The Last Sellouts
Pearl Jam's brilliant new single, brought to you by Target.
On stage last summer at Madison Square Garden, Eddie Vedder told a story. The Pearl Jam singer had recently been in a coffee shop, when he saw something unfamiliar for sale: a plastic MusicPass card that allowed its owner to download an album in MP3 form. Vedder, a longtime vinyl booster, was appalled. The difference between buying music the old-fashioned way and through these newfangled means, he declared, was "like the difference between making love to a real woman and a plastic one."
This spring, Pearl Jam commemorated its 1991 debut, Ten, with a Caligula-grade orgy. The Ten "Super Deluxe Edition" reissue consists of two CDs, a DVD, a cassette, a replica of Vedder's Ten-era composition notebook, and various memorabilia. The whole bundle costs $200 (if you want to get in touch with your inner disaffected teen, it helps to have a grownup's discretionary income), and it's packaged in a weighty black box—a Space Odyssey monolith that encourages backward leaps in technology.
This is the proudly out-of-step Pearl Jam we've always known: The band that refused to make music videos in its early '90s heyday, dismissing them as marketing-minded distractions; the band that led a campaign against Ticketmaster and its fan-unfriendly practices; the band that has always insisted that its albums be sold on vinyl in addition to compact disc; the band that has officially released somewhere in the neighborhood of 258 "bootleg" live CDs, convinced that a group and its audience never commune so purely as at a concert.
Less familiar is the Pearl Jam behind Backspacer, the band's ninth studio album, which will be released later this month. Surprise No. 1: This time around, fans will commune with the record exclusively at Target stores (as well as certain independently owned record shops and a Target-sanctioned section of the iTunes store), thanks to a highly un-grungey partnership with the big-box chain. * Surprise No. 2: In another corporate tie-in, Verizon is making snippets of the album available as promotional, pre-release ringtones. Surprise No. 3: "The Fixer," Backspacer's lead single, is fantastic—by far the most exciting track the band has released in years. This might be the biggest surprise of the bunch. A band's ninth album (or, counting the official bootlegs, its 267th) isn't the first place you go looking for a shot in the arm.
In 1994, Pearl Jam released Vitalogy, its third album and the last one to earn multi-platinum certification. After that, millions of fickle teenage obsessives (this writer included) started to jump ship, leaving behind the sorts of diehards who can debate knowledgeably and passionately about which bootlegged performance of "Yellow Ledbetter" boasts Mike McCready's finest fretwork.
The three albums that followed Vitalogy— No Code, Yield, and Binaural—were full of left-field experiments into sun-baked spiritualism ("Who You Are," "Given to Fly"), long, scorched dirges masquerading as singles ("Nothing as It Seems"), and ugly, rambling blues-jams ("Red Mosquito"). There were still lovely moments, and the best of these were the quietest. It was a better-than-respectable way for a band to grow older, but nothing to get revved up about. When Vedder did get revved up, it was on unmemorable political material: the Bush-bashing Riot Act from 2002, the howling war protest "Worldwide Suicide" from 2006.
Vedder, 45, has always had something of the would-be shepherd to him. Ten's lyrics were full of troubled adolescents whom the singer sought to champion and protect, an impulse that carried through to later songs about mistreated women, victims of racial profiling, and Iraq War veterans.
On "The Fixer," Vedder's do-gooder streak is flecked with both optimism and regret—the song is a bittersweet paean to lost ideals, lost passion, lost luster, lost time. The lyrics begin in heal-the-world mode: "When something's dark, let me shed a little light on it/ When something's cold, let me put a little fire on it." But when the refrain arrives, it's clear that the ailing patient foremost in Vedder's thoughts is himself: "When something's gone, I wanna fight to get it back again!" His voice is pitched between a battle cry and a sob, delivering the nostalgic, midlife mission statement of an idealist who's spent his life trying to stay in touch with the little guy.
It's an ingenious vocal performance, oscillating between exhilaration and desperation. This tug-of-war registers rhythmically, too: In each bar, Vedder stretches his fourth syllable into a little moan—"When something's gooooone"—then breaks into a flurry of peppier eighth notes. (It's a catchy, elastic rhythm that recalls the verses from "Even Flow.") The music, meanwhile, is fleet and playful. A hard, heavy riff starts the song, then drops away suddenly to reveal a nimbler and more poignant one. There's a stately piano line tucked discreetly into the mix and exuberantly indiscreet hand claps scattered higher up.
The irony is obvious: "The Fixer" is a great song about integrity that comes to us courtesy of the Target Corporation. But this irony, rather than flatly contradicting Vedder's principled position, complicates it. Is it meaningful to argue that a band that spent 14 years recording for Sony has, with a Target deal, sold out? Maybe. But maybe Pearl Jam's move from one corporate patron to another helps underscore the striking degree to which musical "integrity"—always something of a free-floating notion, anyway—is being redefined amid the altered economic realities of the flagging album-sales business. Today, acts from pop to punk stuff music videos with product placements and launch tours sponsored by carmakers. Do these new profit avenues signal a new artistic low, or do they represent an attempt—ungainly but not unreasonable—to ensure that one continues to be paid wild sums for one's wildly popular art? The "Super Deluxe" Ten reissue was an ornate tombstone for a dead era. "The Fixer" is an Irish wake.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.