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.