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Pearl Jam, ‘Gigaton’: Album Review

From the start, Pearl Jam were unlike any of the grunge bands they were typically lumped in with. More magnetic, more melodic and, significantly, more classic rock-indebted in their sound, they quickly became rock-radio favorites at a time when nobody was really sure how well the old and new guards would play together.

Main competitors Nirvana and Soundgarden had roots based in punk and metal; Pearl Jam provided a more direct route to fans raised on the Doors and the Who. This afforded them a longer career than most of their grunge brethren who fizzled about before the ’90s even ended.

But this longevity has also given Pearl Jam plenty of opportunities to steer from expectations over the past three decades. In addition to being occasionally great, their albums have been challenging, maddening and sometimes baffling. They’ve never been anything less than interesting, but when’s the last time you could actually hum a Pearl Jam song?

Gigaton, their 11th album, and first in seven years, isn’t a return to their chest-pounding Ten/Vs./Vitalogy glory days. It’s no No Code or Yield, the two records they ended their inaugural decade with, either. But it is a musically adventurous trip that positions them with their most satisfying album since 2009’s Backspacer. This is 21st-century rock ‘n’ roll with a conscience and a purpose, and if it sounds a little forgettable in the end, it still sounds more relevant than most music made by any of Pearl Jam’s peers who are still standing.

The album’s best songs come early: the updated grunge of “Superblood Wolfmoon” and the Talking Heads-ripping “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” where Eddie Vedder’s same-as-it-ever-was David Byrne vocal tics almost get in the way of the skittering guitars. And the opening “Who Ever Said,” all blaring guitars and earnest fury, paves the way for things to come.

These moments are divided among more risky cuts such as the meditative “Seven O’Clock,” which is adorned with swirling colors of sound, and the throwback “Never Destination” that charges like a Vitalogy-era outtake, complete with snarling vocals and distorted-guitar riffing.

From the melting polar ice cap on the LP’s cover to the subjects of many songs, Gigaton is Pearl Jam’s nature album: Specifically, it’s about climate change and the effects it’s having on the planet. “Seven seas are raising / Forever futures fading out,” goes one song; “Oceans rising with the waves,” goes another. They’re rarely vague about their intentions, but sometimes they target more directly: “Crossed the border to Morocco / Kashmir then Marrakesh / The lengths we had to go to then / To find a place [Donald] Trump hadn’t fucked up yet,” Vedder sings on “Quick Escape.” (At another point they refer to the president, in reference to a song’s Native American imagery, as “Sitting Bullshit.”)

It’s all very timely as well as nostalgic, and on the closing “River Cross,” guided by pump organ, they wrap it all up into a solemn dirge about reflection, loss and carrying on. They march into a new decade on Gigaton with the same fighting spirit that’s made Pearl Jam one of the world’s most popular bands of the past 30 years, but there’s also a sense of regret and moving on.

The band’s name scrawled across the album cover looks like it’s about to flatline. That’s not very subtle, but directness has always been among Pearl Jam’s greatest appeals. Like most of their albums made in the ’00s, Gigaton balances old-school sincerity with grown-up introspection. It’s never been a tight fit, and it never quite locks in here.

They’ve never bent to please anyone but themselves, and somehow still found countless fans; this record doesn’t change any of that. Pearl Jam have earned that right over the years. Gigaton is business as usual in a world that’s dramatically changed.


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