In trying to get to the bottom of my winter blues recently, I realized that I haven’t been making enough time for music in my life. After 25 years of more or less steady collection and consumption, the opportunities to sit down and listen to it seem fewer and fewer with each passing day. And I’m not doing myself any favors either; I listen to NPR on my commutes to and from work, and when I get home, playing with my baby daughter and catching up on the day’s events with my wife rightfully take precedence over immersing myself in an album. My grandiose plans of listening to and absorbing vinyl records in place of watching television have crumbled slightly, as my turntable has an unfortunate tic of getting ever so slightly faster over time, so that I have to practically take it apart every few months to tweak it again and hope to god I don’t break it while putting it back together. So the long and short of it is, I haven’t been letting the records play very much lately.
I should, of course, make time. And I feel better when I do. I listened to the Scud Mountain Boys’ comeback album in the car today, and it was vastly preferable, driving past snow-covered Vermont hills and barns, to the latest political scandals being beaten to death in the news. But at the same time, change is okay too. It’s okay to grow older, for priorities to shift, for the fields of fandom to lie fallow. Because being away from something lets you know how much it means to you when you finally come back to it.
“Let the Records Play,” judging from online fan response, seems like a divisive song. There’s something a little campy about it, something seemingly lightweight, that rubs some people the wrong way. It’s interesting to note that the moody “Pendulum” on the other hand (I enjoy both songs), appears to be the online favorite. If I had to mass psychoanalyze why, I’d say it’s because the dusk-lit, dare-I-say angsty “Pendulum” reminds people spiritually (if not sonically) of the band circa 1993. And I do believe a wide swath of rock and roll fandom, not just Pearl Jam fandom, has time periods that they just can’t let go of. It’s nostalgia for the days when you mined music as deeply as you could for direction, for meaning, for guidance, whenever those days happened to be. Some people can’t get over Led Zeppelin. Others insist on the Beatles being the band that no other can live up to. When I was 14 and obsessed with Pearl Jam, I thought they’d be it for me too, and I was excited to have found my band in this regard. It’s clear that a lot of people did. But with that obsession comes inevitable disappointment if a band lasts as longs as Pearl Jam has. And that disappointment is of course different for different people.
I’d bet that “Let the Records Play” disappoints a lot of people who think that rock music has to carry a certain kind of seriousness. When I first heard a clip of the song in one of Lightning Bolt‘s promotional videos, I thought it had a chance of being one of those serious songs. It started out with a weird, electric old-timey guitar figure that I’m shocked not a single writer has identified as coming straight out of the folk-blues “Sugar Baby.” Then it launched into a stomping blues pattern (with a few extra measures) that a lot of people stupidly thought was “inspired” by the Black Keys. Newsflash, kids, the Black Keys did not invent the electric blues. What the full version of the song revealed was even more bizarre than these two elements. It added in an odd, soft-shoe showtune style chorus that ends on an awkward suspended chord, and a bridge that is something else entirely. Stone Gossard was all over the place when he wrote this, and Ed, to his credit as the guy in the band who has the most say about which songs get finished (Gossard has said that he had a few more contenders, and was himself surprised that LTRP got picked), decided to have fun with it. It’s a fun song. And while it doesn’t have the “depth” that some people demand of Pearl Jam at every turn, it has its place on Lightning Bolt, an album that is restless and not content to settle in any one dimension of sound or song.
Ed said something in a 2013 interview about pop music being like fast food, or junk food–empty calories. I’ve thought about this metaphor a lot, even on my own. That songs that are goofy or half-serious or “light” or “pop” are disposable, tasty at first but will rot your teeth over time. I’m not so sure anymore. I think the metaphor might be that pop music (and I’m not really calling LTRP “pop music” here) is more like a sports car. It’s shiny, fun, but not really practical. It’s not going to get you up an icy hill in winter. And damn it all, I think our country’s music and media culture is fucked up because the attention is all on flash and sports cars and not on the sturdier, built-to-last stuff. But that doesn’t mean that sports cars aren’t fun or should be ignored. You need both. You need to have a “Porch” and a “Not for You” and a “Life Wasted,” and feel your soul stir, and sometimes you need to just let the records play.