Pearl Jam fan or no, you have to admit that one trait the band does not possess is charm. You can admire, even love, Eddie Vedder’s intensity, his commitment, his deep brown eyes, but these dudes don’t flirt much. So it’s a bit of a surprise when, two-thirds into No Code, Vedder and Co. deliver the closest thing they’ve yet done to a cute pop song. “Mankind” sets up a not-surprising lyrical dichotomy on the nature of “real” rock vs. zircon, but more important, the song has the sing-along cachet of an old power-pop 45. With an undeniable hook—“It’s got the whole world fakin’”—adapted from an obscure Sam Cooke tune (he had it “shakin’”), and other playfully pseudo-meaningful words filling the brisk verses, it’s as obvious a hit as anything the band has done since “Jeremy.”
Like “Shiny Happy People” on R.E.M.’s Out of Time, however, “Mankind” is something of a red herring in the context of No Code. Although Pearl Jam’s fourth album doesn’t exactly invert the Vs./Vitalogy ratio of blare ’n’ pound to more reflective-sounding stuff, it feels that way. Notably, all the rockers here willfully avoid the majestic even as they move on out. “Mankind” is guitarist Stone Gossard’s blast against groups like Bush, who stole the grunge soul and hit the arenas running, while his crew fought the good fight against the Ticketmaster antichrist. “Habit” is a paradoxically gleeful rant against heroin, with backing vocals straight off Aerosmith’s Rocks. The “Paranoid” riffing of “Lukin” is gone in literally 60 seconds, about right for a ditty about Eddie locking himself out of the house.
Depending on how you feel about the more traditionally introspective moments on No Code, that image might come off as one of the album’s most telling. Vedder is quite simply the weakest link on several of these cuts. The long, slow build of “Present Tense,” an impressive band performance, doesn’t really take off until the singer’s self-help lecture—“You can spend your time alone redigesting past regrets…/Or you can come to terms and realize you’re the only one who cannot forgive yourself”—is over. Why can’t he just shut up and drink? Unfortunately, the blank lyric sheet included for this song is obviously meant to point up its significance to Vedder and perhaps the others. Shudder.
Some of Vedder’s musings aren’t blessed with such sympathetic backing. The closing chamber ballad, “Around the Bend,” is pretty but meanders as the frontman pays tribute to the Annie showstopper “Tomorrow.” “Sometimes” also just kind of wanders around the room trying to clear its head, an album-opening gambit that can succeed when a strong point of view is at work. But there isn’t one in this tune. “Off He Goes” suggests the continuing influence of occasional Pearl Jam collaborator Neil Young, but despite its acoustic subtlety and a relatively strong melody, the track isn’t worthy of its spiritual and musical father. Again, Vedder is somewhat to blame: The lyric’s hapless motorcycle boy is apparently meant to represent the real, pre-stardom Eddie. The guy spends the past year laying pretty low, and still his fans have to pay to listen to this guilt-tripping. It’s smarter than the crap Axl Rose spewed at magazine editors on Use Your Illusion, but not by much.
Vedder probably means well, but he must know that the bulldozer cover of the proto-feminist Eddie Holland/Who/Motörhead standard “Leavin’ Here” that Pearl Jam contributed to the Home Alive benefit album earlier this year carries a lot more weight than these mutterings. Likewise, the most effective moments on No Code come when the band decides to just blast away the clouds of adulthood. The record’s real triumphs harness Pearl Jam’s instrumental power while drawing from a new wellspring of creativity. “Who You Are” (the disc’s first single) and “In My Tree” are percussive marvels that integrate Vedder’s voice into Zeppelinesque whirls of psychedelia and Eastern sounds. It’s harder to grasp word-for-word what he’s singing about in these two songs, but his complaints about “my innocence” ring out with all the more conviction when given a good kicking-around. Vedder seems to recognize this, too, as the mystery of “Who You Are” and “In My Tree,” like that of “Lukin,” is preserved by the songs’ absence from the printed lyrics.
This combination of experiment and fervor would seem to be the answer to whatever aesthetic dead end Pearl Jam is trying to avoid. Me, I thought Vitalogy was—and is—the band’s best yet. Maybe the revival of its stage strengths promised by the current tour will remind Pearl Jam of what makes the group vital indeed. Granted, Vedder’s not just a singer in a rock ’n’ roll band. But he’s not gifted with the wisdom of the ages, either. Leave that to Lemmy.CP