“Under your tongue / I’m like a tab / I will give you what you’re not s’posed to have.” — “Last Exit”
“Ed is a psychonaut.” — jtr (More Than Ten reader, see entry for “In Hiding”)
“Severed Hand” presents an enormous number of entry points for the obsessive fan, from its musical similarities to other Pearl Jam songs, its gory heavy-metal-like title that had folks wondering about its album’s direction prior to the release, the Beverly Hillbillies-like pronunciation of “cement”, drug allusions, and the fact that it was written by Ed on the same night he penned “I Am Mine”. How to draw all of these ideas together to gain a clearer perspective on the hazy, dragon-filled heat mirage that is “Severed Hand”?
For a purportedly psychedelic song however, “Severed Hand” is musically pretty cut-and-dry, a mashup of Ten‘s churning funk metal hop, and Binaural‘s dark brawn. It has been pointed out many a time that “Porch” + “Insignificance”, and that assessment is neither derogatory nor untrue. “Severed Hand” was written the night before the band’s first show on the US leg of the 2000 tour, a show that feature both of those songs in close proximity to one another. Perhaps to balance the gentler instincts that led to “I Am Mine”, Vedder made a point to come up with a song that had the potential to bludgeon. Interesting also that “Severed Hand” was either unfinished by the time of the sessions for Riot Act, or left in the can because it didn’t fit with that vibe (and it wouldn’t have, would it?). On Pearl Jam of course it fits perfectly, sounding almost exaggeratedly huge, part of that album’s much-praised opening five-song assault.
Lyrically, there’s quite a bit going on, a paean to consciousness-expanding potential of psychedelic drugs, the song’s protagonist receiving some mind-altering substance from the “big man” who tells him to “leave your lady on the cement floor”. In that line, and throughout the song, there’s a hint of underlying sadness, perhaps the event which causes the need for an escape. “Tried to walk / Found a severed hand / Recognized it from the wedding band”—these are the moments that elevated the song from being a drug ode to something much more turbulent and complex, echoes of “Parting Ways” and “Hail, Hail” bouncing off of the growing rooms, dimensional tears, and metaphysical quandries. Though it bears more sonic resemblence to the aforementioned classics, filed “Severed Hand” as another Vedder spin on escapism, the desire to leave one’s surroundings, in this case mental, to gain knowledge, perspective, freedom to grow, a “preternatural other plane with the power to maintain”. And to that, I say “yeah!”