Gigaton: Or How to Move Forward in An Upside-Down World
Updated: Mar 28, 2020
It’s been six and a half years since Pearl Jam released Lightning Bolt. During this time (the longest gap between albums in the band’s history) the band’s members (and music community/world at large) suffered the enormous loss of Chris Cornell in May of 2017. Without Chris’ mentorship of Eddie Vedder during Pearl Jam’s formative years and the collaborative spirit between Soundgarden and Pearl Jam it’s hard to imagine the success that followed for either band. Music as catharsis is nothing new, but to say Pearl Jam needed to create a record that evoked the grieving process and guided them through it, would not be an understatement (Chris’ spirit permeates throughout the entirety of Gigaton). Aside from Cornell, the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, Tom Petty and others have left a crater sized void in the musical landscape. Another devastating reality for the band occurred when Donald Trump took office in 2017. Pearl Jam have been vocal about their political opinions over the years and have actively supported or disapproved of many candidates so it should not come as a surprise that the band who penned a song titled “Bu$hleauger” would feel disheartened when Trump entered the White House. It’s also clear that Vedder and company have environmental loss on their minds this time around. Climate-change is impacting the world around us at an alarming rate and for a band that has always been socially and environmentally conscious, the ignorance of many in power to factual data about the degradation of our planet is unacceptable. Gigaton finds Pearl Jam grappling with raw emotions of loss, fear, and anger but it also serves as a reminder that no matter how low things get, hope and all the positives it can bring are waiting for you when you’re ready to move on and push forward.
“Who Ever Said”
The role of most album openers is twofold. First, they serve the purpose of setting the stage for what the listener may expect or not expect sonically, melodically and lyrically from other tracks. Second, and more importantly, good opening tracks let you know a band or artist has something relevant to say. In short, they let you know it is worth investing time to listen to more of the album, which helps validate your purchase. Thankfully after almost 30 years, Pearl Jam has not forgotten the vital importance of beginning an album with a song that not only rocks (which “Who Ever Said” most certainly does), but that also proves to the listener that they aren’t just going through the motions.
The first 17 seconds of “Who Ever Said” give the listener the feeling of being transported to another world or dimension and could easily soundtrack Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole or Dorothy’s swirl into Oz. After the listener settles into this new dimension a single note from Jeff Ament’s bass welcomes them as to say “hello old friend, welcome to the land of Gigaton”. Chugging power chords and a pounding bass drum properly open the song lay the foundation for Eddie Vedder’s seasoned vocals. From the start of the song it’s easy to hear that Eddie has a lot to say this time around. During the verses and final sections, melodic lines and words are tightly wound to an almost claustrophobic extent. The frenetic lyrical and melodic pace does not seem out of place in the context of the song and therefore what could be conceived by some as clumsy or haphazard, actually gives the song a garage-rock vibe. The chorus provides breathing room where Vedder proclaims “whoever said it’s all been said, gave up on satisfaction!” Between the first two chorus’ lead guitarist Mike McCready delivers an ear-catching and efficient solo. The real star of the show here is the rhythm section. Matt Cameron plays like he’s putting out a fire with his sticks on his drum-kit and Jeff Ament’s bass lines don’t just follow along with the guitars, but add harmonic touches throughout. You can tell this version of Pearl Jam (with Cameron on drums) has been together for over 20 years now because the rhythmic interplay is impeccable and the band pulls off an opening song that sounds equal parts relaxed and lived in.
