It Was 20 Years Ago Today…August 1996

Pearl Jam: No Code

This may not sound like a compliment, but I assure you it is. No Code is my third favorite Pearl Jam album. Their fourth overall release, No Code saw them successfully capitalizing on their expanded musical palate begun with Vitalogy. The album features the first album track with somebody not named Eddie Vedder on a vocal track (more on that later) and a spoken word track with a sung chorus.

The album starts off with the quiet and down tempo “Sometimes”, which they used to open their show when I saw them at Key Arena in September 2009. The track itself is about realizing that you are only a small part of the world.

Track two, “Hail Hail”, comes out of the gates with a monster hook of a guitar line. Lyrically, the song praises those in love while asking the question “where do we go when we die”. Thematically, we are building on the theme of “Sometimes”, when you are a small part of a large world, there is comfort to be found in finding the love of another.

Who You Are” was the first single from the album, and also a fairly drastic departure, single-wise for the band. Brilliantly, though, the song uses imagery of “clapping hands” to describe the fleetingness of life, which only exists for any one person until the “stoplight” of life “plays its part”. In the first three songs on the album, Pearl Jam have told their fans, effectively, that their life is only a brief portion of the time on this earth, but you better get out there and live it.

Track 5, “Smile”, brings the band in full on Neil Young homage mode, complete with harmonica and feedback guitars. The lyrics seem to be about the rigors of the road, a supposition which is borne out by the fact that Dennis Flemion, lead singer of The Frogs (whose cover of “Rearviewmirror” was the b-side of “Immortality” from the previous Pearl Jam album Vitalogy) received writing credit for the “Don’t it make you smile/when the sun don’t shine” line which makes up the heart of the song.

Off He Goes” is another track about the rigors of touring/road trip life. Vedder sings about being a “picture amongst the many on the shelf”. Yet, for all the setbacks of those rigors, Vedder seems to admit that, rather than sinking into the easy and mundane life outside of touring, he can’t wait to get back on tour, as if touring has become the normal part of his life and life has become the thing to be tolerated.

Habit” is a track which can be related to any loved one you see going down the path of using drugs and/or alcohol to get through their day. Then the line “speaking as a child of the 90s” is thrown in, harkening back to Vedder’s collaboration with Mike Watt on “Against the 70s”. Just had to put that out there…right, next track.

Track 10, “Lukin” is the closest Pearl Jam have come to fulfilling their punk rock tendencies. The track clocks in at a mere 63 seconds (shorter in concert, oh yes), but tells a story of Vedder being in a supermarket, getting confronted by the huband of a stalker, who accuses him of rape, and realizing that, having forgotten his keys, the nearest place he can go and crash for the night is the couch of the drummer form Mudhone, Matt Lukin. Remember, 63 second song, all that information packed into the story… Yet another track where the trappings of fame and touring have reared themeselves, not just in Vedder’s life, but in the lifes of those around and acquainted with him. Sure, Matt Lukin will let him crash on the couch for the night, but Vedder wouldn’t have needed to get out of the supermarket so badly if his stalker’s husband hadn’t accosted him in the first place. Brilliantly simple yet stunning song.

Mankind” is the first track to be featured on a Pearl Jam album to not have Eddie Vedder singing lead vocals. Instead, Stone Gossard, who also wrote the lyrics, takes over vocal duties. The song seems to be about how fake culture has become, and how vapid so much pop music was during the mid-90s. Meanwhile, the first verse compares everybody but him to a Bacchanal, honoring the god Bacchus, the god of wine.

The aforementioned spoken word verse track is the penultimate song on the album, titled “I’m Open”. The song tells the story of a man, lying in a room with no door, in a bed with no sheets, remembering the time in his life when he lost the magic of youth. The final few lines of the song reveal that the man has decided to busy himself with remaking who hs is into somebody he wants to be. We have no idea why the man finds himself in the room on the bed, but the subject suggests that he has reached a low point in his life, is remembering back to when things were simpler, and is in the process of deciding to change his own trajectory.

No Code closes with “Around the Bend”, a lullaby of sorts for a small child, with lyrics about tucking someone in, closing their eyes and being an angel when asleep. Vedder wrote the lryics, but had no children as of the recording of No Code. It’s possible he wrote the song about coming back to his wife after being on the road, except for the fact that the words “little chld” appear in the song. Overall, the track closes a remarkably cohesive album, detaling Pearl Jam’s struggles with the trappings of fame, from being away from loved ones to having crazy stalkers, to their feelings toward pop radio choosing vapid music over songs with substance and meaning.

Pearl Jam are currently celebrating their 25th anniversary as a band, having just played sold out shows in Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. In October 2014, in Moline, IL, they performed the album in its entirety live and in order unannounced. Through the years, the band have been hailed by fans for having diverse setlists, keeping the audience guessing, rather than playing the same songs every night for two hours. Instead, they regularly give fans three hours of music featuring unique setlists, deep tracks, cover songs, and pepper in their classic tracks.

I said at the beginning of this review that No Code is my third favorite Pearl Jam album, which I mean as a compliment to their abilities. They may never again match the artistry and intensity of Ten, but the only other album they’ve made which outranks this one is their second album, Vs. Unfortunately, Vitalogy has tracks which, while serving to expand their musical palate, work best only in the context of the album, and also features “Stupid Mop”, a song so unlistenable, I don’t even have it in my Itunes. No Code is set to be re-released on vinyl within the coming weeks. It has been remastered specifically for the format, and I for one am very much looking forward to the day when the package arrives on my doorstep.

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