This is the song that begat many an obsession with Pearl Jam upon its release in 1991, so it’s altogether appropriate I think to begin this blog in its honor. I first heard Even Flow when I was 12 or 13. My friend brought over a VHS tape of some videos he’d taped off of MTV; Even Flow was on it, as well as Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike”. Up until that point, and even though I was young, I was a big fan of hip-hop from A Tribe Called Quest to EPMD to Public Enemy. Rock music never appealed much, because it seemed either too sinister and scary, or too stupid. Growing up in Massachusetts, all of my classmates were big Aerosmith fans. But “Love in an Elevator” didn’t make much sense to me then, and the appeal of that song (and band) still baffles. Pearl Jam seemed different from first listen.
Of course, the number one selling point of Pearl Jam has always been Ed Vedder’s voice, as Even Flow makes abundantly clear. This is the song that gets lampooned more than any other in the band’s catalog, most memorably by Adam Sandler on Saturday Night Live. Vedder’s distinctive baritone voice swallows every word at the same time it speeds through them, rendering meaning next-to-impossible for casual listeners. But the passion is undeniable, and refreshing. Hard rock had been wanting for deep, resonant, melodic voices for quite some time, so even if one didn’t care a damn for lyrics, Pearl Jam’s sound was refreshing to hear on the radio, or in videos. Once people paid attention to the words however, the band’s fame really exploded.
As evidenced by the partial transcription in Ten’s insert (written mostly on the margins of a dollar bill), Even Flow is about the plight of a homeless man. As I will probably argue for most of Pearl Jam’s early songs, despite my love for them (and despite their enormous impact on the mainstream rock world), the actual words are pretty unremarkable. Although it’s written as a description of an individual homeless person, it’s not. It’s about every homeless person, the problem of homelessness, the indifference of society, anything but the actual day-to-day experience of a unique human being. Sure, there’s a “pillow made of concrete”, and the unnamed characters worries about the onset of cold weather, but these are pretty generic details that only cut so deep. The real impact of the song is in how forcefully it’s delivered by singer and band. Again, not the individual lines, but how Vedder sings them.
Notes: Even Flow has been played by the band in concert more times than any other song. The re-recorded version of the song featured in the MTV video was made available on the Japanese import “Alive” EP, as well as Pearl Jam’s best-of, Rearviewmirror.