Lyrical highlights include: “womb to tomb and cradle to grave…all the answers will be found in the mistakes that we have made…” and “swallow my pencil and bleed out my pen…surrender the wish we’ll be together again…” A five minute plus opening track feels a little odd at first and the initial part of the bridge in “Who Ever Said” sounds a bit like a slowed down version of the bridge in “Gonna See My Friend” off of the band’s 2009 album Backspacer but the song works well as a stage-setter; rocks hard enough to prove Pearl Jam still have what it takes to fill arenas, and the infectious chorus is hard to shake from memory. Situating “Who Ever Said” in the pantheon of Pearl Jam opening tracks is not easy because the competition is stiff, with songs such as “Go” from the band’s massively popular sophomore release Vs and “Brain of J” from the fan-favorite Yield in contention, but I would have no issue situating it in the top half of the list. Rating- 8.8/10
Pearl Jam gave fans a glimpse of Gigaton well in advance by releasing the tracks “Dance of The Clairvoyants” and “Superblood Wolfmoon” as singles, and therefore I have had more time to listen to the second and third tracks on the album. With the expanded time for musical digestion, one thing became incredibly clear: these two songs sound very different from one another. “Who Ever Said” segues perfectly into “Superblood Wolfmoon” because the songs are cut from the same garage-rock cloth and share much of the same musical DNA. Matt Cameron kicks off the proceedings with a high-hat and snare beat combination, which is followed shortly by a power-chord heavy guitar riff via rhythm guitar extraordinaire Stone Gossard. Vedder plays his own rhythm guitar lines throughout the album as well (something he has done throughout Pearl Jam’s career since Vs), which adds to the sonic richness of Gigaton. Eventually Vedder joins by vocally professing “superblood wolfmoon to her away to soon..” while Ament’s bass brings the low end into the mix with a growling tone perfectly suited to the song. Musical highlights include a Van Halen inspired McCready solo at the 2:24 mark (guitar nerds: set phasers to “stun” for this one), Cameron’s drum fills at the 1:34 and 2:18 marks, Aments two-note runs beneath McCready’s solo, and Gossard’s ability to get any riff to stick in your head.
Lyrical highlights include: “Right now I feel a lack of innocence, searchin’ for reveal… Hypnotonic resonance I feel…And the cause is life or death” and “I was a prisoner, of keys and of cuffs…Yeah I was feelin’ fortunate to be locked up” and of course the aforementioned refrain of the chorus “superblood wolfmoon took her away too soon” will stay in your head for quite some time after a spin or two. Much like “Who Ever Said” there is a Backspacer-ish quality (one might even go so far as to call it a looseness) to “Superblood Wolfmoon” that some Pearl Jam fans will love while others will tolerate and still others will complain about but the fact that it follows “Who Ever Said” so superbly and adds to the up-front rockingness of Gigaton more than justify its inclusion on the album. With that being said Pearl Jam have neither reinvented themselves with “Superblood Wolfmoon” or tried to ditch a sound that has worked for them with varying degrees of success in the past. In short, they know their wheelhouse and don’t mind sticking to it when they need to churn out a radio-friendly rocker that fans can sing back to them in packed arenas across the globe. Rating- 7.2/10
“Dance of The Clairvoyants”
Where “Who Ever Said” and “Superblood Wolfmoon” could pass as musical brothers, “Dance of the Clairvoyants” doesn’t even sound like it came from the same family as the two songs that proceed it on Gigaton. Remember the rabbit hole/Oz illusions used to describe the first seconds of the album? Well, “Dance of The Clairvoyants” takes us even further down the spiraling black-hole to a land where Stone Gossard ditches his guitar for a bass (something he did once before on No Code’s “Smile”), Jeff Ament swaps his bass for a synthesizer and guitar, Mike McCready lays down some of the most angular guitar lines in the Pearl Jam catalogue, Matt Cameron mimics a drum machine, and Eddie Vedder warns us to “stand back when the spirit comes." What do all of these seemingly odd choices add up to? On first listen, it sounds just as strange as it is on paper, but with each repeated spin, the choices and chances on “Dance of The Clairvoyants” make more sense.
Having been around for nearly 30 years, Pearl Jam can sometimes have a hard time getting out of their own way sonically, which is to say, as the only surviving major band from a time and place many people associate with a particular sound of rock music, branching out into more experimental territory can be viewed by some as unnecessary (see the bro at your local Pearl Jam show shouting “play the old stuff!”) and others as a risk that is only worth taking if the song sounds quintessentially Pearl Jam-esque. Thankfully, the band still knows better than to listen to anyone but themselves. Shedding any assumptions (which Vedder rightfully tells us to “burn” during the song) about the band and experimenting with their sound proves to listeners that A) Pearl Jam are still willing to take risks 11 albums into their career and B) those risks are part of what always made Pearl Jam such a great band in the first place (e.g. Vitalogy would be a much different album without its flirtation with Tom Waits inspired accordion romps and its proclivity to contrast darkness with light while ultimately proving it is strangeness and our desire to belong and understand that actually underlies most of the human experience).
