“Once”, “Go”, “Last Exit”, “Sometimes”: One of these things is not like the others. “Sometimes” was not only the quietest, subtlest Pearl Jam album opener to date in 1996, it remains so to this day. A prayer of humility, of abandon, of leaving oneself open to the unknown and uncontrollable, “Sometimes” is also one of the band’s most uniquely structured compositions.
Were it not for the opening string of guitar notes, which would resemble similar patterns in “MFC”, “Sad”, “Rearviewmirror”, and “Corduroy” if sped up considerably, one might never guess that Vedder was responsible for “Sometimes”. Ament’s bass lolls and swoops around the arrangement like a bumblebee drunk on pollen, while various guitar and percussion effects flutter through. Vedder sings close to the mic, warmly, a 180-degree turn from anything on Vitalogy, hell, anything before that.
Though the song has been mostly used as an opener, particularly on recent tours, and has generally heralded some of their most eclectic sets, “Sometimes” on record does not feel like it was written to be heard. I don’t mean this at all in the sense of the song being an outtake. Rather, every song Pearl Jam song through the first three records felt like the audience was a part of the song–either directly or indirectly. Directly, songs like “Not For You” and “Leash” were directed at individuals or groups. Indirectly, the extroverted, performance-oriented nature of Pearl Jam’s brand of hard rock always felt it was created to be a shared experience–even the extremely isolated “Indifference” was more seance than soliloquy.
But “Sometimes”, in the best way possible, feels like it was written purely for the satisfaction of Vedder himself, whether or not anyone would ever hear it. The result was that it was not only a major turning point in his singing and songwriting, but also why listeners were largely puzzled and disoriented when they put No Code on for the first time. It marked the first occasion where Vedder’s questioning nature wasn’t defensive, or righteously pissed off, or even sad. “Sometimes” was simply human, which pop music audiences have unfortunately been trained to hear as boring or undramatic.
I find “Sometimes” quite the opposite, right down to the way the separate sections of the song are barely separate, how even the song’s climax is tempered, reined in, private. All of this plays in contrast to the fact that the character of the song is of being overwhelmed with all of the nuance and complexity of life. The anaphora of “Sometimes I…” starts to steamroll toward the end of the song, completed by all sorts of knowing, not knowing, rising, falling, certainty, uncertainty, but quickly dies away again with Vedder’s breath as he sings, “Sometimes I reach to myself, dear god.” If “Sometimes” doesn’t make my all-time top 10 song list (and it might), this moment surely makes my top 10 moment list. I always get the feeling that I’m witnessing something truly special, that one doesn’t normally get a glimpse of from their rock and roll heroes–a complete lack of self-consciousness.