This review is dedicated to Velle and Gode, two guys who got me into writing.
As we mentioned last week, Neil Young‘s influence in 90’s music was palpable but the connection wasn’t completely evident until those collaborations with Pearl Jam (who are unabashed fans of him) started cascading for our listening pleasure.
After the fantastic Mirrorball was done and dusted, Pearl Jam recorded Merkinball, a two song EP where the themes (and narrative style) from Mirrorball are still pulsating. ‘I got shit’ (or ‘I got id’, depending of the version you get), is an acceptance of defeat: the frustration of not getting what you wanted and how to deal with it, (“I’ve got memories, I’ve got shit […] I Got questions / don’t know who the fuck I’m ever gonna ask /So I’ll just lie alone and wait for a dream / Where I’m not ugly and you’re looking at me”).
‘Long road’ (which features Young on keys) was written in memory of Eddie Vedder‘s tutor, Clayton Liggett. Gloomy song about how fleeting life is, used brilliantly in the film Dead Man Walking (go watch it if you haven’t), it’s one of Pearl Jam‘s most solemn songs, with their usual frank lyrical work.
So, where does a band goes from there? Ten was a massive hit, Vs. was one of the rawest pieces of grunge (with heavy political and social lyrics) and Vitalogy was where they started to experiment with sounds and started to toy with people’s expectations (vinyl in 1994, yeah!). The band was becoming slightly insular, nixing any promotional videos, interviews and then going into legal action against Ticketmaster, which meant their next tour had to be in venues where Ticketmaster wasn’t pulling the strings. It backfired.
This had an effect on the band. There was some tensions and strife and the constant touring was taking its toll. But they somehow found a place of calm, a moment where any frustration and feelings of sorrow could be purged through the medium of music. To me, that’s what No Code is about: catharsis.The lyrics in No Code are well varied, but there are some lyrical motifs repeated, we’ll go into them in a bit.
As a fan, it was a strange time. I loved Vs. and Vitalogy, so expectations were high in my head. The première of the album in Mexico was done on a radio station called Radioactivo, were some songs were played (I think about 8) while they described the packaging and commented on the songs. Mentions of Polaroids and scribbled lyrics made my imagination fly while the music sounded alien to what was “Pearl Jam” in my head. ‘In my tree’ and ‘Red Mosquito’ caught my attention and I ended up buying the album with some trepidation (and a loan from my parents).
The first thing that caught my eye was the package. Pearl Jam‘s love of physical media was declared when Vitalogy was released first on vinyl (before it was trendy) and then on CD with a magnificent booklet. No Code re-affirmed this love of physical media, with 4 different sets of 9 Polaroids (collect them all!) inside a cool sleeve. The album itself, made from cardboard, could be unfolded and you could see there was a reason to the arrangement of the polaroids making up the cover.
First track plays and I’m already sold. The sound of rain and heavy thunder in the back while Vedder croons “My small self / Like a book amongst the many on a shelf.” The song is ‘Sometimes’ and it was a complete curveball, as the band used to open their albums with thunderous numbers and not introspective ditties. This song, full of those self-doubting moments we all have, is followed by a wake up call in the form of ‘Hail, hail’, describing a long relationship starting to show the trouble of being together for a long time. It works quite well (and it’s my fave polaroid: the photo of a man drowning, with his arm trying to reach a fishing/rescue line). The anger seeping in ‘Hail, hail’ is pure Pearl Jam, unhinged and raw.
Again, a curveball. ‘Who you are’, the lead single, mostly drum driven (thank you, Jack Irons) and, strangely, optimistic and uplifting. The spiritual themes (possibly a combination of working with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Jack Irons, who helped the band iron out their problems) through No Code are evident from this song onwards. It’s basically a re-affirmation, and more importantly: an acceptance of self.
This is driven to the point perfectly in ‘Present tense’: “You can come to terms an realise you are the only one who can’t forgive yourself / makes much more sense to live in the present tense”. Whereas Pearl Jam had a lot of confrontational and depressing songs in the past, it feels that a lot of the songs in No Code are about forgiveness, letting stuff go and acceptance. Hell, if you ask me, it feels that the recurring theme of No Code is life, which could work if you consider that a lot of the polaroids are random slices of life. A biopsy (‘I’m open’), dental work (‘Smile’), bloodshot eyes, people playing, an apple, piercings. It’s all there.