“Dance of The Clairvoyants” is the sound of Pearl Jam throwing caution to the wind. Influences for the song range from Talking Heads, David Bowie, and Kraftwerk, to Gang of Four. Musical highlights range from McCready’s riff at the 2:26 mark, which slices right through the mix (when you close your eyes you can easily imagine Michael Jackson moonwalking) to Ament’s atmospheric synth touches, and Gossard’s incessantly groovy bass line. Vedder brings his A-game lyrically, melodically, and vocally on “Dance of The clairvoyants”. Lyrical highlights include: “save your predictions and burn your assumptions, love is friction ripe for comfort…”, “not one man can be greater than the sun, it’s not a negative thought, no positive, positive, positive…” “Expecting perfection leaves a lot to ignore when the past is the present and the future’s no more…” , “Numbers keep falling off the calendar's floor we're stuck in our boxes when it's open no more could've lifted up they're forgetting us not recalling what they're for, I'm in love with clairvoyants cause they're out of this world…”, and of course “stand back when the spirit comes”. Rating- 9.0/10
This is the Pearl Jam song many fans have been looking for since the late nineties. There is a swagger to the way the band performs this mid-tempo stomp that echoes Pearl Jam’s heyday but that also sounds fresh and exciting. In comparison to other Pearl Jam songs, “Quick Escape” sounds something like the lovechild of Lightning Bolt’s “Infallible” and Riot Act’s “½ Full”. The change from long-time producer and collaborator Brendan O’Brien to Josh Evans paid off handsomely for the band. The mix sounds more open (individual instruments are given more breathing room), non-traditional song structures and experimentation are front and center, and the rhythm section shines throughout.
“Quick Escape” starts with several blips before Cameron’s drums (drenched in either distortion or a filter of some kind) come barreling in, creating a mid-era Zeppelin type vibe (e.g. When The Levee Breaks and Kashmir). Ament’s bass tone snarls throughout as he unleashes one of his best performances on record in recent memory (seriously, check out the what he does starting at the 3:46 mark during a McCready solo). McCready and Gossard both have chances to enhance the song with solos (the second of which belongs to McCready and is wah-wah and flanger-infused, adding a spacey texture to the song) while Gossard’s rhythm guitar snakes in and out, swapping between short riffs and chords. Matt Cameron adds tightly constructed drum fills and precision time-keeping to the mix.
With the band firing on all cylinders, Vedder reaches deep to “find a place Trump hasn’t f***ed up yet!” Lyrical highlights include “ And here we are, the red planet, craters across the skyline…A sleep sack in a bivouac and a Kerouac sense of time…”and “we think about the old days, of green grass, sky and red wine…Shoulda known so fragile and avoided this one-way flight…”. The song perfectly highlights the bands’ frustrations with the Trump administration's inability to recognize or take seriously the dangers and consequences of climate-change. “Quick Escape” is a song that will fit perfectly in Pearl Jam’s live sets alongside staples like “Do the Evolution”, “Corduroy”, and “Even Flow”. Rating- 9.0
Having spent the first four songs on the album setting the stage and then stepping onto it with reckless abandon, “Alright” serves as a bit of a pause for reflection. It is a meditative respite that provides the listener a break from the chaos. Instead of pounding and feverish, the percussion is tastefully muted and organic. Guitars are hushed and an arpeggiating synthesizer line weaves in and out. Introspection has been a mainstay of Pearl Jam’s lyrics for most of their career (especially on albums like No Code and Yield). The band’s democratic songwriting approach is at play here with Jeff Ament contributing lyrics of empathy for those who find themselves “alone” and want to “disappear”. This is a song about soul-searching, self-discovery, and self-acceptance and the music has a spiritual tone to it. “Alright” lets the listener know that despite all of the noise and chaos in the world, you can always find peace in the simplistic beauty of nature and within yourself.
“Alright” moves Gigaton along its intended trajectory by changing the pace at which we fall down the rabbit-hole. It reminds us to stop (or Yield) and take in all the sights and sounds and to enjoy the ride. Lyrical highlights include: “When you want to run and leave some part unrevealed… like the flight of the bee, keep it for yourself...” and “Should your living truth die…could be an acid trip…Leave the eucharist whole, keep it for yourself...”. “Alright” shares some similarities with both “Pendulum” and “Of The Girl” but ultimately carves out its own space in the Pearl Jam catalogue. This song will be one that people who only followed the band’s earlier albums may not understand but that anyone who stayed along for the ride from No Code on will appreciate. Rating- 7.0
Clocking in at 6:13, “Seven O’Clock” is the longest song on Gigaton. Much like the transition from “Who Ever Said” to “Superblood Wolfmoon”, the transition between “Alright” and “Seven O’Clock” is seamless. The song is also strategically sequenced in the center of the album as it shares thematic similarities to songs on both the front and back end of the record. Like “Alright” before it, “Seven O’Clock” also helps shift the musical tone from heavier to softer. Despite the song’s length and slow-burning tempo, there is still an urgency with which Eddie Vedder delivers lyrics such as “this is not time for depression or self-indulgent hesitance…This F***ed up situation calls for all hands, hands on deck…” where he urges listeners to not be content with current circumstances and join together with others in action to bring about positive changes.
