remnants: Review: Pearl Jam's "Binaural"

Archival review of PJ's 2000 album

remnants: Review: Pearl Jam's "Binaural"

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The algorithm has been feeding me live footage of various recent Pearl Jam shows and I was particularly struck by a clip of "Breakerfall" from Las Vegas, a song from 2000's Binaural. That was my last record before I got off the Pearl Jam bus and I hadn't listened to it in forever, but that footage made me pull the record back out and it made for delightful driving-around music over this past gorgeous weekend. It still holds up and if Pearl Jam tickets weren't even more expensive than Springsteen tickets I would probably go check out this tour.

Long-time readers may recall that from 1995-2002-ish I was one of the founders and primary writer of Five Horizons, one of the earliest unofficial band websites. If you are interested in that story, I was a guest on the PJ podcast Live On 4 Legs back in 2021 and you can listen to it here.

tl;dr I thought I'd go dig out my review of Binaural from Five Horizons and rerun it here. This review is 24 years old so please take that into consideration.

"Now is the winter of our discontent": Binaural in review

"Well, what can a poor boy do
‘cept to sing for a rock and roll band
because sleepy Seattle town ain't no place
for a street fighting man..."
--with apologies to Jagger/Richards, "Street Fighting Man"

In December of 1999, the streets of Seattle were transformed into an international battleground with the arrival of the World Trade Organization. No matter whether you agreed or disagreed, didn't care or took direct action, you could not be a thinking individual living in this town and not be affected by what happened that week, directly or indirectly. Some people threw bottles, some people dressed up as giant green sea turtles, some people hid in their houses, some people practiced civil disobedience. And if you were Pearl Jam, sitting in the studio and working on what would come to be Binaural, you wrote songs about it. At the time, I rewrote "Street Fighting Man" in honor of PJ and sent it out to my friends; the running joke that week was that Ed was one of the giant green sea turtles. And I mused we'd get at least one version of "SFM" on the new record; instead, we got three, which form their own trilogy. But, I digress.

It would do this record a gross disservice to only focus on WTO as an influence or overriding theme; that's not all that's going on here. There's love, hope, guilt, restlessness, dissatisfaction, unease, cynicism, despair. This has never been a band to accept the status quo, but never has there been such introspective questioning, such outright discontent.

You could easily dismiss "Breakerfall" as just another Who-ish rocker to open an album with. It's not simple; it's just disguised as simple. Opening with a rock and roll scream worthy of Roger Daltrey, the Rickenbacker powerchords make this song irresistible; the multitracked layers form this delicate overlay that together just plain kicks ass. Matt Cameron's initial restraint speaks volumes. His characteristic less-is-more school fools you - anyone else would have kept the beat to the simple pattern that opens the song, or would have just overplayed the hell out of it. He gives the song room to breathe while still leaving his mark.

The main character in the song reminds me of the girl we met in "Why Go," a few years down the line. But, it's not hopeless, it's not desperate - the answer is there, all she has to do is ask. "Only love… will breakerfall". And it's telling that this is the message with which this record opens: love will still triumph. The world can end tomorrow but love will prevail. There's still hope. (And if you didn't want to read any more about the record, those two sentences pretty much explain the whole thing. Go out, enjoy the sunshine.)

"God's Dice" is a tumbling, crashing rollercoaster ride, with special guest star, Mike McCready. Anyone who says "Where's Mike" on this album isn't listening hard enough; he is everywhere, floating through these songs, gracing us with his presence. Cynical but laughing, resignation is the theme to this song - "It's out of my hands.../It's in the cards.../Why fight it?" Forces greater than us seem to be in control. God's dice, let go, let the cosmos decide, you can't do a damn thing about it anyway. There's also that restlessness mentioned earlier here, reflected in the music and the frantic delivery of the lyrics.

Megaphones, sirens – "Evacuation." This song, as befitting its obvious subject matter, starts off almost martial in feel. This is also the first song of the newest trilogy, mentioned earlier: the first is "Evacuation," the second is "Grievance," and the final song is "Insignificance." "Evacuation" is the post-punk panic anthem, and it's a battle cry, a call to arms. Our first taste of music by Matt Cameron, the man once quoted as saying "[Soundgarden song] 'Limo Wreck' is just your average 15/8 dirge."

