If one of your headphones is blown out, you’ll have a hard time enjoying “Rival”, perhaps the most obvious use of Tchad Blake’s “binaural” recording technique on Pearl Jam’s album by that name.  Not only does Dakota’s “gimme that bone” growling travel unsettlingly around one’s head in the opening moments, but the much of the song’s instrumentation is split between the ears—-so if a speaker’s busted, or your stereo’s set to “mono”, you’re missing half of the song.  Which would be a damn shame, as “Rival” boasts one of the most interesting and refreshing arrangements on a Pearl Jam record to date, most notably stellar and playful layered vocals, and off-kilter piano (which, if the photo beside the page for “Rival” in the booklet is any indication, was played by Ed).

As I’m slowly learning as a non-audiophile, binaural is not a substitute word for stereo.  It’s not just about fading some instrumentation to the left or right.  Binaural takes all of the space around a person’s head into consideration. So in addition to left and right listening, you’ve got front, back, above, below and all the degrees in between.  The only real way to experience the full effect of the recording technique is to listen with headphones, as the sounds emanating from each of your stereo speakers naturally interfere with each other through crossfeed.  All of this is just to say that binaurally recorded music is supposed to sound as if you were there in person while the music was being played.  For a full rundown about this does or doesn’t work, consult your local libr… I mean Wikipedia (for shame!).

Or just channel “Rival” through your working headphones and see what you think.  I’m going to try it right now.  Ah yes.  The song is downright scary for its capacity to energize, considering the lyrics were partially Gossard’s attempt to imagine what the kids behind the Columbine massacre were thinking the night before.  Which is also why “Rival” is one of Gossard’s finest lyrical efforts in Pearl Jam.  It’s no small feat, and no small amount of daring, artistic or otherwise, to go directly into such a subject matter from that angle.  Or I should say, that it’s incredibly difficult to write such a song and engage the listener beyond presenting them with a bunch of things they already know and don’t need a song to tell them: i.e. killing is wrong, Columbine was a tragedy, etc.  Instead, “Rival” gets at that Wild West hero avenger fantasy that is unfortunately a part of all of us to some degree?  Who hasn’t fantasized at some level about getting back at those who have tormented or annoyed us?

“Rival” doesn’t let the listener get smug and cozy and think, what monsters! It forces us through the excitement and power of the music to realize that we’ve all got monsters inside of us.  Mother Theresa even once said in response to a question about why and how she was able to perform such amazing acts of charity, that she began her holy work when she realized she had a Hitler inside of her.  “Rival” doesn’t press the issue that hard, but it draws subtle connections between the actions of the Columbine killers, and the actions and images that make up our culture.  As famously documented by Michael Moore, Columbine High isn’t so far from Lockheed Martin plants that churn out weapons of war responsible for civilian casualties in the hundreds of thousands.

It’s no coincidence that Gossard wrote, “I’ve been harboring fleets in this reservoir / … And this nation’s about to explode”, using a nation-state’s war machine as a metaphor for the shooters.  Or that he writes in the language of old violence-promoting Westerns, “Better pony up and bring both your barrel-fulls.”  It’s also worth noting that by assuming the voice of someone about to commit an atrocity, Gossard is able to avoid pat summations like “violence is bad” etc.  This of course, we already know, but through the tact of the writing, we realize how one could get caught up in some destructive fantasy on a whole number of levels.  The name of the song is “Rival” after all.  The character in the song sees his victims, the society at large from which he’s been alienated, as rivals, not victims, not targets, not even the term “collateral damage” which our government invokes to distance itself from the staggering numbers of civilians who have died at its hands.

But none of this would perhaps be worth a damn if the music didn’t match the lyrics’ intensity. “Rival” has a sound that’s best described as dirty.  Like most Gossard compositions, it relies heavily on a groove, but the rhythms and textures employed here rub it raw.  The drums shuffle and stomp, then stop. Jarring piano notes hammer in, then abruptly fade out.  The same thing goes for the rhythm and lead guitars–they sound sneaky, powerful, confident, and by the end of the song everything goes up in smoke together, with Ed’s whoops and hollers just barely emerging from the back of mix.  Because of it’s unique structure and use of melody and harmony within the Pearl Jam canon, it’s another song that’s been difficult to place within a setlist.  Played only 20 or so times since its release seven years ago, “Rival” is always a surprise to hear live–standing on its own as one of the band’s most unnerving and creative songs.


~ by Michael on June 14, 2007.

6 Responses to “Rival”

  1. Well done! Very strong review. Didn’t it say, “Growing up gay in Littleton” somewhere on the lyric page? I always wondered about that…I was a high school teacher at a Columbine clone just an hour away from Littleton when it happened, so I really related to the social context of the situation, and the song captures it pretty well…certainly better than any other song about Columbine, but why did Stone, or whoever, think they were gay? Did Bowling for Columbine say anything about that? And in the end, as good as it is – the binaural sound and all that, and as much as I appreciate the effort and the immediate memories of a time and place that it inspires, it’s really not THAT good of a song…let’s face it. It’s the 10th track on Binaural, for god’s sake, and as you say, they haven’t found too many good reasons to play it live, although it sounds better live…Ed’s voice isn’t so deep and plodding. And doesn’t the studio version fade out at the end? I have to say, if it does fade out, it’s scary that I remember that it does, and it’s also another reason why I don’t really like it. I want it to be a sequel to Jeremy, I think…but it’s so not.

  2. I was suprised at how flattering C13’s review was. It’s not that I disagree, it’s just that this is one of the band’s more forgotten songs. It is rarely referenced among fans and even more rarely played live. I’ve always enjoyed and I prefer it to at least “Sleight of Hand” and “Soon Forget” at the end of Binaural. I also like its placement directly after “Grievance.” I can’t quite pinpoint why, but I feel the songs have connection in some way.

    As I may have said before, I don’t really buy into the glory of binuaral recording, or perhaps it’s just Tchad Blake recording that I don’t like. But “Rival,” perhaps more than any other song on that record, benefitted from this kind of sound recording.

  3. No Coder: Yeah, it’s definitely one of my very favorite Pearl Jam songs. But the number one reason isn’t the subject matter or the lyrics, or even the binaural recording. It’s just how the song sounds, how everyone fits together. I love the piano, the guitars, the melody, the toughness of it. I find it exhilarating to listen to.

    Interesting note: on the Wiki entry for binaural recording, it’s speculated that the new Radiohead album might employ that technique to some extent. Take it with a grain of salt.

    Oleyver: Your guess is as good as mine w/r/t “growing up gay…” I never saw how that really fit in, except as a potential reason some students are harassed/persecuted in high school. But even if that’s the case, I still don’t find it necessary, as I’m sure you’ll agree as an educator, there are countless reasons for kids to torment each other besides real or perceived sexuality.

  4. You are right on about Rival. I think it’s Binaural’s best track.

    Eddie’s vocal melody is inventive, and I love the lurching guitar parts and the out-of-nowhere piano bits. That the subject matter is so abstract doesn’t hurt, either, in my view.

  5. To me, it sounds like the backing vocals are sung a few feet away from the microphone. You do need good headphones to fully appreciare Binaural, and this is one of it’s sleeper tracks. A great song. Red sun = communist flag?

  6. I simply love this song. Pretty much everything about it, despite the atrocity it stemmed from. Pretty much anything Gossard pens…these are always my favorites. I too was wondering about the “Growing up gay” scribbling on the liner notes. I think it just ties into the tormented/bullied social climate of the song. By the way we lifelong PJ fans really appreciate this blog! 🙂 Thank you for all your time, effort and research 💜

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