Who You Are

No CodeStrange that the lead single off of a Pearl Jam album would end up one of the band’s more obscure tracks, but such is the case with No Code’s “Who You Are”.  The band at the time called it the best thing they’d ever done, yet it was played less than 30 times between 1996 and 1998, and never since.  Though it reached #1 on the US modern rock charts, rock radio DJ’s were baffled by the song’s Eastern melodies and tribal drumming courtesy of drummer Jack Irons.  I remember hearing the song on the radio at the time, and the quick dismissals from the jocks about the band “getting weird” and “shunning their fans”, which was too bad.  “Who You Are” was a genuine and highly successful attempt to broaden the band’s sound, and contains some of their loveliest moments.

The song fades in at the beginning with an insistent, poly-rhythmic beat, Jeff Ament’s zooming bass, and a few atonal piano chords sprinkled in for good measure.  As with the No Code outtake (and Lost Dogs selection) “All Night”, “Who You Are” features layered, multi-tracked harmonies by Vedder, whose melody climbs up and down with Gossard’s guitar chords.  The writing is jagged, playful, and self-referential, “That’s the moss in the aforementioned verse.” There’s no narrative, just half-sentences and fragments, partial- and off-rhymes, “Circumstance, clapping hands / Driving winds, happenstance.”  It’s no wonder that the song baffled casual fans and radio dudes at the time, but it’s also a shame. As No Code’s sales figures suggest, the creative growth and experimentation of “Who You Are”, indicative of the whole album, frightened people away from some exceptional songs.

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~ by Michael on April 29, 2007.

10 Responses to “Who You Are”

  1. Bang on the money. You’re right about ‘I’m Still Here’, too. It is shite.

  2. No Code may possibly be my favorite pj record. To me, ‘Who You Are’ is about evolution and one’s role in our society. I like the sleight lyrical change on the greatest hits version.
    You gotta love the mighty Jack Irons.

  3. I can’t believe this made #1 on the US modern rock charts, was this their only single to hit #1 on a billboard chart? Thanks.

  4. Billboard has several different charts based on different radio formats, I believe. So “Who You Are” probably peaked quick since it was a brand new Pearl Jam song. Interesting to see how long it lasted. It also made #5 on the Mainstream Rock charts, and #31 on the Billboard Hot 100. Still pretty strange. No Code is probably my favorite PJ record as well. I think the self-titled also rocks the house pretty hard.

  5. Definetly the best pearl jam record. But this is not nessiscarly the climactic element…I think in my tree and present tense take the cake.

  6. It was a very brave move, to promote No Code with this song.

  7. AHHH! How could i forget the harmonies in this song, the most apparent in any PJ song. I think Stone does the honors on this one, Matty wasn’t around any way. And the only song to feature a cowbell and bongos, right?

  8. As always, I seem to love the slightly weird, more off-kilter PJ tracks. This is one of many great moments in a great record. The instrumentation is some of Pearl Jam’s most varied and the sound of this song is just so interesting. The hands that clap at the behest of the lyric are almost too cheesey, yet they work and just give more to the song. Very appropriate as the first single.

  9. I’m in the No Code camp, as well. That and self-titled are probably my favorites — though Vs. still sounds pretty damn good. I remember not feeling strongly one way or the other about Who You Are when it came out, but I’ve grown to appreciate it more each year.

    It might make an interesting discussion thread down the line. Favorite and least favorite albums and singles of devoted fans.

  10. Do you think the harmonies were all E.V. multi-layered, because IMHO I can hear Stone and possibly Jeff in there.

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