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.