There’s no messing around on the opener for Pearl Jam’s 8th studio album: no count-offs, no slow-building ballads or fade-ins, no miscues or salutations, just bang! and right into the song. No life, or time, wasted. Immediately, “Life Wasted” set itself apart from anything on 2002’s Riot Act, with the energy of the band’s live set translated into the studio performances as accurately as they ever had. It started from a concerted effort to make the recording environment just right for the rhythm section of Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron to recreate their ferocity on stage. And so, from the bottom up at the top of Pearl Jam, it’s full steam ahead.
Befitting a rock band with members already into their forties, “Life Wasted” is concerned with mortality, but where bands on the decline tend to spend their midlife crises on bad nostalgia trips or cynical dread, Pearl Jam is purposeful and forward-looking. Vedder once described the song by relating a story about leaving a funeral, that the car ride you take from the church or cemetery is one of the most important you’ll have in your life for reflecting on what it means to be alive. Its this explanation that makes the most sense out of the gruesome liner note photography of Pearl Jam, and the “Life Wasted” video, where the bizarrely decaying heads of the band members almost seem to whisper “Carpe diem!” like something out of Dead Poets’ Society.
Every so often, from “Present Tense” to “Can’t Keep”, Vedder exults in writing a live-in-the-moment song. Forward motion, action, purpose—the very opposite of indifference and complacency. “Life Wasted” rightfully boasts a catchy chorus, as the song and its attitude are built to be infectious. Gossard’s opening verse chord progression is full of momentum, while the breakdown between the verse and prechorus is like swinging a sledgehammer (and also belies some influence from Cameron). Vedder returns here to his full-tilt, upper register delivery that many people missed on Riot Act, which may have more to do with “Avocado” being referred to as a “return to form” than any musical idea.
The one sticking point with uber-fans regarding “Life Wasted” is the fade at the very end. Anyone who couldn’t wait until May of 2006 for their copy, and downloaded the early leaks, had a 4+ minute version of the song to compare, and while I don’t think the fade is as egregious as the one at the end of “Wishlist”, I can’t convince myself of its necessity. Regardless, “Life Wasted” was exactly the opening statement Pearl Jam needed to make on their J Records debut, and has appropriately become a staple of the past couple of tours. Though the chorus from “Alive” has grown into being an affirmation over the years, it was initially despondent and confused. “Life Wasted” effectively looks its demons in the eye, and banishes back where they belong.