It was nearly 13 years after the release of the movie Singles that I was finally able to visit Seattle, where I watched the fish fly at Pike Place Market, stayed at the Moore Hotel, ventured up to the salmon ladder in Ballard, and gazed in wonder at the shimmering presence of Mount Rainier, from almost every vantage point in the city. Like most major American cities, I’m sure Seattle has changed a ton since the early ’90s, but I still felt like I understood on some level how Pearl Jam could come from such a place. And more than any song from the band, I was most reminded of “Breath”.
There’s a cool, bracing quality to the song that suggests the environs of the Pacific Northwest, as well as youthful optimism and idealism typified by the area’s politics and relationship with its resources. From the opening “doo-doo-doo”s mirroring the lead guitar, to sentiments such as the gorgeously harmonized “If I knew where it was / I would take you there / There’s much more than this”, “Breath” is among the most hopeful of early Pearl Jam’s work. Perhaps that’s why it resonated with me so much on my trip to the west coast. Unlike the experience traveling can sometimes create, where the world seems to shrink, visiting Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco made the world feel a lot bigger. The day-in day-out accumulation ceased its tedium for once, and I felt energized.
I hate this kind of speculation, but perhaps that’s something akin to what Vedder felt when he abruptly packed up and headed north from San Diego, and how his lyric came to be for what was originally called “A Breath and a Scream”. Or how Gossard devised one his sunnier riffs. Regardless, the song is the fan’s fan favorite, inspiring a legendary campaign in 1998 for the band to resurrect the song after a four year absence from setlists. Four years doesn’t seem quite such a long time anymore, when it’s been seven years since the first officially bootlegged tour in 2000. “Breath” has since seen a handful of warmly received performances, like an old dear friend.