Out There

Before--and after--swine
No Code
Pearl Jam
Epic Records

Pearl Jam's rep lies with two songs off its unbearable 1991 debut--marketed as "hard rock" till "alternative" came to mean "alternative to good music," which then fit the Jam like torn flannel and made them millionaires. One is "Jeremy," about an alienated kid who offs himself for attention; the other is "Alive," about an alienated kid who's distraught because Mom wants to screw his brains out. The albums after--not to mention the one-off singles and Crazy Horse impersonations--solidified the marketing plan but not the myth. They sold in the millions, but why? Maybe Hootie knows.

No Songs is Big Humorless Rock for the post-grunge, post-taste era, prefab alternarock with more Eddie Vedder "poetry"--"I'll be playing with my magazine/using up my Listerine/like Ovaltine"--screeched over bombastic, pallid rock and roll that lacks the conviction of its cause-free cause. It's mellow drama, obtrusive words decked out in a vinyl skin that looks tougher than it actually feels.

Vedder wants to know your pain as much as he wants you to feel his, but this is No Abbruzzese in a nutshell:Eddie doesn't like drugs ("another habit like an unwanted friend"), he's happiest when he's sad ("Don't it make you smile when the sun don't shine"), and he leaves you to figure out the rest ("I was bitten/Must have been the devil/He was just paying me a little visit"). Carry on, my wayward Eddie: a big weight's on your shoulders, but you sure aren't idol Pete Townshend. Townshend wrote poetry that read like prose and rocked like a beaten man. He may have been full of shit himself, but he made his point; Vedder prefers to growl the ellipses, hoping you'll fill in his blanks.

Kurt Cobain was right when he dismissed Pearl Jam as hollow commercial "grunge": Green River might have held the copyright, Mudhoney might have perfected the formula, Nirvana might have made the best burgers, but Pearl Jam took the franchise public. After millions and millions sold, Bar Code is as lifeless as it comes:It doesn't estimate punk, doesn't go off like Vs. or go odd like the by-comparison-avant Vitalogy, and makes a big sound that signifies a lyric sheet.

For a band that has made a career out of being a righteous warrior, its members get little blood on their hands. Their hard-core ("Lukin") is by-the-numbers; their ballads are by-the-way; and their anthems ("Who You Are," especially) are by-the-wayside. Their gimmick (code) is having no gimmick (code)--which is, of course, the biggest gimmick (pose) of all.

--Robert Wilonsky


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