My list of mistakes lesser bands have made in attempting to imitate Pearl Jam could grow ever more longer, but perhaps its time to put fitting closure to it with “Hail, Hail”, as that’s certainly not a song the grunge peanut gallery has taken up as a blueprint. As another fan wrote here, Pearl Jam songs have always been about something, even the most obscure (by way of writing and by way of diction). But they’ve still got a reputation for just being “deep”, whatever the hell that means. And though the band is credited for writing strong politically and socially-themed songs, not enough attention has been paid to the fact that, like any rock band worth their salt, they’ve got a strong clutch of relationship songs as well. “Hail, Hail” is something of a landmark song for Pearl Jam in that the way it deals with issues of love displays rapid maturation from earlier work, and because the brisk, rapid-fire chord changes and construction effectively bridged the gap between the punk and classic rock sides of the band. It’s not just that it’s about something, but how.
Recently, More Than Ten looked at “Alone” and “Porch”, one a classic b-side, another a classic album track, but both concerning relationship anguish from unrequited love to dissolution. Both songs are explosive, and are heavy with emotion both in the writing and performance, but they deal almost exclusively with the aftermath of traumatic romantic experiences. While I enjoy and appreciate both songs for that, I’ve found as I’ve grown older than I can no longer relate to them for that reason. It’s not that I haven’t experienced similar feelings; quite the contrary, as I’ve had many more years of relationships. It’s that what I’m looking for in music isn’t just to appreciate someone else’s feelings, but to understand them better and experience similar feelings myself. “Hail, Hail” is remarkable in its use of language to really delve into the reasons why relationships fail, rather than just a tormented lament at the simple fact that they do.
Nowhere is this idea more obvious than in the line “I can be new / You underestimate me”, which has to be one of the most desperate lines in all of rock and roll. Seven words painfully sum up one of love’s greatest challenges: to continue to stay fresh and remain interested over the years. But how possible is it to “be new” when one partner is already far down the path of wanting out? That question is at the heart of the pain and desperation of the line, wanting so badly to start over, see and be seen with new eyes/hearts/thoughts even though the love is fading away. Ouch.
“Is there room for both of us? / Both of us apart? / Are we bound out of obligation / Is that all we’ve got?” The lyrics themselves aren’t full of emotional language; rather they are questioning, thoughtful. But they are without a doubt capable of inspiring emotion, both in the listener, and one can imagine for the object of the song. Anyone asking themselves these types of questions, or asking them of someone else, is taking a damn hard look at their relationship, in a mature but nonetheless driven manner.
And then of course, “I sometimes realize / That I can only be as good as you’ll let me / Are you woman enough to be my man?” Susan has already pointed out the gender play of this line as being indicative of Vedder’s knack for both writing female characters and understanding them in his songs. Here, the singer delivers a line that none of his aggressively, stereotypically “masculine” followers would dare. I’ll leave it up to comments for interpretation, as I haven’t mustered a definitive one, but it does efficiently represent an idea of gender as something more fluid and less defined than mainstream notions.
Musically, the song is brutal, particularly with it breathless crashing-in following “Sometimes” on No Code. However, it still manages to move quickly and with some grace. In that way it mirrors the seemingly contradictory line mentioned above. Punkish yet melodic, aggressive yet thoughtful, swift yet complex. There is perhaps more than can be said about “Hail, Hail” (certainly more than I touched on here) than a lot of the band’s other work, right down to its single’s haunting artwork, or its mantra “Hail hail to the lucky ones / I refer to those in love”. A true egg rolling, thick and heavy.