The Calm After The Storm

I'm sure there are plenty of folks in this world who would like to hear a lot less of Eddie Vedder. They complain he's too whiny, too righteous and too much of a mumbler, to boot. Yet on Pearl Jam's last three studio albums he's become a more poignant songwriter than he ever was during the band's Ten (1991) heyday. I say gimme more.

Unfortunately, Binaural actually gives me less of Vedder — lyrically, that is — and that's the main problem with the album. He's turning more of PJ's lyric-writing reins over to guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, and, whereas Vedder now works with clarity and detail and attempts to make each word count, his bandmates

too often offer inchoate images that place nearly all of the burden for expressing a song's emotion on the music.

Ament, who penned Yield's (1998) cryptic "Pilate," returns with amorphous concepts in the album's first single, "Nothing As It Seems" ("One uninvited chromosome/ A blanket like the ozone ..." Say what?). Gossard touches us with parts of "Thin Air," but the title lines water down his thoughts: "I know she's reached my heart ... in thin air." It's as if the ellipses that litter every Pearl Jam lyric sheet actually stood for missing words.

Still, there is a sense of carpe diem that ties Binaural together through tracks such as "God's Dice," "Evacuation" and "Light Years," the last of which bears lyrical and structural semblance to Yield's "Wishlist." Both that last album and this new one show Pearl Jam, once grunge's best anthemists, finding their greatest strength and maturity in quieter moments. In fact, Binaural's best tracks are the two subdued Vedder compositions that close out the album.

"Soon Forget" (RealAudio excerpt) seems at first a toss-off — just Vedder and his ukulele — telling a tale of losing one's humanity in cash. "Sorry is the fool who trades his soul for a Corvette," he sings. "Thinks he'll get the girl; he'll only get the mechanic." But the cut is actually an effective sound/lyric match, the humble tinniness of the ukulele contrasting with the opulence of the song's character, all the while underscoring the smallness of his heart.

The album then fades to black with "Parting Ways" (RealAudio excerpt), the unadorned story of a couple unknowingly drifting apart. As the lyrics describe two people who refuse to recognize their differences, the music becomes an undertow, tugging subtly but powerfully. It's as if the two lovers are walking along a beach, one of them gradually being pulled out to sea and not realizing it until they're already out beyond the waves.

Still, parts of Binaural do rock out engagingly. For pure adrenaline rush, you can't beat Vedder's shouts of "Fall! Fall!" toward the end of the opening of "Breakerfall," a song that nabs its intro from the Who's "I Can See for Miles," its chorus from Neil Young's "Love and Only Love" and its 12-string guitar from any number of Byrds tunes. More intriguing still is "Grievance" (RealAudio excerpt) which, with all its off-kilter kinetic energy, could pass for a tune in the Fugazi cannon.

Binaural doesn't match the experimentation of No Code (1996) or the balance of Yield. It's an uneven mix that frustrates by offering just samples of what Pearl Jam increasingly does best, namely, provide clear and, yes, quiet stories about the travails of everyday life. My own wish list has just one item: Listen more to Vedder's muse.