So while the character in "God's Dice" seems somewhat resigned to accepting his fate, the protagonist in "Light Years" doesn't really seem to be that happy about it. Ed gave us a clue to the story behind this song when he opened for the Who at the House of Blues on 11/13/99:

"Okay, so that's obviously a death song ["Last Kiss"]...uh...I was thinking about that song, and I was thinking about.. you know... we lost... Chicago, you know... Walter [Payton, Chicago Bears, who died two weeks earlier]...and in the same week, in my family, we lost a woman who was so special and such a light while she was on this earth, and it's hard when they leave, it's just, the light, it's left in you, but it's hard."

In the end, the song ends up having two sides: a lovely, moving eulogy, and a tirade against fate; yet another list of questions that Ed wants an answer to.

It's so hard to look at "Nothing As It Seems" objectively since we've ‘known' it for so long. If you don't stand on your head trying to decipher the lyrics in any kind of analytical fashion, and instead view it as a solemn, hypnotic "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (not thematically, in its scattershot recitation of seemingly random phrases), it might work better for you. In any event, the dark, lush mood created by the music is confident, powerful, serene.

By this point in the record, one has almost no patience for love stories amidst the tales of death, destruction and despair. But love is a counterweight, a counterpoint, it provides balance to this record, and to life. "Thin Air" breezes in and creates some space amongst the gloom. We live, we love, or we die... and yet there's a connection – more mentions of light created by someone (instead of some thing). It's a gentle, lyrical ditty, and the first of Stone's three exceedingly diverse contributions to this record.

"Insignificance." Our second trilogy song, even though it's out of order; it should be at the end. This is the centerpiece of this album, and it is in my humble opinion not only the finest song Ed Vedder has ever written, but the finest moment of this band on record thus far. It's masterfully constructed, both lyrically and musically. It routes you through a story, a saga, it paints such vivid pictures. You could make a movie out of this song with what's said and what's between the lines. It creates a sense of urgency and elevation, of time running out. The guitars create the sound of falling bombs - not the sound of the bombs, but the feeling of falling. The vocal choruses provide a weight, a dignity.

This song is undeniably a Vedder composition, but the performance of it here exemplifies more than any other song on the record just how this band has become A BAND, a unified and collaborative whole. The chorus is the quintessence of Pearl Jam: all five musicians perfectly locked in musical step, in brilliant sequence - think the end of RVM or Immorality when they cease to be five individuals and become one mass of musical energy - but transcending anything that has ever gone before.

In the end, the pictures painted are what stop me in my tracks:

Turn the jukebox up' he said, dancing in irreverence
‘Play C3, let the song protest'

To me these lines are nothing short of genius. 15 words but I can SEE IT in my mind, I can feel it in my bones. I can see the scenes painted inside my mind, like a movie script: the protesters gathered in a bar at the end of the day – let the song protest, we've done all we can do. Is it Ed, sitting at home, playing his jukebox, while the world rages in the background? Or is it something else, another scene, a different interpretation that will occur to me tomorrow? I'm sure it will; I'm sure that in 20 years these pictures be just as vivid, will have lost none of their power.

The words roll effortlessly, carefully chosen, painting those pictures. It's a black and white movie in your head. The full moon. The bombs - literal or figurative? The world is ending, we tried, let's dance – and you know we will survive. Do we survive? ("It's wanna live" ) Or is it really the end of the world? It's hope and hopelessness in the same moment; It's not the end of the world. Or maybe it is the end of the world but the world goes on, somehow. It's a movie, it's a fucking EPIC SAGA – on a level with Springsteen's "Jungleland," one of the all time greatest rock and roll epics ever written -- in three minutes.

"Insignificance" is hope. It's despair. Finally, I believe it is triumph. And it's my prediction that this will be the song to watch this tour.

"Of the Girl" wouldn't be out of place on Exile on Main Street, which is probably one of the highest compliments one can give any song. Its primal, swamplike, Mick Taylor meets Duane Allman. Once again, what Mike doesn't play is almost more important than what he DOES play. The first time I heard this I said "KEEF" but I'm wrong - it's really Taylor-esque, evocative of "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" It's cyclical, pulsating, hypnotic, almost passionate. Compare this song to "Evacuation" and you couldn't be more diverse; it's the most unexpected song on the album.

