The Song - Pearl Jam
Earlier this year, Pearl Jam announced that they would be releasing their 11th studio album in 2019, a whopping 28 years after the release of their first studio album. Pearl Jam were one of the icons of the Grunge scene in the early 90’s – a scene that in fairness, never really seemed destined for longevity. It got me to thinking about how Pearl Jam have managed to dodge the landmines and cross fire that has taken down so many of their peers.
The first thing of note is the stability of their line-up. 4 of the 5 members of the band have remained the same since the beginning, with the 5th member (drummer Matt Cameron) about to tally up his 20th year with the band. It is a fairly rare thing for a band that has been together this long – without a break up – to not lose more members along the way.
The second thing is the way that their music has aged from angry to contemplative at the same rate that their fans have aged from teen angst into parents of high school kids.
The other thing that may or may not have anything to do with their longevity, but is something I began thinking about anyway, is the topic of this article.
A lot of major artists of the past 50 years have a singular song that is most associated with them. It doesn’t have to be their best song, or maybe not even their highest selling song, but in a Family Feud style scenario where 100 people are asked to name the first song that comes to their head when they hear an artist or bands name, in most cases there is a comfortable winner*.
For example, Pearl Jam’s contemporaries** Nirvana are forever known for the song that broke Grunge through to the mainstream, Smells Like Teen Spirit. It’s their highest selling song, but it’s a long way from their best.
As much as they try to escape it, Radiohead’s top answer will likely always be Creep. The same situation with Beck and Loser. These are all examples of ‘breakthrough’ songs, so it is somewhat understandable, but that isn’t always the case.
Greenday had a massive breakthrough to the mainstream in 1994 with their album Dookie, but if we surveyed 100 people and asked them to name a Greenday song, the top answer would probably be American Idiot.
Madonna burst onto the music scene in the 80’s with Like a Virgin, but I would argue that it was several years later, when she released Vogue that she had her most iconic song.
So this is all a roundabout way of me wanting to discuss – what is THE Pearl Jam song?
Here are some nominees
Alive – 1991
The breakthrough hit that brought them to the attention of the world has stood the test of time and is their most listened to song on Spotify at the moment
Jeremy – 1992
Another big hit off the “Ten” album, but it has the iconic film clip that everybody who saw it at the time remembers and lingers in their memory
Better Man – 1994
The almost ballad that inspires one of the more spine tingling live experiences available is a big fan favourite and topped the US Rock charts for 8 weeks when it was released
Last Kiss – 1999
A cover song that is decidedly un-Pearl Jam in style, but it did have their most crossover success as the highest charting single of theirs on the US Billboard 100
Do The Evolution – 1998
This probably isn’t really a contender, but it is one of my favourites and has a killer video so I wanted to acknowledge that and put it in here
I already eliminated Do The Evolution in its own description so that one is out, and Last Kiss, quite simply isn’t really a Pearl Jam song, so I have to eliminate it here too.
In third place, I have Better Man. It is a truly great song that could be ‘the song’ for so many lesser bands, but it just sort of lacks the punch that defined Pearl Jam at their peak, and the remaining competition is just too good.
Coming in second, I have Alive. It is probably their most popular song, and as a kid that was into both Basketball and heavy music (at the time, not a common thing) Eddie Vedder hanging from the rafters in an Michael Jordan Bulls jersey was a perplexing sight that sticks with me to this day, but the lo-fi black and white live performance film clip isn’t one that helps the song stick in the memory, and makes it fall ever so slightly short for me of being their most iconic song.
That honour therefore goes to Jeremy. For me, when I think Pearl Jam, I think of an affluent suburb. 3:30 in the afternoon. I think of the opening bass riff and accompanying guitar harmonics. I think of Eddie Vedder’s manic face in a one shot in a poorly lit room. I think that clearly I remember, pickin on the boy. I think of a boy trying in vain to get the attention of his arguing parents. I think of Jeremy speaking in class today. I think of a class of frozen children in clean white shirts, mouths agape, pointing and laughing, and I think of a class of frozen children in blood stained white shirts, mouths agape, trying to shield their faces from the horror that has just happened in front of them.
I may have just been the right age at the right time to see this clip and have it hit home, or I may have just watched too much Rage in my early teens, but the fact that (to me at least) there isn’t a clear cut winner, and the few people I have had this discussion with don’t necessarily agree with me, makes Pearl Jam a bit different to a lot of the other major artists of the last 50 years.
Did I get it wrong? Did I miss any candidates? What other artists can you argue are in this same boat? Let me know (@EdmondBurton) on Twitter.
*That isn’t to say by any means that they are one hit wonders. Michael Jackson is one of the highest selling musical artists of all time, with more number one songs and albums than I care to count. But “the song” for MJ is Thriller.
**When I was young I always saw them as rivals. You had to like one and think the other was overrated or whatever. I may have been over thinking it.