As the ’90s recess further and further into history, Pearl Jam’s position in popular culture becomes more and more inexact. Are they still a group at the vanguard of music – revered yet reclusive artists whose records are particularly noteworthy releases? What if, instead, Pearl Jam has become irrelevant, its music a vestige from a different time now lost in the milieu of Linkin Park-rock?
The second conclusion is likely correct and that melancholy truth has been mostly promulgated by the band itself. Often inaccessible and disdainful toward the media which cover them, Pearl Jam has alienated those who have the power to keep them salient. Yet most importantly, many music fans have found PJ’s fourth, fifth and sixth albums to be a sonic departure from their more popular predecessors. Riot Act seems as though it will perpetuate this bifurcation – pleasing the devoted fans while disappointing more casual listeners – because the record’s overall sound seems like an amalgamation of those more unique ones respectively explored on No Code, Yield and Binaural.
Riot Act is extremely listenable, and with the exception of the pointless “Arc,” all of the album’s songs will interest their audience. Tracks like “Can’t Keep” and “Love Boat Captain” feature Eddie Vedder’s emotional and slightly pained crooning that has served as both as his distinguishing trait and a sound many other artists have tried to emulate (hi, Mr. Stapp). Meanwhile, “You Are” and “Green Disease” showcase the fervent interest the band has in its instrumentation, a preoccupation that has encouraged such unique and melodic songs as “Parting Ways” in the past.
To the album’s detriment, though, there are no groundbreaking or challenging efforts like “Parting Ways” on Riot Act. Instead of again finding a new musical identity, as they commendably and successfully did on previous records, Pearl Jam seems to have been satisfied with inertia. This disappointing absence of creativity makes some of Vedder’s vocals sound hollow – the tone exists without a credible impetus, like he is going through the motions – and some of the songs sometimes boring – where is the imagination? Riot Act is fine but not exciting.
Having satisfied the stipulations of their contract with their label Epic, Pearl Jam is now at a Frost-like career divergence: Continue down the path on which they have traveled or make a turn and find something else. The uninspired Riot Act makes the former seem tired and inauspicious. The potential to forever fade into musical obsolescence makes the latter seem bleak. Perhaps PJ can make their own third path and next time return both energizing and engaging.