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Pearl Jam:: S/T (Album Review)

Four years on from their last studio album and almost six years to the day since their last European gig (the tragic Roskilde Festival where nine fans died), Eddie Vedder and co have resolved a few business issues, regained their fire and made an album that, if nothing else, will remind a few million people that there’s life in the old Seattle dogs yet. Fifteen years and 60 million album sales into their career, you can probably reasonably expect signs of fatigue in the audience, with fans at either end of the age spectrum moving on to different sounds and scene setters for their rock kicks. If so, this re-emergence by the band should reawaken more than a little curiosity.

Initially, the metal horror art / graphics on the CD and its booklet seem at odds with the tasteful avocado cover, but these are songs about war, life and death, love and loss. There’s not a USA World Cup song in sight. Equally, the band are in confident mood, kicking off the album with a cryptic Matt Cameron drum beat that’ll have you checking the CD isn’t skipping. The guitar onslaught that follows on the album’s opening triptych – “Life Wasted”, “World Wide Suicide” and the AC/DC inspired “Comatose” – has ‘mosh pit’ written large across every raging riff.

Lyrically, Vedder now has an even richer vein of American / World politics to tear into. “World Wide Suicide” – that’ll be Iraq, then – references “Medals on a wooden mantle, next to a handsome face, that the President took for granted”. And “Marker In The Sand”, is an evocation of an absent religious deity, with “both sides claim killing in God’s name”. Meanwhile, “Severed Hand”‘s rifferama tops a tale of substance experimentation, in which Vedder promises: “You’ll see dragons after three or four”.

More bizarre is “Big Wave”, Vedder’s take on evolution, in which he claims “I used to be a crustacean” before the song veers off into a dreamy prog-rock denouement surfing a mighty guitar solo. However, it’s at the midway point, with “Parachutes”, when things get a whole lot more interesting. This is a peach of a love song, McCartneyesque in melody and acoustic guitar accompaniment, with Vedder just about pulling off the touching vocal. “Come Back”, however, is the album’s undoubted highlight – a soulful, bluesy ballad that could conceivably turn up on “American Idol”, with some rock kid showing his sensitive side.

Unfashionable as they probably are, Pearl Jam have gone some way to regaining both their fire and their relevance with this, a record that takes equally from classic Neil Young stylings as it does raging, polemic punk. The world rock landscape may well have changed a lot in the last six years, but there’s a clear message here – don’t kick out the Jam just yet. (by Andy Strickland)