Simplicity doesn’t always mean simple. “Long Road” accomplishes with a small handful of chords and clean, direct writing, what armies of rock bands often strive for but ultimately never grasp: sheer beauty. I remember a critic’s quote from years ago that claimed that for all of Pearl Jam’s success and formidableness as rock band, it had never produced a song that was truly pretty. Whether or not that was true at the time, it is my belief that even the staunchest critics/dismissers of Pearl Jam, if pressed, could acknowledge that “Long Road” is indeed pretty, maybe profoundly so. It’s also my belief that the very reason the song is so lovely and moving is that is doesn’t appear to be trying hard to that way. It simply is.
It’s no coincidence that “Long Road” has quietly infiltrated film and television, from the gorgeous rendition with the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack to an episode of Scrubs, probably without most casual listeners realizing who they were hearing. The song has also been covered by Michael Stipe, among others, and was performed by Vedder, McCready, and Neil Young as part of the post-9/11 tribute concert, America: A Tribute To Heroes. It was performed than with good reason: the song is an enormous comfort. Sung from the point of view of a dying man (or woman), “Long Road” bravely, though not without some sadness, confronts the inevitability of death. Abetted by a ringing D chord and Neil Young’s mournfully sweet pump organ, Vedder’s elegy is joins “Come Back”, “Man of the Hour”, and others in its basic theme, but ultimately resonates, at least for me, on an even truer level.