Army Reserve

While trying to figure out which Pearl Jam song I wanted to write about next, it occurred to me that “Army Reserve” was a fairly logical choice coming directly from “Elderly Woman”. Lyrically (though it’s one of the very few incidences of shared writing credits, co-authored by West Memphis 3 member Damien Echols), the song bears the fruit of the seeds planted that Vs. classic, though its character study is applied somewhat differently, and for different purpose.

Pearl Jam’s thematic concerns have always revolved around personal struggles (of meaning, love, and identity) as well as political issues and conflicts. Perhaps the innovation of Pearl Jam was to more effectively link the two, as “Army Reserve” shows how geopolitical strife directly impacts a particular family. The automatic restraint that trying to do justice to flesh-and-blood characters imposes, limits the availability of strawmen for political opponents to burn down, and increases the effectiveness of issue-based music. A political song by nature doesn’t have the power to convince someone completely towards a particular point of view; rather it should persuade them to open up to the possibility of a different truth, or at least find common ground. “Army Reserve” for example, won’t likely turn a pro-Iraq War hawk into a dove, because that’s not the point.

The point that Vedder and Echols express in “Army Reserve” is really that war does have an impact on the civilian American population. In contrast to past conflicts, the US populace has not been asked to make the same kinds of sacrifices, and has been encouraged instead to go shopping. And while Americans’ view of the war has increasingly become more and more negative, there is a great disconnect with the reality of what’s really going on in the Middle East. Military families, however, are the exception–who live with fear, doubt, pride, and hope every day. While the motivations behind the war, and its current handling can be endlessly debated, the impact on soldiers and their loved ones cannot, and this is what “Army Reserve” explores.

This not to say that Vedder and Echols don’t have a stance on the war, or that their politics is not evident in the song’s lyrics. But the way they are handled is deft, and relatively unobtrusive when compared to say, “Bu$hleaguer”. “She tells herself and everyone else / Father is risking his life for our freedoms”, obviously we as an audience know that the mother’s assertion here belies her doubt, which is enhanced by concern for her son, “Her son’s… always giving her the sideways eye / An empty chair where dad sits / How loud can silence get?” By using or creating realistic characters in entirely plausible situations, Vedder and Echols remove themselves. They’re not expliciting telling you how to feel–they’re presenting a scenario that simply gives you the opportunity to feel something, whatever that something is. It’s implied that Vedder and Echols don’t believe that the war is really about preserving US freedoms, but that position is neatly handled by being handed over as a question in a character’s mind, rather than a diatribe.

Of course, none of this hoopla about characters and political lyrics would be worth a damn if the music didn’t do its part. And boy does it ever. Jeff Ament’s music for “Army Reserve” is stunning. As befitting songs written by bass players in general and Ament in particular, the song is groove-oriented, with the writer’s bassline fairly prominent in the mix, maneuvering atypically through each section of the song. Unless a song is dead simple in its ambitions and construction (and even in some of those cases), Ament’s aim is always to find creative notes and lines to support the other instruments. “Army Reserve”, like “Sleight of Hand” and “Help Help” among others, is not simple. For a midtempo song, it is boiling over with energy from several guitars playing different chords and figures around the melodic bassline. Changes and song shifts pop up in unexpected places. Vedder is given plenty of room in the verses for his phrasing to move around, a la “Sleight”, but the song tightens up considerably for the climactic choruses, with their powerful line “Looks like lightning / In my child’s eyes.” The combination of desperation and empathy in the writing and performances, makes this song one of Pearl Jam’s most mature to date.


~ by Michael on May 11, 2007.

7 Responses to “Army Reserve”

  1. Excellent review. I wonder if Damien Echols actually wrote words for a song, or if Ed took something from his poetry/personal writings. Maybe the answer will surface someday but doubtful. Again, nice review C13, it is fun to come home for my lunch break and read “More Than Ten”.

  2. Cool. Thanks, BYM. Having interested/interesting readers is what makes it fun to keep this going.

  3. I really admire how PJ critisize the current situation of the USA in their self-titled album. Army Reserve is very emotional song, about the soldiers that serve their country in Iraq and how their family feels and deals with it. Mike’s guitar sounds so good live in this one

  4. I came to realise the other day that almost all my favourite PJ songs are Ament songs. Also, i believe this may be a PJ first with Jeff’s slap bass?

  5. Off the point, I just finished watching ‘In the Wild’. A great movie, I hope you can all get a chance to watch his story. And going into it, already familiar with the soundtrack, was nice.

    C13 has such a great way with words. I love this record, and this is another song in heavy rotation for me right now. It is much slower on the studio record than live recordings. The sentiment is there, and I agree C13, that EV leaves it to you to judge (if one wants to judge) but that last line of the song nails the point of the song – risking his life for our freedom. To that, no one says it better than Floyd: Bring the boys back home.

  6. Great review.

  7. Hi. I just read the whole news about the west memphis 3, but in the past I didn´t put attention on some facts. I read your review of the song and it excellent,

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