The song opens with a low drone and simplistic but evocative beat from Matt Cameron and there are several interesting musical moments throughout (the soaring synth line would be right at home on The Who’s Quadrophenia) and ethereal guitars sweep in and out of the mix but “Seven O’Clock really shines as a track for Vedder to showcase his skills and thus the band gives him the proper amount of room to operate. Where earlier tracks on the album like “Superblood Wolfmoon” seemed suffocating at times, “Seven O’Clock” is expansive in its scope. As the song winds to a close with the lyrical refrain “much to be done” repeated several times, Vedder perfectly articulates that although things are not great, we still have to work, maybe harder now than ever to ensure they eventually get better. Lyrical highlights include: “Moved on from my despondency and left it in the bed…Do I leave it there still sleeping or maybe kill it better yet?”, “Caught the butterfly, broke its wing, then put it on display…stripped of all its beauty once it could not fly high away…still alive like a passerby overdosed on gamma rays…Another god’s creation destined to be thrown away.” “Seven O’Clock” is also the definition of “a grower-not-a-shower” as there are many intricate layers to the production and more going on than it seems on first listen. Rating- 8.7
Coming on the heels of two relatively quiet songs, “Never Destination” cranks things up with mixed results. The song is a prototypical late-era Pearl Jam rocker in the vein of “Supersonic” but its inclusion on Gigaton makes sense because it provides a momentary pause from the majority of the album’s heavy subject matter. The music here is inspired enough to forgive the retreat. It’s not hard to envision Stone Gossard duck-walking along to this one during a live show while Vedder does a few Roger Daltrey inspired mic-flips. McCready provides a short but sweet solo at the 1:38 mark but there is little to either complain about or fawn over here. Rating- 6.8
“Take The Long Way”
This Matt Cameron penned track sounds like “Mind Your Manners” if it were written by Soundgarden. Guitars lines are thick and precise. Matt’s drumming eschews the typical in favor of more elaborate patterns. Eddies vocals during the chorus are especially pleasing and the tune is catchier than several of the songs preceding it. Musical highlights include an inspired McCready solo at the 2:25 mark and a haunting bridge section at the end of the song. “Take The Long Way” is one of the more interesting fast-paced songs Pearl Jam has released this century. It could sit very nicely next to “Ghost” or “God’s Dice” in a setlist and keep the momentum moving. Lyrical highlights include: “Plant a seed in your mind...What’s yours is mine…Show me how to live divine…What’s yours is mine…Back to a moment in your mind…Go back in time…Show me how to live divine…What’s yours is mine…”. Rating- 7.8
“Buckle Up” is a short song written by Stone Gossard that, like several other tracks on Gigaton begins with some audible noise, as if to say there is a lot of static out there and these songs are transmissions Pearl Jam is sending out to try and clear up their stance on the present situation. Producer Josh Evans does an excellent job balancing these atmospheric touches with the actual heart of the songs and not letting them overpower, but enhance each track. This is the most expansive sounding Pearl Jam album since Binaural and Evans deserves credit for playing a major role in the sonic choices made on each song. After hearing Gigaton it is not surprising why Pearl Jam would want to release a Dolby Atmos version of the album in theaters. "During Buckle Up" an enveloping guitar line swirls around while drums shuffle and Vedder tells the listener to “Buckle up…” for the bumpy ride we are all on now that is about to get worse before it gets better. Lyrical highlights include: The drapes pull back…reveal her wound…her boy on her lap…a murderer groomed…” and “antiquities lost…lost to the Nile…a sudden slip…a fall on the tile…” Rating- 6.7
“Comes Then Goes”
