Pearl Jam, “Gigaton” (Monkeywrench/Republic Records)
Trust Pearl Jam to still surprise us in 2020. The Seattle rock gods have made an album we didn't know we needed.
“Gigaton” is a fascinating and ambitious 12-track collection with a cleaner, crisper sound that is studded with interesting textures, topped by Eddie Vedder's still-indignant voice.
Many songs switch gears and morph into something else before they're done, as if the group was restless to try something else. Bandmates have also switched instruments on this, their 11th studio album and their first in seven years.
“Gigaton” marks the band’s first co-production with Josh Evans, who previously worked with Soundgarden and Chris Cornell. He's helped pull out more experimentation, certainly from the messy last studio offering, “Lightning Bolt.”
The first single, “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” is easily one of the most exciting Pearl Jam songs in decades, with guitarist Stone Gossard playing chunky bass lines, Mike McCready offering splintering, chopping guitar riffs and Vedder's voice at its most mercurial, bursting out of the song's outline.
“Alright” is a nifty, spacey, Peter Gabriel-ish tune and “Comes Then Goes” is an acoustic ballad for a lost friend. Gossard sings backup vocals on his terrifically unsettling lullaby “Buckle Up” and drummer Matt Cameron shines on the excellent “Take the Long Way,” attacking his kit like a thrash act.
Environmental fears are a frequent motif, with Vedder often singing about oceans rising and an uneasy Earth. “You can't hide the lies/In the rings of a tree,” he sings on “Alright.” The album’s cover captures a Norwegian ice cap gushing and the title “Gigaton” is often used to measure human carbon dioxide emissions.
The band's distaste for current politics is also easily apparent: Vedder sings in one song that the “government thrives on discontent” and on “Never Destination” he mentions “collusion hiding in plain sight.”
Donald Trump is directly mentioned once, in “Quick Escape,” a rocking ditty about looking for a place, anyplace — Morocco, Zanzibar, Mars even — that the president hasn't destroyed yet. He later calls the sitting president an expletive on another track.
But despite the gloom, there's great hope on “Gigaton,” too, with Vedder cheerleading the resistance. “Swim sideways from this undertow and do not be deterred,” he counsels on “Seven O'Clock” and adds, “This is no time for depression.” And on the straightforward rocker “Superblood Wolfmoon,” he says: “Don't allow for hopelessness/Focus on your focusness/I've been hoping that our hope dies last.”
The album ends with the mournful “River Cross,” with the side that is right in a chokehold and outnumbered. Yet they will win: “Share the light/Won't hold us down,” Vedder sings, virtually sobbing, like a prayer. As for us, we can thank God they're back.