The opening barrage of chords leading into a squall of noise from the far reaches of Vedder’s throat on “Breakerfall” gave me exactly what I wanted from Pearl Jam the first time I heard it back in 2000. I was finishing up my junior year in college, and had neither the time nor the will to stay glued to the radio in hopes of hearing album tracks from the new record in the weeks preceding, and who knows if radio stations even did that sort of thing anymore, as radio stations continued to fall one by one under Clear Channel’s domain, ever more constricted by rigid formatting. So I came at “Breakerfall”, and Binaural, with fresh ears. The introduction to the album was the perfect “Hello, how have you been?” from a band that I still loved intensely, but had grown somewhat away from.
The pleasures of fandom are great but so too are the pitfalls. It’s been immense fun to follow setlists, buy way too many bootlegs, and get that unique sense of excitement when hearing about a new song for the first time, or a new record. And no band has inspired that feeling for me in quite the same way as Pearl Jam, since they were the first to give me that feeling. But it’s also been important to step away for a little while or a long while, and gain some different perspective. I think I was first able to do this between Yield and Binaural, mostly because through college I was exposed to so many different types of music, people, experiences, and ideas that I didn’t have access to before. So when I came at “Breakerfall” and everything that followed, it was a different kind of listening.
“Breakerfall” is usually described as sounding extremely Who-ish, and though I’m not very knowledgeable about that band, I would agree based on what I’ve heard. It shares the same driving urgency and confidence that propel “My Generation”, “I Can See For Miles” et al. It would seem strange that though Ed has always been a Who superfan, one of his most Who-inspired songs wouldn’t be written until his 6th record. But that’s the nature of influence just as it is of appreciation, you take time away from certain things you enjoy until it feels right and natural to return. Throughout Pearl Jam’s career thus far, certain threads weave in and out for every member of the band, with perceptible inspiration: Neil Young, the Ramones, the Who. Others are more obscure, unknown, or broad ; the band has always been attracted to funk and R&B, occasionally trying out certain elements and trying to make them their own.
“Breakerfall”, though it probably isn’t one of the most substantial songs Ed or the band has written, does show their ability to be inspired and influenced by their heroes without simply imitating them–a fact that sets them apart from the untold legions of dudes (most definitely deserving that special connotation of “dudes”) that still patrol the airwaves in Pearl Jam’s footsteps. Hearing the band go after the song with ferocity was comforting after I myself had taken so many detours: you can go back as much as you want to, and still find something new.
The song takes a theme that I think is pretty pervasive in Ed’s writing that I’ve just now realized, and might make a good discussion topic, that ideas can empower or erode a person. The unnamed girl of “Breakerfall” can only be saved by love, we are told with certainty. Love of what, however, is left unsaid. Where I would usually carp about a lack of specificity, here I think it’s important to the song that it’s the concept of love the character needs, not a specific romantic love or whatever. “She’s standing outside hating everyone here”: how often have you or I felt that way? I hate everyone most of the time. But to open one’s self to love, to look at the perpetually spinning ball of humanity with something resembling hope, is the path to change. In this way, it’s likely that although the song is written in the third person, with a female protagonist, Vedder is singing about himself: the evolution from simply raging against the machine(s), to focusing and ultimately transforming it, whatever that machine might be, from something personal like a break-up, to something global like war. “Breakerfall”, in a nutshell, is how to grow up and still remain true to one’s self.