Pearl Jam - Binaural
Not a surprise. The second best rock album of the decade saw Eddie Vedder and the crew at the peak of their powers with an album that distils all of the band's influences to create something that wouldn't be out of place in the back catalogues of Pink Floyd or The Who. Sleight Of Hand is a brooding, sonic masterpiece that ebbs and flows like cross-town traffic before culminating in a crescendo of Vedder's cracked vocal and wailing guitars; it sounds like it could knock down buildings, whereas Breakerfall is over before its even begun, a smash'n'grab record, swirling by in a cluster of charged aggression and pinpoint noise.
"When we looked up the word 'binaural,' it meant to listen with both ears. So it seemed like a fitting title for the album" - Stone GossardBinaural sees Stone Gossard produce some of his best work on a Pearl Jam album, including Of The Girl (more on this later). Gossard created polar opposites in Thin Air and Rival; as Thin Air explores the emotional release of being in love, Rival is Gossard reflecting, attempting to understand the mindset of a killer and those they touch, in the barren aftermath of the Columbine massacre.
American News Report at Columbine
While the naysayers would point to tracks such as Gods' Dice or Evacuation as a sign of the album's inconsistency, it is worth understanding the fragility of the band in the face of uncertainty and change, something which is approached in both Light Years and Nothing As It Seems. While Gods' Dice is by no means Jeff Ament's key contribution to Pearl Jam's history (that would be Nothing As It Seems), the swirling mess it became is emblematic of a band cutting loose and playing their full hand, refusing to buckle or capitulate to petty infighting or external pressures, as their contemporaries, and heroes, such as The Beatles did.
"There is a lot of music out there that is very easy to digest but we never wanted to be part of it" - Eddie VedderThis is not to say that the album didn't suffer a troubled genesis. Jack Irons' departure saw Pearl Jam recruit their fourth drummer in six albums, former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, whilst lead guitarist Mike McCready went into rehab for an addiction to prescription drugs. To top it all off, Vedder had the music for the songs that would become Insignificance and Grievance, but no lyrics. And nothing was forthcoming. And then Vedder swore himself off the guitar; then he set eyes on a ukelele.
Soon Forget would habitually be forgotten, sandwiched as it is between Sleight of Hand and the focussed, destructive distortion of Parting Ways, but for its innocent soul, betrayed by a darker set of lyrics as Vedder waves goodbye to a man of destitute greed. He holds wealth, but he is a man without purpose, truly insignificant.
At the prompting of producer Tchad Blake (Binaural was the first Pearl Jam album not produced by Brendan O'Brien), Binaural is an album that focusses wholeheartedly on moods and feelings, whether those are the highest highs (Thin Air) or the crushing lows (Light Years, Parting Ways). Indeed, the mood of fan favourite Sad (originally called Letter to the Dead) was deemed too "pop" by the band, according to Ament, and was cut, as was the Blake-endorsed Fatal. Although both of these tracks would get the eventual release they deserved on Lost Dogs, its difficult to see how the album could have been considered worse of if these tracks had been included. A straight swap with Gods' Dice and Evacuation would see little argument about which is the best studio album - Binaural by a knockout.
The true meaning of Light Years
Binaural's original tracklisting:
4 Letter to the Dead (Later renamed as Sad)
5 Rival *
7 Light Years
8 Of The Girl *
9 Thin Air
10 Nothing As It Seems *
12 Sleight Of Hand *
13 Soon Forget *
14 In The Moonlight
15 Parting Ways
* indicates use of binaural recordingThe pressed album certainly flows better, but whether this is due to familiarity is not so clear. At 16 tracks, however, a cull was inevitable, as 2002's Riot Act feels bloated at 15; as above, whether the right tracks remained in place is an issue of personal preference, but the album's quality remains undiminished. The Guardian's dismissal of the album's "duds" in its 2000 review could well include tracks like Grievance and Rival, but the anger and emotion that is prevalent in the tracks lifts them high above Gods' Dice or Evacuation; as Vedder wails on Grievance, "you don't give blood, then take it back again. We're all deserving something more".
"Because Mike wasn't all there, and there was a 'get-to-know-you' thing with Matt, everyone wasn't on the same page" - Stone GossardThe evolution of Pearl Jam has continued because of their embrace of the past and a burning hope for a better future, and this is apparent in the use of binaural recording techniques on some of the songs, one of the most successful of which is the Gossard-penned Of The Girl. A love story brimming with sweeping guitars that sound like trains edging away from a station platform, a juddering, bluesy mid-section sees the occasional jams of a Pearl Jam live show brought into the studio. Small tremblings of guitar not dissimilar to Jimi Hendrix echo all over the backdrop; a soundscape of buried treasure. Of The Girl is full of mystery, even after the five or so years that I've been listening to Binaural, I've never truly gotten to the bottom of the track, never completely discerned just what it is that creates such an air of abstract detachment that draws you in completely, not unlike the entire album itself.
"The reason that we went with Tchad Blake is because he provides an amazing atmosphere to songs....So, I think we wanted the artwork to represent that" - Jeff AmentThe emptiness of giant spaces and the feeling of being a miniscule something within them prompted the use of photographs from NASA's Hubble Telescope for the album's cover, inserts and liner notes. Examining these with Nothing As It Seems as the soundtrack creates a dense, crushing feeling that Pearl Jam never really captured before or since: "A scratching voice all alone, its nothing like your baritone" - Nothing As It Seems
Ultimately, as highlighted by the selection below, Binaural is about a band examining a new direction, and although Pearl Jam didn't reinvent themselves to the extent that Radiohead did with Kid A, the progression from Yield, a balls-out rock'n'roll album, to an introspective work full of elongated tracks and spacially beautiful arrangements (April Cameron's viola and Justine Foy's cello on Parting Ways stand out in my mind) helped Pearl Jam to create their most atmospheric work.
A fractured, aching masterpiece.
Nothing As It Seems
Of The Girl
sleight of hand
Wish You Were Here