You Are

By 2002’s Riot Act Ed Vedder’s growing understanding and conscious implementation of melody was leading some fans to charge that the singer had somehow lost his passion, or was phoning in his performances. But while Vedder had been singing in a more subtle, less overtly emotive style already for several years at that point, each album had its clutch of fist-pumpers to mollify the reluctantly faithful, from “Do the Evolution” to “Hail, Hail” to “Grievance”. But apart from the twitchy, punkish “Save You”, almost all of Vedder’s vocals on Riot Act bely a restraint imposed by concerted effort to serve the melody first, theatricality second. This is not to say that Ed doesn’t sound bad, even dreadful on certain songs, but I would argue when he does falter, guilt lies with the melody itself, not necessarily a lack of commitment.

While some might disagree, I find “You Are” to be one of Vedder’s (and the band’s) best moments on Riot Act, as successful an experiment in expanding Pearl Jam’s sonic vocabulary as any in the ’00s. An obvious example for this would be Matt Cameron’s inventive guitar sound, but less obvious is how the song provides an excellent opportunity to evaluate Vedder’s unique vocal presence within the larger canon of contemporary rock music. Perhaps more than any other Matt Cameron contribution to Pearl Jam, “You Are” sounds like it could be a Soundgarden song. It’s not at all difficult to imagine Chris Cornell singing, and in doing so, we can begin to make sense of Vedder’s choices.

For one thing, Cornell would naturally sing the verses in a higher register, with much more drama and “urgency” than it would appear Vedder contributes. Everything Cornell sings he imbues with apocalyptic soul; it’s the nature of his keening, Robert Plant-like timbre. Vedder’s voice is, of course, quite different. In addition to a lower range, Vedder’s voice also sounds centered in his chest, rather than his throat (though Cornell obviously gets tremendous support from his lungs & diaphragm). This produces a less pinched, more open tone, particularly on lower notes. Over the years, he’s relied less and less on forcing energy and “emotion” with his lower register.

I put the word emotion in quotations because I think it should be noted that the forcefulness of one’s singing does not necessarily equate with the amount of emotion going into the song. Plus, I think emotion is highly overrated in music, in part because it’s so often misidentified. The goal of art is to produce a reaction in people–to get an audience to experience emotion. If a song moves me to tears, it’s irrelevant whether or not the person responsible for the song is also crying (it’s also mostly irrelevant whether or not songs are autobiographical in relation to how effective their are), for example. Much as most rock fans would bristle at the thought, I think a lot of mainstream rock radio listeners have quite a bit in common with American Idol fans. A little vibrato here, a couple extra-notes there, lung-busting delivery: wham! The singer must have really felt it. Sorry, but not necessarily. It’s nigh impossible to quantify the amount or quality of emotion going into a vocal performance based on its sound or intensity. You can quantify the amount of emotion you experience listening to it, but the two are not the same.

So back to “You Are”, and much of Riot Act, the charge of mailing/phoning/texting/etc. Vedder’s performance is baseless. The first half of each verse are sung down, lower than low, which adds to the deep, rich texture of the song. He kicks it up with “Love is a tower”, creating necessary contrast within the section. And I must say in the midst of all this deconstruction that Cameron’s stuttering guitar effects just sound fucking cool, spiky and raspy to balance out the smoothness of Vedder’s singing. The “Ooh ahh / You are” bridge, punctuated by… what is that? Organ?, is one of the band’s most arresting and unique moments on record. I’m not sure if there’s a general consensus in PJ fandom about “You Are”, other than it’s originality, but when all is said and blogged, I will maintain that not only is the song one of the band’s more successful departures, but also one of the strongest representatives of its constantly maturing/evolving approach to their craft.

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~ by Michael on June 9, 2007.

10 Responses to “You Are”

  1. That’s an excellent, increasingly-crucial point about emotion you’ve made there.

  2. When I first heard You Are (I think the band did some radio show and previwed Save You and You Are) I was blown away. It was unlike anything they had ever done and I was completely taken by the song. Over the years, my love/interest in You Are has, admittedly, waned. It’s not a bad song, but for me, the lyrics are too straightforward and the technical glitz of the music far outweighs the value of the words.

    I guess I should say though that I am one of those people who think Riot Act, on the whole, felt phoned in. I don’t think it was done on purpose, but I think the album is missing any sense of urgency or clarity. You Are is great in theory, but flawed in execution.

  3. YOU ARE is one of my favorite Pearl Jam tunes. It may be the coolest song they have ever done. I also don’t think that the vocals on Riot Act are “phoned-in.” Whether you like the songs or not, the vocal performances themselves are not haphazard. Your explanation of how singers express themselves through their vocal choices is excellent.

    My understanding of the Riot Act sessions is that most of the songs were recorded live or pratically live. YOU ARE and ARC were the only songs built track by track. YOU ARE does have a more synthesized feel to it. Ed’s backing vocals are just as cool as the guitar effects. There are a few songs that I feel suffer live because Ed can’t do the backing vocals, and this is one of them.

    One popular topic of discussion in the Pearl Jam community is Ed’s voice. I was wondering if you would give us a piece on the evolution of Ed’s vocal style and how he has coped with age. I think you could do that topic justice, and it would provide the opportunity for some meaningful discussion beyond the usual Ed hasn’t been able to sing since….

  4. NoCoder: There is something “off” about Riot Act, and it very well might be a lack of clarity, as you put it. Not that albums necessarily need a concept or an overall cohesion, but Riot Act does feel a bit all over the map, more a collection of songs than an album.

    Susan: I’m planning on covering “Black” next for just that exact reason! I really don’t hear any deterioration per se in Ed’s voice, just little adjustments here and there. I mean, some of his best screams are on “Love Reign O’er Me”. But Ed’s given some quotes with regards to how he sings, how he’s discovered the importance of melody, and I think this can definitely be tied into “Black”. In fact, I think Ed himself used “Black” as an example.

  5. Also, if folks are unfamiliar (or familiar) with the band Low, they should seriously check out Ian’s blog Too Many Words, Too Many Words. Particularly w/r/t voice, as Alan Sparhawk & Mimi Parker have highly evocative, yet extremely subtle deliveries, and also can hold notes longer than just about anyone I’ve heard in pop music.

  6. Good song, good write up. The guitar parts where played through a drum machine by Matt Cameron. Matt also said he thinks ‘You Are’ sounds like the Smiths.

  7. I’m a lyric guy.

    “I am the shoreline … but you’re the sea.”

    Speaks volumes to me. To me, it’s a beautiful metaphor for the changing power of love. That’s something I think most of us can relate to.

  8. When people talk about Riot Act they dont put it in context. Roskilde’s 2000 tragedy and 9/11 happened since, and I think Vedder was profoundly changed by these events, and wished to speak some things he couldn’t have said before. That’s my point of view.

  9. Riot Act was the first PJ album that I witnessed as a fan (I’m a fan since 2001). After the first hearing of this album, You Are was the song that really impressed me. One of their most experimental songs. Sounds good live

  10. I wasn’t aware that Cameron was such a strong force in that song! You Are is actually my very favorite on Riot Act. It is pretty powerful to me, and like most PJ songs it brings a plethora of emotions, memories, hopes to mind. I started to feel like I was the only one who loved it, lol! 🎶 Thank you for this blog!!!

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