Friday, August 26, 2016

Who You Are: Pearl Jam's No Code Turns Twenty

Twenty years ago this week, Pearl Jam released No Code. This raises two questions in my mind. First, where the hell did those two decades of my life go? Second, has the album held up all these years later? To the first question I can only shake my head in disbelief and mutter to myself. To the second, I can answer unequivocally that yes, No Code does indeed hold up. In fact, it's an album that's only improved with both age and some distance from the preconceptions of critics and fans back in 1996. Songs like "Sometimes," "Hail Hail," "Off He Goes," and "Present Tense" are near-perfect examples of what the band does best: heartfelt sincerity laced with a strong does of caustic world-wariness. Other tracks like "Smile" and "Red Mosquito" remind us what ramshackle fun their music can be. And the lead single and polyrhythmic tour-de-force "Who You Are" simply baffled listeners—it sounded unlike anything the band had recorded before. Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, and Jack Irons combined to make an album full of extraordinary depth and nuance. At the time of No Code's release, however, the prevailing response was one of confusion—"This isn't the band that recorded Ten, is it?" They had been the World's Biggest Band for several years at that point, but not long after No Code that label started to fade. This was a band that had sold nearly one million copies of Vs. during its first week of release in 1993. No Code couldn't compete with those numbers. Critics and fans alike complained that it was too strange, too loose, and just not enough like Ten or Vs. These people couldn't seem to wrap their heads around the fact that the band had been evolving for years, with each new album bringing with it new and experimental tendencies. This seemed to peak during that era with Vitalogy and No Code, which coincidentally or not might just be their two best records. Both albums are bold statements from a band that was spreading out and evolving, becoming something more than an arena rock band. The music they made during those years—including their work with Neil Young on Merkin Ball and Mirrorball—incorporated new and extremely satisfying elements to their sound, to this listener's ears at least. Thankfully, it seems that others are starting to recognize this also, with critical reevaluations of the band's catalog popping up frequently these days. There's an article at the AV Club this week, detailing what made No Code special and how it deserves to be remembered alongside the band's best work.

It's hard to untangle my feelings for Pearl Jam from my own personal experiences over the years I've spent listening to their music, and especially my salad days of the 1990s. They were the first band that I truly felt spoke to me. It was as if they stole the lyrics right out of my head. Eddie Vedder was the first rock star I ever cared enough about to want to be like. During the 1990s, he was sometimes dismissed for being overly earnest and overly serious. This was utter bullshit. If you paid any attention to the band, it was clear that Vedder was intelligent, kind, and in possession of a gleefully dark sense of humor. He was also incredibly thoughtful and appeared to simply feel things in ways that could often be crippling to him and was often mocked for this. Even today we all still have that friend who continues to make fun of Vedder and Pearl Jam for these qualities. But Pearl Jam was the perfect tonic for a kid like me who was too thoughtful about his life—to the point of feeling things too intensely or simply wanting to shut out the world so I could feel nothing instead. They showed me that it was okay to be who I was—"You are who you are"—and fuck anyone who tried to tell me differently. They spoke to the various facets of my personality and only further cemented who I was becoming during those years. Being earnest, sarcastic, hopeful, pessimistic, resistant may sound like I'm a Gen X stereotype, but that's fine with me. I think the qualities that an older generation was dismissively assigning to us back then were rebelled against because of the messenger's negativity. They claimed we didn't care about anything; in reality we cared too much about everything. That's why kids like me found Pearl Jam's music so life affirming. They believed in things and even fought for those beliefs, such as their mid-'90s battle with Ticketmaster. They maintained a healthy distrust for authority—"I don't want to hear from those who know"—because why should we trust those in charge who lied and got us into this mess in the first place? It's obviously not as simple as all of this and it only grows more complicated the older you get, when you begin to worry about being part of the problem yourself. As Vedder sings on the blistering and trenchant "Not For You" from No Code's predecessor, the seismic and absolutely essential Vitalogy: "all that's sacred comes from youth / dedication, naive and true / with no power, nothing to do / I still remember, why don't you." Like Vedder, I too remember how it felt to be young and confused, or ignored, or dismissed. Holding on to these feelings as we grow up reminds us of what we believe in and who we want to be.

In the summer of 1996 I was wading into a sea of uncertainty. By contrast, the previous summer had been spent working long and grueling hours at a catering job with other malcontents and goofballs, breaking free for nightly adventures with a couple of close friends, and finally dating a girl I'd crushed on for years only to discover that she was actually as cool as I'd dreamed she was. In other words, it was good summer. Of course I didn't always realize how good I had it at the time. Youthful angst and insecurities combined to cloud my perspective a bit. I've written about that summer, which was in many ways the last time that I was mostly free of responsibility—I had two years of college left so the urgency was still barely visible off in the distance. By the summer of 1996 though, that urgency was approaching like a speeding bullet. I was jobless and bummed out about it, plus I lived long distance from the girl I'd been dating since spring semester—the same girl, incidentally, who became the woman I've built a life with that includes two amazing children. So I was madly in love that summer, in a way I'd never been before, but also increasingly nervous about what lay ahead after senior year. It was at this point in late August that No Code dropped, and to say I'd been eagerly anticipating it would be an understatement. In the envelope, tucked inside one of the many letters we sent each other that summer, my future wife included an article about No Code. Is it any wonder I married this woman? A few days later the album released and I bought it as soon as the record store opened. I played it endlessly for days, weeks, and months even, completely addicted to its offbeat musical charms and deeply personal words. In a series of introspective songs, some slow and contemplative and others loud and fast, Vedder and the band provided a blueprint for how to proceed. Things wouldn't be easy, they might even get more difficult (they did), but if I remained true to myself and let the surrounding bullshit recede a bit, then I could get through anything. I've returned to that notion repeatedly in my life, especially when facing what feel like impossible obstacles. Having even a partial sense of who I am helps get me through it all.

It's also important, even necessary, to remember who we were. We grow and change, but we try to retain the parts of ourselves that represent the best of what we can be. It's a constant struggle, one that Pearl Jam was working out over a series of albums. That's why their music affected so many of us, and why it still endures today. In No Code's "In My Tree," Vedder revisits themes similar to those found in "Not For You," including how we need to retain a sense of youthful innocence in order to hold on to who we really are.
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
Yet another example of Pearl Jam's lasting impact. Twenty years after No Code, the album's themes remain relevant to anyone trying to better understand who they are and how they fit into this world.

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