I’ve always felt “Cropduster” to be one of the most under-appreciated Pearl Jam songs, though even from first listen it was apparent that the song would own that unfortunate destiny. The song has all of the qualities of a fan favorite, but an equal amount of turn-offs. It seems to constantly be shooting itself in the foot. Everything that makes “Cropduster” wonderful also contains a tinge of disappointment that has prevented it from making a bigger impact on listeners. The number one flaw with the studio version of “Cropduster” is the same complaint that can be made (and has been) for much of Riot Act: the lack of energy in the performance. Of course, one man’s lack of energy is another man’s laid back spirit. But “Cropduster” sounds like an aggressive song trapped in a midtempo song’s body, just a hairsbreadth slower than it should be played. Live, this hasn’t been as big of a problem, with “Cropduster” even being used once as an opener (Lexington, KY, 2003). But on record, it sort of feels like, “C’mon, get moving already!”
But pace aside, “Cropduster” is also one of my favorite Riot Act tracks right down to its title. It toes the line between catchy and bizarre, with Matt Cameron’s trademark cut-time and unexpected key changes. The second verse smartly changes up its presentation from the first. Vedder’s delivery of “Everyone is practicing / But this world’s an accident” prefigures similar vocal maneuvering in “Unemployable”, while McCready’s soloing is noticeably inspired, dancing around the shifting chords. “Cropduster” can’t be described as light or dark in tone; it lies comfortably (or un-) in between, a forest path cut across with sun and shadow. Mortality is explored as physical reality (“Swallowing seeds on my deathbed”) rather than spiritual, which will always remind me of Iron & Wine’s similar meditations on being “planted” rather than unnaturally preserved after you die. There are stark truths (“Dad, he’s gone up in flames / But this ain’t no movie”) and simple yet evocative images (“The moon is rolling ’round the world”) that speak to the inevitability of the life cycle and our part in it. “Cropduster” is strange, sad, and at the same time strangely, sadly comforting.