It’s been a while since new Pearl Jam songs were consistently debuted in concert before their parent albums were released. With the enormously generous advent of the band’s official bootleg series, new originals have been all but completely absent with a few exceptions. But even those exceptions have only cropped up on special warm-up shows, or one-off benefit concerts not meant for purchase. For the Pearl Jam song aficionado, the recent performance with the mother lode of new material occurred on 2/26/2002, where a solo Ed Vedder unveiled a slew of ukelele (and sometimes guitar) based numbers including “You’re True”, “Broken Hearted”, and “Can’t Keep” (at All Tomorrow’s Parties, two weeks later, Vedder broke in another new handful).
“Can’t Keep” was referred to by Vedder at ATP as “speed thrash ukelele”, and in fact the live solo versions of the song feature a much nimbler tempo than the full-band version that made it onto Riot Act. The restlessness and eagerness of the song’s lyric, combined the quick and bright uke, gives the song an invigorating quality. The album version, however, slowed down ever so slightly yet bolstered by a crisp, clear drum track and electric guitars, is like a warm cup of tea to its ancestor’s espresso. The same essential energy hums inside of the studio recording, just mellowed out somewhat, the way yoga can be just as demanding physically as most outwardly vigorous exercising.
As an opening track the song is one of the band’s best, a declaration of intent, a hopeful and positive call to arms that leads listeners into an album full of tough examinations, both personal and political. The melody and lyrics are particularly beautiful, and in many ways anomalous in the body of Vedder’s solo contributions. The melody of the verses travels almost a flat line through the chords before rising for what amounts to an untraditional chorus. It’s not a progression or style that the band has even approached elsewhere (like much of Riot Act in retrospect), though it’d be interesting to see what else Pearl Jam could do traveling this path of resolved, focused calm.