by Bill Lambusta
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
This is one that my opinion probably differs from most. After the “return to form” on Yield and the success of the band’s cover of “Last Kiss,” many were probably expecting a more accessible set of songs. But Pearl Jam decided to eschew expectations, dumping longtime producer Brendan O’Brien for the little known Tchad Blake. Because of Blake’s unique microphone techniques, many fans were split on whether they appreciated the continued experimentation or were turned off by the sonically busy, muddy tones. I too was initially disappointed, but standouts like “Light Years” and “Nothing As It Seems” opened the window that allowed me to get inside and unlock the door for this album. The album is also remarkable for the introduction of former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron as a permanent fixture within the band. Although it took time for me to appreciate it, his propulsive, insistent rhythms on the first 3 tracks are absolutely delightful, rivaling the opening tracks of Vitalogy, even.
Riot Act (2002)
The band was just settling into the role of elder statesmen who had finished enduring the ups and downs of a career in popular music, coming out the other side with proven consistency and a legendary live show (as documented in the fantastic concert film Touring Band 2000). Unfortunately, the band got a little too used to that role, causing them to sound absolutely comfortable on this outing. The country was still enduring the aftermath of 9/11 and the band, Vedder especially, were channeling too many mixed emotions—anger at the US administration in getting us into wars some questioned as justifiable, appreciation for the sense of community that followed the days immediately after the attacks, plus the beginning of a new romantic relationship for Vedder—to actually create a cohesive statement. Ultimately, the album is too long and highlights like “Thumbing My Way” and “I Am Mine” aren’t enough to make this album have any significance in the long run.
Self Titled (aka The Avocado) (2006)
I was amazed that a band entering their mid-40s and 15th year as a band could muster the kind of energy and anger that is prominent on this release. Unfortunately, the bombast of songs like “World Wide Suicide” and “Severed Hand” wasn’t maintained throughout the whole track list as the middle gets a little boring and the final quarter of the album ends up relying on some old tricks borrowed from Yield. At the time, it was great to see that PJ still had it in them and could remain relevant as more than aging nostalgia rockers, but compared to what came before it and after it, this work is just a pretty good chapter in the middle of a great novel.
Pearl Jam, a band well known for its dour seriousness, finally managed to sound like they were having fun. And they did it for an entire collection of tunes. This was largely due to the influence of producer Brendan O’Brien, collaborating with the band for the first time since 1998’s Yield, and the band finally allowing him to collaborate on the songs’ structures and arrangements. Although it’s hard to remove McCready and Gossard’s guitars and Vedder’s signature baritone from the rock world, this is the closest the band has ever gotten to composing pop tunes. For an album so deep into a band’s career, it’s surprising to find many of their absolute best songs represented—new wave rocker “The Fixer,” straightforward acoustic ballad “Just Breathe,” anthemic “Amongst the Waves,” and epic “Unthought Known.” Add to that a well-balanced track list that was the briefest of their career, and you have one of the band’s best albums.
Lightning Bolt (2013)
You ever hear of too much of a good thing? This album is that. Since the last outing with O’Brien at the helm worked so well, the band attempted to recreate the formula. But instead of another grand recreation of the band’s sound, we get them resting on their laurels, forcing O’Brien to pick up the slack. Occasionally, the band succeeds in pushing the sound of Backspacer into new territories with songs like “Mind Your Manners” and “Pendulum,” but for the first time in their career, they end up sounding overwrought on the centerpiece “Sirens” and plain old dumb on rave up “Let the Record Play.” Then there’s a bunch of mostly forgettable filler songs that sound like PJ doing a poor imitation of themselves at various points in their career—“Swallowed Whole,” “Yellow Moon.” Luckily, in doing that, the album is never more than half bad.