What a difference a decade makes. Eleven years after taking the music world by storm with the grunge/arena rock classic Ten, Pearl Jam’s latest offering finds them light years away from the anthematic alt-rock they helped create. Unlike Creed (whose lead singer, Scott Stapp, is essentially an Eddie Vedder clone on steroids) or any number of similar modern rock bands whose style they pioneered, Pearl Jam eschews the bombast and bravado, opting instead for the straightforward, no frills rock established by their last offering, Binaural.
Pearl Jam was never a band that basked in the warm and lucrative glow of the media (they stopped making music videos after Ten), and Riot Act presents them at their most self-effacing. By design, the songs on Riot Act refuse to draw attention to themselves. They are tightly controlled and claustrophobic — the choruses are unobtrusive and the guitar solos always seem to end before they have really begun. Where on the band’s early albums Eddie Vedder bellowed like a noble savage off the mountaintop, on much of this album he sounds as if he is mumbling half-forgotten stories to his grandkids from his rocking chair.
All of this is not to say that the album doesn’t rock. In fact it is the band’s loudest and fastest studio album since 1994’s Vitology. But Pearl Jam is capable of musical pyrotechnics few other bands can match, and only a handful of these songs really catch fire, let alone explode.
As usual with Pearl Jam albums, the band splits up the songwriting burden, with a few songs written by each member, including drummer and former Soundgardener Matt Cameron. But the strongest songs by far are Vedder’s. “Love Boat Captain” starts slowly but builds to a propulsive, ringing climax, and the lovely “Thumbing My Way” highlights the underrated talent for acoustic ballads that Vedder previously brought to songs such as No Code’s “Off He Goes.”
But the real standout here is “I am Mine,” a swirling folk-rock epic that is easily Pearl Jam’s best song in years. It’s a stark reminder not only of the dizzy heights this band can reach, but also of how far most of this album is from those peaks. Vedder’s lyrics are earnest as ever, and he even finds space for a half spoken-word swipe at our president in “Bushleaguer,” where he quips “He’s not a leader, he’s a Texas Leaguer.”
In the end, Riot Act is a fine album with few surprises. If they were an unknown band, they’d be hailed as the next big thing, joining with the Hives and the Strokes to save rock from its overindulgent, bloated self. But this is Pearl Jam, and with the help of a few other Seattle bands, they’ve already helped resuscitate rock once (from the curse of the hair bands).
So the bar is set a bit higher for them, and in Riot Act, Pearl Jam clears that bar but doesn’t vault over it. With the preponderance of overwrought alt-rockers on the radio and TV, it’s hard not to respect the taut, unassuming and accomplished craft on display in Riot Act. The problem is, it’s even harder to fall in love with it.