In a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, Ed Vedder speaks briefly about melody becoming a more recent goal for himself to concentrate on when writing songs, and that during the first three records, if there was any melody on his part it was unconscious. “Black”, he goes on to say, may have had some melody in there. For me, both as a musician and a Pearl Jam fan, this section of the interview is one of the most enlightening, revealing bits of information to come out of a PJ interview in a long time, heartening though all too brief.
There are of course plenty of stories and angles with which to approach “Black”:
1. The story of how Ed, while hiking on break from the recording of Vs. overheard some young people singing the song together, and wished them to stop.
2. How Ed drew a line in the sand when Epic wanted to release “Black” as a single and video, believing the band to be already popular enough, and the song too personal to want to sell in that manner.
3. Covers ranging from unintentionally humorous (Staind’s Aaron Lewis, Stone Sour, et al) to intentionally humorous (Redbug), adding to “Black”‘s status as one of the most iconic, if not the iconic Pearl Jam song.
But none of these facets or stories regarding “Black” are possible without the song itself, how it was constructed (or not constructed), and performed. That would appear to go without saying, but it’s easy to imagine “Black” as somehow having always existed as is, without being the product of five individuals. My primary interest in discussing “Black” is the same as it was for “You Are”: Ed’s voice, particularly as looking at both songs in close conjunction might give us insight into what Susan identified as a common gripe from some Pearl Jam fans, that Vedder has somehow lost something from his vocal delivery over the years. I would actually agree that Vedder has lost something from his voice since the days of Ten, and “Black” specifically, but I would argue that it has been a positive development that underscores his increasing, rather than decreasing, skills as a singer and artist.
The maturation of one’s vocal chords over time, how best to sing in order to preserve and not damage one’s voice, and an uncluttered, unimpeded expression of oneself through singing are all intimately connected. Obviously, as we age, our bodies reach peaks and then deteriorate, often exacerbated by lifestyle. The voice is no exception. Beyond the natural cycle of its development, how we live affects its tone and quality (and even its existence at all if we’re exceedingly reckless): drinking, smoking, screaming, etc. However, there are ways in which to sing that are healthier than others. If one is singing as naturally for themselve as possible, without strain or affectation, the complete range of vocal expression remains available to the singer with little fear of damage–even screaming, within reason. And the tone that results from proper technique will the be the clearest expression of the individual.
Consider that if I want to cover a song by Elliott Smith, I can manipulate my voice to affect what were for him (I’m assuming) natural qualities in his voice. But as they are not natural to me, my throat will hurt like a son of a bitch after a while. Then there’s the question of why I would want to imitate Smith in the first place, as opposed to attempting to add my own sensibilities to his work? Hurting my voice through the act of affectation seems an appropriate punishment. We can hear Vedder address the artistic and vocal dishonesty directly on “4/20/02”, but we can also hear it in the legions of bands that from the mid-’90s on, have built their mostly (and mercifully) short careers aping the vocal style of “Black”.
When, in the shower or otherwise, you feel like goofing off and mimicking Ed’s voice, which song’s sound is easiest to approximate? “Unemployable”? “Can’t Keep”? “Light Years”? Nope. The sound of Ed’s voice on “Black” is the sound easiest to parody and to affect. By pushing down in one’s vocal register, tightening the mouth, and pocketing a little air on either side of one’s tongue, that grumbly barrel-chested baritone can (almost, but not quite) be yours. And as mentioned above, too many singers have co-opted that sound as a signifier of sincerity. The sound of Vedder singing “Black” has become synonymous in the mainstream rock world for really really meaning what you’re singing, even if most frontment might as well be singing about fabric softener. And that’s a pretty unfortunately development for everyone involved. Because when I hear “Black” on Ten, I do hear sincerity, but I also hear inexperience.
When singing deeply, it’s often hard to sing loud, or to effectively inject as much nuance as one can when singing in higher in one’s range. The temptation for young singers is to push one’s voice harder, or to use the cavernous qualities of the mouth to somehow get the voice to resonate more. This is what I hear on “Black” and much of the Ten era, and why it’s not hard to spot suspected late-era vocal retakes on some of the tunes on Lost Dogs (“Hold On”, I’m looking at you!), because Vedder has learned not to do that, or at least not as much, over time. Now, Ed can sing as low as he wants and not worry as much that the “emotion” isn’t coming across, because he’s trying to serve the melody first, and sing as honestly as possible, with the least amount of affectation. Some, maybe many, might lament this because they fell in love with Ten and Vs. first. But the change over time does not mean that the man has lost his passion, or ability, or any such hoo-hah. It’s evolution, baby.