Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Words seem out of place, or, where this blog got its name

1995 was a creatively fruitful year for Pearl Jam.
This blog has existed for over a year now and it occurred to me that I've never mentioned what inspired the name. Words Seem Out of Place comes from the lyrics to an improvised Pearl Jam song played exactly once, on March 17, 1995 in Melbourne, Australia.  After writing about Pearl Jam's No Code turning twenty last month, it seems only appropriate to follow up with the story of the blog's title now, which is really the story of the improv that inspired it.

"Better Man" has long been a concert highlight, when the band segues into a portion of the English Beat's "Save It For Later" or an improv at the end of the song. At this particular show in Melbourne, the band improvised a delicately beautiful three-plus minute song at the end of "Better Man" that's been dubbed "Words Seem Out of Place." Eddie Vedder's vocals are full of wistful longing, with the song building slowly towards a cathartic, yet still controlled, denouement. No official lyrics exist for it, and Vedder was likely making up some of them on the spot, so it can be hard to decipher all of it on bootlegs or YouTube. But it seems to be about struggling with something and finding it hard to put those feelings into words. He sings, "Falling out of my face / words just seem out of place." Those lyrics, tied to that absolutely sublime guitar interplay from the band, haunted me for years after I first heard the song on a bootleg album in the late 1990s. The fact that the song is a one-off, and not even a fully formed song, only enhances my affection for it. I never forgot that song or its lyrics about feeling inarticulate or shy or unsure. Over the years whenever I felt like words failed me, or that my words failed someone else, this is the song I'd hear in my head. When I started this blog, it was immediately apparent to me what I had to name it.

Melbourne '95 is one of several legendary Pearl Jam shows from that tour, including their epic sets at Chicago's Soldier Field and Milwaukee's Summerfest. That year was a turning point for the band, as well as their first full year with Jack Irons on drums. Vitalogy had just released in late '94 and the band really bloomed creatively with that album and the Self Pollution Radio broadcasts and tours of America, Japan, and Australia in '95. That era with Irons on drums ('94–'98) stands out as an utterly unique time in their history, thanks in large part to Irons himself. Not only his drumming, but his calming influence over the other band members, at a time when the walls seemed to be closing in on them. During the early years of this era, Pearl Jam had transitioned into being the single biggest band on the planet. Overwhelmed by all that came with that, Vedder and the band retreated a bit but stayed fierce—taking on Ticketmaster showed they had the same spirit they'd always had. On the music side of things, Irons' drumming style was far different from any drummer the band's had before or since. He brought a tribal and polyrhythmic style with him, allowing the band to stretch out more, to be looser and explore new sounds and emotions. "Words Seem Out of Place" is a good example of Pearl Jam's sound in the mid-'90s: experimental, unconventional, and beautiful. Most of their best songs from those years—"Who You Are," "Sometimes," "Off He Goes," "Present Tense," "Low Light," "Given to Fly," "All Those Yesterdays," and "Wishlist"—are achingly beautiful, full of intricate detail and subtle touches. Vedder was writing incredibly thoughtful and introspective lyrics during this stretch that were about seeking answers to how and where we fit in the world.

"Words Seem Out of Place" has always seemed like a another potentially great song that would have slotted in right next to those others on the list, had it been developed further. As it stands though, it's still powerfully moving and one of several intriguing improvs from their career ("Out of My Mind" being one that took on a life of its own among fans), each of which prove how spontaneous and unique each Pearl Jam concert can be.

Here are the lyrics, found in various places across the Interwebs. They seem pretty accurate to my ears. A fan-shot video of the performance, synced with what sounds like a soundboard recording, follows at the bottom of this post.

I seem so overcome, yeah...

Words seem so out of place
words they fall off my altar
How did I get to this place?

Seems so, sounds so familiar
Lost in my dying, cold cry...

All their dreams, there's a million, yeah...
So does it feel time to say a prayer?

Hey, yeah... (2x)

Words they seemed out of place
Words they seem out of place
Falling out on my face, yeah...

Words just seem out of place...

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