Thursday, September 22, 2011


There's a lot of nostalgia around '90s music these days. Pearl Jam is celebrating their 20th anniversary via a documentary film directed by Cameron Crowe, the accompanying book and soundtrack and their recent two day festival.  Nirvana, meanwhile, are releasing various versions of the 20th anniversary edition of their breakthrough album, Nevermind.

I always thought that the sort of clash between the bands was silly, and never felt the need to choose between them.  That said, when Kurt Cobain complained about Pearl Jam being "corporate rock" in Rolling Stone (the issue where he wore the "corporate magazines still suck" t-shirt on the cover), I found that a bit annoying. Sure, Ten was slick sounding... but so was Nevermind. (And Geffen had Andy Wallace remix the album after they turned down producer Butch Vig's original mix... which will be available in the super-deluxe version of the reissue).

Nirvana was more abrasive, and Pearl Jam was more inclusive. Nevermind kicked down doors and changed music overnight, Pearl Jam took a bit longer to find their audience (despite the fact that their music is more accessible).  Nirvana was always more credible, Pearl Jam easier to make fun of.  I never cared about any of that.

Nirvana left behind a pretty untouchable -- but small -- body of work. Three albums, lots of singles and B-sides, and great live shows (I never saw them in concert). Kurt Cobain is in the "27" club with Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison and (I guess) Winehouse. We never saw him get old, Nirvana never fell off, it's all perfectly preserved in our memories, and I guess there's something about that that people romanticize.

As a 40-something, I have a much greater appreciation for what Pearl Jam has done. They've stuck it out. They're not pretending to be 20-somethings, they're not pretending to be anything they're not. They're grown men and they write songs from that perspective.  Has everything they've ever done lived up to the promise of Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy?  No. But that's how life is: everything doesn't always come out great, but you keep going. And you hit upon some brilliant moments during the ride.

That's kind of what Rob Sheffield wrote about today on Rolling Stone, when discussing R.E.M.'s breakup.  He said "People love to complain that R.E.M. should have broken up when Bill Berry quit in 1997, to preserve their legacy in a pristine state. Except this misses the fundamental point of R.E.M., which is that rock and roll is something you do, something that's part of your real sloppy life, rather than a fleeting phase. They decided not to be a 'go out in a blaze of glory' band like The Smiths or Husker Du, and they also decided not to be a 'blaze gloriously and then kinda fade out so everybody assumes you broke up even though maybe you officially didn't' kind of band, like Echo and the Bunnymen or The Jesus and Mary Chain. They decided to be a 'run it into the ground' band, plowing ahead whether they had the wind at their backs or not."  I disagree with Mr. Sheffield a bit, as I loved R.E.M.'s 2008 album Accelerate, but generally speaking, the wind has not been at their backs since Bill left.

The wind hasn't always been at Pearl Jam's backs either, and at points, it seemed to be blowing directly at them. I'm glad they stuck it out, and keep sticking it out. It would have been easy to call it a day: none of these guys need the money at this point. And I would admit that not all of their albums seem as inspired as their early ones.  But parts of Backspacer mean as much to me as anything they've ever done. "The Fixer" is like my mantra.  "Unthought Known," "Just Breathe" and "Amongst The Waves" move me as much as anything they've done before.  I'm glad they stuck around long enough to make that album, and I can't wait to hear what the next one is like.

1 comment:

Will said...

Well said.