"Grievance" (spot #2 in the trilogy) would appear on the surface to be just an obvious protest song, and of course it is; it's also the most blatant WTO anthem: "Pull the innocent from a crowd/raise the sticks then bring ‘em down/if they fail to obey..." But the lyrical shifts (what Ed sings vs. what's written in the liner notes) are what transform it from straight ahead rebellion into anthemic exhortation - "pledge your grievance to the flag" - this isn't just my problem, it's yours too. The end has you running through the streets yourself, running "to the sea," where we crash to the ground, exhausted but triumphant: "I will feel alive as long as I am free."

For the record, my one complaint about this record is here. I do not feel the production on the album does this song justice. At first I thought it was because my introduction to the song was Letterman, but it makes no difference. The other rockers on the album carry the same punch on record as they do live. It's just a shame and a tragedy because it is one of the cornerstones of the album.

"In America we like to have fun. Because we are an advanced culture... We live in a very advanced society and we have a futuristic way of taking care of our population problem...We give each other guns, and we kill each other..."
--EV, introduction to "Rival", 6/12/00

Stone Gossard wins the prize, hands down, for the most diverse contributions to this record: compare "Rival," "Thin Air," and "Of The Girl" and he'd get my vote for the person you'd either want to be seated next to at a dinner party (or conversely, the person you'd most likely want to avoid). This song is disturbing. It's jarring. It's likely the one song you'd program your CD player to skip. Musically, lyrically, thematically - even if Stone had never muttered the words "Columbine" to MTV (and if Ed hadn't annotated his liner note doodles), this song would bother you at a gut level. That's fine, because it's obviously supposed to have that effect. It's artful in the fact that it's this rollicking ditty – but then those guitars have so much crunch, which create the emotional disturbance necessary for this song.

"Sleight of Hand." This song didn't bother me and I didn't dislike it -- but it didn't immediately register one way or the other the way most of the other songs did. And then one Friday afternoon, I was sitting in a long line of traffic waiting to get onto the freeway (where I would be sitting in another long line of traffic to get home), I put the song on repeat and suddenly found myself sitting there sobbing uncontrollably.

"sometimes he hid in the radio"

It's a song about mindfulness, it's a song about time. And maybe it's hard to understand if you've never woken up and wondered where the year has gone. Or why you never seem to have enough time. It so accurately describes that dreamlike trance that so many people find themselves in, willingly or unwillingly –"something he hadn't imagined being".

"any new realizations would have to wait
til he had more time… more time"

Does it not cause your heart to stop, or feel a pang, or at least look at what you have and say – is this what I wanted? Is this where I wanted to go? Is this where I want to be? You have to fight to get what you want or the choice will be made for you; you will be "moved by sleight of hand". The music here is deliberately trancelike, hypnotic, rolling, shifting effortlessly – a parallel to what the song is telling us.

So it's no accident that the next song is "Soon Forget," as Ed's told us, "a reminder" . What he doesn't want to be. As we all already know (and Ed copped to in the liner notes with that ‘thanks p.t.'), it's a direct descendent of "Blue Red and Grey" from The Who By Numbers (which couldn't be more different thematically, although some of the Binaural songs wouldn't be out of place on By Numbers - but I digress) This is what happens when you don't pay attention, where the protagonist in "Sleight of Hand" could end up. While this song drips with sarcasm, there's also a layer of guilt in there.

"Parting Ways" could have a sitar on it; it's luscious, orchestral, majestic, "Long Road"-esque in its expansiveness. It's timeless, rich and poignant, the violins (courtesy April Cameron) underscoring the heartbreak behind this song. Lyrically, it presents vivid images with a small amount of words, which weave around the music to create a very strong emotion. I refuse to interpret "Parting Ways" as anything more than just another number –- no portents of doom here -- and while I personally would have rather seen "Insignificance" at the end of the record, this is really the only song that made sense as a closer.

When I wrote about Yield two years ago, I started by calling it "the most Pearl Jam of all of their records so far." And, that was 100% true at the time. It's amazing how far we can travel in only two years, because after the first two listenings, I had already ceded that place to Binaural, and everything that had come before had paled in comparison. Listening to the depth and growth and movement on this record, I don't know how anyone could possibly think that this is the end. We obviously have a very long way to go, and I'm happily making myself comfortable for the rest of the journey.

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