“Comes Then Goes” is a gamble of sorts. It is essentially an Eddie Vedder solo song as it features only his vocals and an acoustic guitar for more than six minutes. Evans again adds subtle touches that float in and out like a breeze. The fact that this song doesn’t just come and go but sticks around so long should not be lost on the listener either. Clearly Eddie still has a lot to say even though this is the third-to-last track on the album. "Comes Then Goes" is musically akin to “Thin Air” off of Binaural but only so much as the direct guitar tone and several notes and open chords share similarities. The nakedness of the production on “Comes and Goes” is likely attributed to the subject matter of Vedder’s lyrics. Lack of permanence, grief, and understanding. These emotions are more easily conveyed with a stark backdrop than one crowded with instruments seeking their own attention. Lyrical highlights include: “Are you stuck in the middle? A spectral invisible ghost…I’m here juxtaposed…like images of angles in the snow…Our courage melts away, it comes then goes” and “Divisions came and troubles multiplied…Incisions made by scalpel blades of time…” This song finds Vedder struggling to comprehend the loss of someone close to him (first assumptions point to Chris Cornell) and is one of the more personal songs on Gigaton. Rating- 7.5
Mike McCready wrote the music to “Retrograde” while Vedder penned the lyrics. A 12-string acoustic guitar ushers in the song, followed by a simple beat and some one-note lower frequency lines by Ament. The most interesting part of the song musically occurs from the 4:00 mark until the song’s end. With Cameron and Ament playing more urgently and Vedder continually belting out “hear the sound!” in a high register. Lyrical highlights include: “The more mistakes, the more resolve…It’s gonna take much more than ordinary love to lift this up…” and “Seven seas are rising…Forever futures fading out…Feel the retrograde all around…” Rating- 7.8
The closing track of Gigaton is a hymn that finds Vedder contemplating humanity’s shared fate and questioning how we could let things get so bad. A pump-organ opens the song and conjures the feeling of mourning as Vedder eulogies our loss of the natural world and the connections that bind us. Musically, “River Cross” sounds like a blend between Neil Young (who has used pump-organs effectively on several songs) and a rhythm section inspired by Paul Simon’s Graceland with Cameron providing subtle but impactful drumming. His use of the toms accentuates Vedder’s emotional highs and lows while Ament’s bass pops in and out in an unconventional manner. “River Cross” works well because it synthesizes the main themes of the album (loss, frustration/anger, dreams vs reality, and hope) while sounding like no other song Pearl Jam has recorded before. The closest relative would be “Long Road” but where that song favors more traditional instrumentation, Pearl Jam use “River Cross” to emphasize the fact that there is nothing status-quo about the age we live in and expand their sonic range accordingly while there is still time to do so.
“River Cross” is about the great distance we have created between each other in modern society and the hope that one day we can bridge the divide. One of the most poignant moments on the album comes at its very end when Vedder sings “share the light…won’t hold us down” in an optimistic tone. With so much destruction surrounding him, Vedder’s heart and vocal cords are still full of the belief that although we may be near a point of no return that we are ultimately in this together and cannot be held down because there is strength in numbers. Lyrical highlights include: “I used to tell time by my shadow …‘til the thunder clouds, they took the stage…These days will end, as do the light’s rays….Another read of the same page”, and “Folded over, forced in a choke hold…Outnumbered and held down…And all these talk of rapture…Look around at the promise now…Here and now…”
Final Thoughts (Gigaton Rating- 8/10)
Pearl Jam has always been about evolving and not repeating the same album twice and it’s fair to say that the version of the band present on Gigaton has not only done the evolution, but also discovered that their ability to change over the years is what has helped them survive and remain relevant as a band while so many of their contemporaries either burned out or faded away. Taking a stand against Ticketmaster, not making music videos, and not giving interviews, may have seemed like odd things for a band of Pearl Jam’s magnitude to try in the nineties but those risks helped preserve the band’s sanity and dignity and solidified their reputation as a group willing to take a stand. On Gigaton they’re asking us to stand with them in solidarity against the forces trying to divide us and to choose hope because the alternative is even more bleak than our present reality. This album urges listeners to keep dreaming of better days and emphasizes that together we can one day cross the river together. With the recent outbreak of the Corona Virus the songs on this album will take on even more meaning for those struggling with forced social distancing and the uncertainty with which we live on a daily basis. Little did we know just how much we needed a new Pearl Jam album at this exact moment in time.