Sometimes things have to totally fall apart before they can come back together.
After the death of nine fans during a June 2000 set at Denmark's Roskilde festival, Eddie Vedder didn't know if Pearl Jam could continue.
"I don't think I'm pulling the curtain away too much to say that it's [about] Roskilde," Vedder said of "Love Boat Captain," one of the most uplifting songs on the band's seventh album, Riot Act, due Tuesday. "It was a really difficult thing to process and to continue, not just playing, but in all aspects. ... It changed everyone — our crew, most of the people who were there. It changed the way festivals are being done ... I hope."
"Lost nine friends we'll never know/ Two years ago today," Vedder sings on the track. "And if our lives became too long/ Would it add to our regret?" What begins as a mournful song rises to a defiant, joyful anthem and, borrowing a page from the Beatles' book, a proclamation of "all you need is love."
Having fought so many battles — Ticketmaster, stalkers, the changing tastes of fans and a sales backslide — the biggest struggle of Pearl Jam's career was internal. It was pain and doubt.
The veteran Seattle group — Vedder, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Jeff Ament — overcame it by singing about the tragedy's victims and, more importantly, trying to learn who those fans were.
"We [did get] to know some of them through it," Vedder said, mentioning an Australian fan, Anthony Hurley, in particular. "I know a lot about him now that I've met his sister. He was the oldest of four siblings, which I related to. We invited them to the shows in Seattle at the end of our last tour and then they came up to the house. It's really nice to have gotten to know who they were. ... It's been a really healthy thing to have contact with the families."
The band also emerged with one of its most emotionally gripping, hard rocking albums in years, a 15-song disc that continues the collaborative vein of 2000's Binaural while cementing Cameron's status as the band's secret weapon. After several forays into more experimental, abstract songwriting, the album is somewhat of a return to the stripped-down sound that catapulted the band to the top of the grunge heap a decade ago, albeit with the exposed pain of accumulated scars and disappointments.
"I was really happy with the way some of my material was elevated once the band got a hold of it," said Cameron. "Everyone in this band is really open-minded. I actually played guitar on 'You Are' and they really wanted that sound, they liked it."
With Ament and Gossard also contributing lyrics, a decade into their career Pearl Jam have achieved a rare thing — they've grown more collaborative as they've matured, versus ossifying into the traditional lead singer/lyricist and guitarist/composer camps.
"Ed's an amazing lyricist and the strongest stuff is going to have his lyrical stamp on it," Gossard said of songs such as the album's stand-out ballad, "Thumbing My Way," a simple acoustic track with some of Vedder's most straightforward, emotionally naked lyrics.
"I let go of a rope/ Thinking that's what held me back," Vedder sings in a breathy whisper. "And in time I've realized/ It's now wrapped around my neck."
"From a partnership feeling, his desire to incorporate everybody's ideas in this band and embrace other people's lyrics and songs is really exciting," Gossard said. "It's not necessarily the norm for someone who has that kind of artistic pull and respect. He has maintained a sense that he's a team player, and I think we've gotten better because of his openness."
Just in time for the recent garage revival, garage-rock fanatic Cameron penned the hand-clapping, fuzzed-out "Get Right," which wouldn't be out of place on a Nuggets compilation. Cameron wrote the music to "Cropduster," a mid-tempo burner that mixes the ebb-and-flow intensity of PJ's 1991 debut, Ten, with Vedder's mature, world-weary sense of mortality ("Daddy's gone up in flames/ But this ain't no movie/ This ain't no book you can close").
The sardonic Bush-baiting grunge poem "Bush Leaguer" ("A confidence man, but why so beleaguered?/ He's not a leader, he's a Texas leaguer"), leaves no question about the band's assessment of the president.
Given the band's history of outspoken activism, it's easy to take the images in "Cropduster" and those of gray cities ("Ghost") and towers in darkening hours ("You Are") as commentaries on September 11 and the war on terrorism. And, considering their close association with and admiration of Neil Young — who made his own 9/11 comment with the song "Let's Roll" — it's the kind of thing you might expect from this serious-minded bunch. But, typical contrarians that they are, Pearl Jam said it isn't so.
"[Some of the] songs might be interpreted that way, but that's just because I was writing from a human perspective. I certainly didn't feel a need to say, 'Well, this is what I think," Vedder said of the terrorist attacks. "I gotta make sure to put down how it affected me.' ... I was sensitive to that and wouldn't want to be a part of it."
Though McCready wrote a song ("Last Soldier") after the attacks that didn't make the album, he and Gossard said the group agreed that they didn't feel a need to make a musical statement.
"As a band we've tried to stay away from too much self-conscious writing in terms of, 'This is where we want it to go,' as opposed to, 'Hey, look where it went!' " Gossard said. "The only job a songwriter has is to honestly express what is going on with himself or herself."