“Drifting away…” Drifting yes, but of a much different sort than “Driftin'”. Tides are always pushing and pulling in the Pearl Jam songbook, marine imagery all over the place as you’d expect from a lyricist with a serious passion for surfing. “Parting Ways” is no exception, though its reference is subtle. It’s an interesting thread to follow throughout the band’s catalog, how and when oceanic themes and language are used. Sometimes the seas are choppy, violent, or simply pull loved ones far away. Other times the ocean is benevolent, home, supportive.
In “Parting Ways” of course, the currents that once glided people towards each other, have shifted. If you hadn’t heard the song, only that its subject matter dealt with a crumbling relationship, you might expect some serious old-school Pearl Jam anguish. And you’d be wrong. There’s no shortage of sadness in “Parting Ways”, in fact the song is infused with a deep sense of loss, but there’s also acceptance, however reluctant. The song is written in the third person, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the authorial voice of the song is part of the story/breakup. It’s also written in the present tense, though the perspective of the song is possessed of the kind of wisdom that usually (hopefully) comes after time and contemplation. These two forms of detachment are essential to the power and hopeful maturity of the song.
It’s pretty clear that “Parting Ways” exists thanks in no small part to “Long Road”. The musical similarities are glaring, but the almost Buddhist-like philosophy, while less so, is also present in both songs. I read somewhere that the song was attempted for Yield (and in fact, the song was soundchecked even prior to No Code), but it doesn’t surprise me that it didn’t appear fully until Binaural. If the song has any kind of autobiographical resonance, which I don’t care to speculate on much more than this, it probably would have been too much to perform without more closure and distance. But there it is at the end of Binaural, searching for handfuls of solace from a few echoing chords and warm, sonorous cellos (hey Pearl Jam! more cellos please!), and somehow finding it.