A tragedy of errors, who’ll be the last to have a laugh?”
Even the pensive, gospel-ish “River Cross” — a proper closing track if ever there was one — finds Vedder leaning on tortured dissatisfaction (“Let it be a lie that all futures die / While the government thrives on discontent / And there’s no such thing as clear / Proselytizing and profit-izing / As our will all but disappears”) before going out with hope (“Share the light / Won’t hold us down”).
Slow songs such as “River Cross” may not share the freaky-deaky-ness of the album’s faster, more frenetic counterparts, but they contain a gently delicious energy all their own, usually coming down to Vedder’s wobbly way with a vocal melody. While “Take the Long Way” is a bland, rocking misstep, glistening acoustic guitar-led numbers such as “Comes Then Goes,” “Retrograde” and “Buckle Up” (the latter, written completely by Stone Gossard) simply sparkle.
Surely influenced by “Who’s Next”-era Pete Townshend’s acoustic ramblings, each of these bruised ballads are alive with ominously picturesque lyrics (Gossard’s vision of mad motherly love filled with “bed sores and sponge baths” being the most effective) and Vedder’s most clearly and cleanly produced vocals. Whether softly settling into the bleakest of sights or looking at images of angels in flight on “Comes Then Goes,” these tracks are as probing as “Gigaton’s” more hyperactive counterparts.
It might seem over the top to say that “Gigaton” is Pearl Jam’s best or most fully realized album since ”Ten.” But to paraphrase “Pal Joey’s” rakish Frank Sinatra talking about a sexual dry spell, “29 years is a long time between drinks.” And “Gigaton” is one stiff, glorious weird and zealously melodic cocktail.