Rediscovering EXTRA: Pearl Jam’s Self-Titled

These days get away from me, they do! Anyway, more Rediscoverings, because that seems to be all I know how to use this blog for anymore! In all seriousness, I’m real surprised this one was an extra, because it’s one of those albums I’ve been really meaning to listen to for so long and never have. You’d think it would be a shoo-in for the Rediscovering pile, but it only got added when I was rifling through a box of CDs that didn’t fit on my racks. Happens.

Pearl Jam's self-titled

Pearl Jam’s self-titled! (Herein referred to as Avocado.)

My previous experience, if any

Pearl Jam is one of the biggest bands of the past thirty years; of course I own a copy of Ten, as close to classic rock canon as the 90’s ever got. All the experimentation and commercial suicide in the world put me, like most folks, off following their story, not to mention their absurd prolificness. Avocado is their eighth (8!) album, and really, the deciding factor in me ever wanting to dig deeper into the Pearl Jam canon. I love Ten, I like Vs.–beyond that, I’m not sure how much Pearl Jam a growing boy really needs.

The history lesson

The stories of Pearl Jam torching every bit of commercial success they ever earned–not playing Ticketmaster venues, not making music videos, eschewing alt rock for art rock–are the stuff of legend, but Avocado came around right as the group remembered what they were good at. This is usually considered their return to form album, featuring all their hallmarks in writing radio rock that hates being radio rock and being incredibly socially and politically conscious. Remember, this was 2006. The Iraq War still raged on.


What angle do you even start unpacking an album like this from? From the perspective of how dudes 15 years into a big stupid rock star career are coping with being rock stars? From the political angle? From how it stacks up to said 15-years-prior work?

I can say this much: this album has a whole ton less pomp than the stuff you usually remember them for. Ten was powered by stadium-sized leads, and Vs. really didn’t do a whole lot to change that. Avocado is nowhere near as big sounding. Even on the ballads, things are generally kept from being spectacle. There’s no overblown reverb on the drums, there’s no crazy guitar solo codas. It’s tasteful.

Two of the best songs on here are the first two, “Life Wasted” and “World Wide Suicide”, and they’re also the most obvious Pearl Jam songs on here. They show off several of this album’s sonic hallmarks: skilled songcraft, unpolished, fairly live production (the drums aren’t quite lo-fi, but they are crunchy), and Eddie Vedder’s voice sounding exactly how weathered and rough you’d expect the “it’s evolution baby” guy’s voice to sound. Recognizable, but plenty more hoarse.

In other words, it’s the perfect recipe for radio rock from radio rock veterans that nonetheless wants to change your mind. It’s radio rock that puts forth the, at that point, incredibly popular, mainstream opinion that the Iraq War was bullshit (which it was), that the Bush administration were a bunch of bloodthirsty war criminal cocksuckers (which they were), and that the country was going through some rough shit (Great Recession, three years away!).

It’s always sort of amused me just how common pop music that was incredibly critical of the president was by 2006, 2007, despite Bush being on his way out of his second term by then. This album is full of it. “World Wide Suicide” works the best, being sort of Pearl Jam’s answer to a Springsteen song, a first-person retelling of seeing the news of a friend’s death overseas. Other times, like “Army Reserve”, it’s a little ham-fisted. “She tells herself/And everyone else/Father is risking her life for our freedoms”, Vedder mushes before following up with the chorus of quite literally, “I’m not blind”.

Somehow, I’m not terrible sure sticking it to a teenage girl coping with the fact that her father got enlisted into the war is particularly persuasive, Eddie. You do you, though.

While I’m on the topic of being ham-fisted, I want you to guess what “Unemployable” is about, then read the lyrics, then go listen to the tune. This is kind of exactly what I’d expect a Pearl Jam parody to sound like, with the nigh-unintelligible vocals, blatant tune, and, well, “This life is sacrifice/To a stranger’s bottom line”.


Is there anything worse than bleeding hearts that are signed to Sony Music Entertainment? Asking for a friend. (And in fairness, Pearl Jam have done more than anyone in the mainstream to self-release albums and self-host shows. There’s a sense they’d probably be Seattle’s town criers if they never hit it big. Doesn’t make it any less ham-fisted though.)

Avocado really does work best when it’s more personal. Despite the references to not believing in the American dream, “Gone” is more about trying to leave behind a town of shitty memories than it is escaping government-created poverty–and I like it a whole lot more because of that. All credit to them for not taking the most obvious route with a closer like “Inside Job”. No, it’s not about reopening that 9/11 investigation–amusingly, innocently, it really is about looking inside yourself before you try to change other people.

Beyond the singles and beyond the politics, Avocado really slows down towards its back end, but in that really good, controlled burn sort of way. An album like Nothing’s Shocking is boring because it tries to sound explosive with no gunpowder. Avocado instead gives you some nice, meaty, slower cuts that take some time to digest (lots of food references here), and that also might not to be to some people’s tastes. Hell, if I was in a worse mood today, I might even say it’s not to mine, but that’d be unfair to this record. From the punky “Comatose” to the emotionally leaden “Come Back”–there is something to enjoy here.

This isn’t Pearl Jam’s attempts to rekindle what made Ten an instant classic. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite. This is a record I’m really gonna need to revisit, maybe twice more even, to get the most out of it. It’s very much a grower of an album, a cohesive whole that, no, doesn’t really wow (but can you expect it to?) and no, isn’t perfect (but do bands that aren’t named Failure write those?), but adds up to a good 2000s rock record.

It’s a time piece, and I can completely see how people can call it boring. Did I enjoy it while it was on though? Yeah. Do I think I’d enjoy it even more if I stewed on it, probably after the Rediscovering pile’s gone? For sure.

Are you keeping it?

Y’know what, I am.

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