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.