April 21, 2006 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

Speaking as a child of the ’90s

A few things lately have led me back to Pearl Jam.

I was, of course, a huge fan back in the day. They were probably my favorite band for a while (especially around my sophomore and junior years of high school, 1992-93ish) and they were a big influence on my musical taste and even, to some extent, my political ideas and attitudes. My fanship has never entirely disappeared, but it’s been in steady decline for the past eight to ten years; basically I felt like they peaked with No Code in 1996 and each album afterwards was a small step downwards. Especially Riot Act, which I could never get into at all.

But I’ve defended Pearl Jam over the years, and gone back to them pretty often, and now they’re on my radar screen for the first time in a while.

For one thing, they have a new album coming out, and it is getting some good reviews, and I find the leadoff song, “Worldwide Suicide” to be pretty decent. For another thing, I was reading the discussion of Pearl Jam at my favorite mp3 blog, Medication, and seeing what the hipsters think of Pearl Jam now. Also I’ve been contemplating all my favorite rock shows of all time, and trying to figure out how to compare, say, Kerosene 454 with Pearl Jam.

Anyway, I think it makes sense to have a Pearl Jam renaissance now, they are practically classic rock now. And there are so many things to admire Pearl Jam for. They’ve stuck together for an eternity, they haven’t compromised much, they’ve consistently taken great bands on tour with them and hyped them to the heavens, they’ve fought for good causes.

The best thing about Pearl Jam, though, is that they can function as a sort of a “gateway drug.” They are and always have been a pretty straightforward rock band, but they have good taste, and they have taught a lot of people about a lot of great music. For me, the gateway was through the 1995 broadcast of Self-Pollution Radio. I taped it off the radio, broadcast from the distant, weak signal of “Quick Rock” WQWK. Check out this amazing setlist. This was one of the first times I ever heard Sonic Youth, and for sure the first time I heard “Teenage Riot.” This is reason enough for me to be eternally grateful to the paragons of grunge. And look at the other bands on here! Slant Six?? Daniel Johnston?? The fact that Pearl Jam (or maybe mostly Eddie Vedder) got these bands, even briefly, onto a radio station being broadcast to me out of Altoona is like a miracle. I never managed to tape the whole performance of Self-Pollution Radio, but I can’t deny that the reason I own a Slant Six album is due mostly to Pearl Jam.

So today I have been listening to No Code. It’s my favorite of theirs by far, and I’ve listened to it a million times, but it still sounds great. It is one of my all-time favorite albums and it has a lot of my all-time favorite Pearl Jam songs. I’ve been going through the lyrics, and there is a kind of a theme to the album that still speaks to me after all this time. It occurs to me that I’m around the same age now that the band was when they were putting these songs together, and I realize that these songs aren’t really written for teenagers, the way you could argue that some of their earlier stuff was, and the way most rock music is.

No Code is about accepting real adulthood. You’ve learned a few things along the road, and life has beaten you down a few times, but you’re still standing, you’ve made it through the turbulence of youth, and it’s okay. It is a late-twentysomething kind of a thing. The lyrics push this theme constantly: “If he only knew now what he knew then” or “If I had known then what I know now” or “Makes much more sense to live in the present tense.”

The music is all over the map, but it is very Pearl Jam. It has hints of the noisy rock of their early works, it has some characteristic oddball tracks, it has some of their best quiet ballads and many hints of their later sound (i.e., bland midtempo rockers). But it all fits together in a strange way, like the polaroids that form the album cover. It is just a really great album, in the old-fashioned sense of an album that you can open up, look at the artwork, listen to all the songs. If the era of the album has ended, you won—t find many better demonstrations of the format’s potency than No Code.

My favorite, I think, is “In My Tree.” It has this great tribal rhythm, and such passionate lyrics, in that stilted, awkward, poetic Eddie Vedder style. The lyrics are almost embarrassing, the way they twist around, torturing sentences to form rhymes, and yet it works. When he cries out at the end, reclaiming his innocence, I scream along with him…

Here, take a listen:

“In My Tree” · Pearl Jam · No Code, 1996

Listen to this song:

up here in my tree, yeah
newspapers matter not to me, yeah
no more crowbars to my head, yeah
i’m trading stories with the leaves instead, yeah
wave to all my friends, yeah
they don’t seem to notice me, no
all their eyes trained on the street, yo, oh
sidewalk cigarettes and scenes, [tem-pted]
up here so high i start to shake
up here so high the sky i scrape
i’m so high i hold just one breath here within my chest
just like innocence
eddie’s found a home
oh at last the trees fall
eddie’s blue sky home
oh at last the trees fall
i remember when, yeah
i swore i knew everything, oh yeah
let’s say knowledge is a tree, yeah
it’s growing up just like me, yeah
i’m so light the wind he shakes
i’m so high the sky i scrape
i’m so light i hold just one breath and go back to my nest
sleep with innocence…
up here so high the boughs they break
up here so high the sky i scrape
had my eyes peeled both wide open, and i got a glimpse
of my innocence… got back my inner sense…
baby got it, still got it

(lyrics from the sky i scrape (appropriately).