Man of the Hour
I’ll begin with a sidenote: Mudhoney’s Steve Turner has released several worthy solo albums, the best among them called Steve Turner & His Bad Ideas, on which the riff of the closing track “Move Ahead” has always reminded me heavily of “Man of the Hour”. Or maybe that isn’t so much of a sidenote after all. One of the many reasons why “Man of the Hour” fascinates me is that it doesn’t sound like anything else Ed or the band has ever written. It sounds like a lot of other bands/writers, yet it remains fundamentally and thoroughly Pearl Jam. Of course, the central guitar figure is 100% Vedder; speed it up and you get “MFC”, “Sad”, “Rearviewmirror”, et al. But it’s where the song takes that bit of melody over the course of 4 minutes that I find profoundly moving, with or without Tim Burton’s Big Fish (mostly without, as I’ve only seen the movie once).
To contradict myself completely from my thoughts on “Thumbing My Way”, the mirroring between Vedder’s guitar and vocal melodies is one of the song’s greatest strengths*. Why? Well, it’s difficult to quantify what makes one melody “better” than another, as in all things it really comes down to taste. But to my ears, “Man of the Hour” possesses a stronger link between the spirit of the lyrics and their musical setting. If the song were simply a theme without words, it would convey similar notions on grief and loss. As it stands, we get a perfectly subtle vocal performance from Vedder, as well as some of his most touching lyrics.
After an exquisite, simple and direct first verse, Mike McCready’s slide guitar starts to add a bit of color (and, as it were, dolor). The slide, like its pedal and lap steel bretheren, and the whole violin family of instruments, is remarkable in its expressiveness because of all musical contraptions it can best imitate the range of inflections of the human voice. Notice when any popular music song is described as “weepy”, it either features strings or a sliding instrument. “Man of the Hour” is decidedly weepy. For a song that was written and recorded in a relatively short amount of time, the band is absolutely locked in, knowing just when to enter or fade, and how best to serve the song’s purpose. The second verse builds in intensity, with Matt Cameron’s judicious drumwork, a few rhythm chords, and the now ubiquitous harmonized vocals. Listen closely for organ and cello, which also buttress the mood without drawing too much attention to themselves.
Live versions of “Man of the Hour” do hold a slight advantage, however, despite the fresh and perfectly seasoned work in the studio (neither over- or under-produced), namely the octave leap Vedder performs on the lines “He was guiding me / Love, his own way”, which never fails to give me chills. As a tribute to father/son bonds, a subject to which Vedder is no stranger through both real and surrogate, it’s difficult to match. And as a metaphor for dying, the gentle yet dramatic “As the man of the hour / Is taking his final bow / As the curtain comes down” (recalling the drawing of hospital curtains) is honest and crushing. “I feel that this is just goodbye for now.” For now. For now.
*Notice also the “rusted sign” connection between the two songs. Do it!