Ah, let’s go back to the music, shall we? ‘Who you are’ and ‘In My tree’ are two songs where Jack Irons gets to have fun. A lot of fun. First time I heard ‘Who you are’ I thought “that’s the single?”. I also thought: “Jeff Ament plays some sweet bass!” The confrontational nature of having this song as a single eventually worked as Pearl Jam were making a statement: stick to your guns. It works as a positive message (for once) in a gloomy decade while still being enough stand offish. ‘In My Tree’ is a fantastic song, it sort of celebrates isolationism, where the judgement from your peers or someone else matters not any more, you’ve found your innocence and you are free. You are in a tree, fuck the world.
‘Red mosquito’, borne from a bout of food poisoning, is such a hook-happy song. Can’t say anything wrong about it and it feels like it describes the little grievances in life, how the little things can upset you so much, like a stupid mosquito ruining a good night’s sleep. The final refrain of the song, “If I had known then / what I know now” is countered in ‘I’m open’ with “If I only knew now what I knew then“. ‘I’m open’ is the experimental song in the album, a spoken piece that wistfully recounts what’s growing up and wonders if it was best to be a wide-eyed kid than a cynical adult. Maybe it’s looking for the innocence that the protagonist got back as described in ‘In my tree’?
The Neil Young moment comes in two songs: ‘Smile’, with that harmonica heavy stuff (very sad indeed) and the lyrics, half sarcastic, half full of wistfulness and allegedly based on a note that The Frogs left in Eddie Vedder‘s notebook. ‘Off he goes’, an honest song (again, it’ about acceptance) about not being a very good friend, feels like a perfect homage to Neil Young‘s style, without ripping him off. That bit in the end about rubbing your eyes and not believing someone gone being there to stand with you always brings a smile.
The band loves their heavy rock, though, and for every calm moment, there’s a lot of rock too. ‘Habit’, a stream of consciousness about vices (not necessarily drugs) is a good one and ‘Lukin’ manages to tell a story in a minute. Remember why Eddie Vedder was absent during Mirroball? He had this stalking problem, you see, and ‘Lukin’ is about this. The safe place of respite from a stalker (or anything troubling you) is sometimes a friend’s house (in this case, Mudhoney’s Matt Lukin) and you open the door (of the house but even better, the fridge one for a couple of brews) and you find what life is worth (a good drink, the oasis after a bad day). It’s angry Pearl Jam, which is always good Pearl Jam.
‘Mankind’ is an underrated one, with Stone Gossard in vocal duties. This is another change that Pearl Jam seems to be doing, confronting both their audience, taking them out of their comfort place and the critics that would only rate Vedder’s voice without rating the rest of the band (something foretold in that scene in Singles: “a compliment for us is a compliment for you”). Fantastic song about commercialism and people faking it (via buzzbands), with some fantastic guitar work from both Gossard and the amazing Mike McCready.
Finally, the journey ends with ‘Around the bend’. A lullaby, a goodbye. Can be taken into a lot of ways. I even found some people debating online about it being from the point of view from a serial killer, a couple where one lover just died or simply, a sweet lullaby to sing someone to sleep. Easily my favourite ender for a Pearl Jam album, it just wraps it up perfectly.
No Code is the point where their hard rock, aggressive grunge met their experimental tendencies, where the anger yielded for the quest of understanding. The album didn’t sell that well and was eventually brushed aside by a few (ok, a lot) of fans. Even the band has said that due to the jammy nature of some of the songs, it feels unfocused. Well, transitional periods are always unfocused: you scramble to recover the pieces, re-assemble and then move on, sometimes feeling downright embarrassed of how you behaved back then. This album was the moment when Pearl Jam found who they are, accepted it and then moved freely to wherever they wanted to go, and that sense of freedom is what No Code feels about.
And since we are emotionally stuck in 1996 (well, at least I am), join us in the future when we review R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi Fi.
Words: Sam J. Valdés López
Listen to this album @ Spotify.