Pearl Jam truly embody the rock 'n' roll aesthetic. A band of rabble-rousers (remember their famous TicketMaster boycott?), Eddie Vedder and Co. revisit Pearl Jam's favorite themes, equally political, polemical and pneumatic, on their newest and appropriately titled album, Riot Act. The 15 songs recall a sense of spartan emotionality even as they brim with hooky post-grunge sonic accoutrements, including pummeling guitar work and frenetic rhythms. At the center of this rock maelstrom, of course, is singer Vedder, who wails in subfusc tones, emoting desperation, fury and sophistication simultaneously.
Dispelling any notions to the contrary no, this album is not sonically much different from past Pearl Jam albums there really are no surprises. Nevertheless, sticking to a formula a formula that works for them the band sounds fiercer than ever on Riot Act. After several bland studio albums (and a truckload of live ones), Pearl Jam come along with Riot Act to remind us why we should still care about Pearl Jam. Certainly a big reason is Vedder, who, a decade past grunge's heyday, sounds fresh, passionate and articulate. He still cares, and he makes us care too.
Lead single "I Am Mine" is a delicious, brooding piece of pop with a chorus so catchy it might actually score some significant radio play. Corporate-owned rock stations might confuse it with Creed, a group of icky Pearl Jam-derivatives who pen songs in the style but without the emotional and political content of Pearl Jam. As forlorn guitars play an understated opening, drums kick in and the song bursts, ignited by Vedder's growl. "The selfish, they're all standing in line," he sings. The song, an attack on avaricious attitudes, resounds morally and musically, with its expansive chorus: "And the feeling/ It gets left behind/ All the innocence lost at one time/ Significant behind the eyes/ There's no need to hide/ We're safe tonight."
The muscular one-two punch of album opener "Can't Keep," building on a jangly rhythm, seamlessly melds into the rollicking "Save You," a rocker with a messianic complex or, at the very least, pent-up machismo. Vedder sings, "Gonna save you fucker/ Not gonna lose you/ Feeling cocky and strong/ Can't let you go/ Too important to me," and the kinetic song tussles with the need for salvation and human capacity for salvaging emotionally jagged relationships. Vedder furiously sings, "And fuck me if I say something you don't wanna hear," screaming after each line, in anguish, in frustration. The song is sonically reminiscent of such older Pearl Jam fare as "Corduroy." Immediately following that dose of fury is the calming "Love Boat Captain" a mid-tempo rocker about the tragedy at the 2000 Roskilde Festival in Denmark where nine people died during the band's set which oscillates between gloom and a more sanguine ethos. "All you need is love," Vedder croons optimistically, echoing the sentiment of a late-'60s Beatles' song.
At times Pearl Jam stray from their formula a bit, favoring acoustic soundscapes that may or may not relate to the band's reverence for Neil Young. "Thumbing My Way" is especially lovely, liberating even. Vedder sings, "No matter how cold the winter/ There's a springtime ahead/ Thumbing my way back to heaven." The melismatic "Arc" favors a haunting choir, whose chant echoes with a sense of mourning. Death's presence also looms on tracks such as "Ghost," on which Vedder sings cathartically, "I'm flying, away, away."
True, Riot Act is not Ten, Pearl Jam's phenom of a debut, but then again, you can't blame the band for that. Give them credit for a lot of years (and albums) of experimentation. Riot Act is a solid album that should satisfy the group's legion of fans. A decade on, to still be making such charged records without compromising their artistic vision suggests that Pearl Jam will be fighting the good fight and rockin' the free world for years to come. And more power to 'em.