Now we come to it. The pressure is on. The task? To prove beyond a reasonable doubt that “Unemployable”, b-side to “World Wide Suicide” and centerpiece album track on Pearl Jam’s 8th album, is worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of classic tracks that includes “Corduroy”, “Rearviewmirror”, “I Got Shit”, and “Jeremy”, among many others. Odd choice? Some believe it is, and of course there’s no accounting for taste. But without (hopefully) sucking all of the greatness out it, I seek to demonstrate that “Unemployable” combines everything Pearl Jam does well into one mighty little three-minute package.
When the “World Wide Suicide” single hit airwaves and mp3 single format, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that song’s energetic hook and more mature political writing. But I was even more taken aback by “Unemployable”, more so than probably any track since “Who You Are”. Message board pundits went straight for the throat in comparing Ed’s “whoa-uh-oh’s” in the song’s chorus to (gasp) Shania Twain of all people. Shania Twain? First of all, though I have been in enough strip malls to know the song people are referring to, seriously people, if that’s the first song that comes to your mind, that’s your fault, not Ed’s. Noting Pearl Jam’s “Brass In Pocket” improv from the early days, “Unemployable” should at least resonate as being inspired somewhat by the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang”. But for the sake of argument, even if Twain’s vocal mannerisms did somehow consciously or subconsciously inspire Ed’s performance, does it or does it not sound great? Answer: it does.
The combination of writing, subject matter, instrumental and vocal performances, originality of the musical composition, and catchiness all dovetail into a fairly indestructible rock and roll box. Each aspect of the song balances the next. Though the issues the song deals with are no less than serious, the singable hook and “ooohhhh’s” prevent the song from ever being mired in its own seriousness. Lyrically, Vedder’s imagery has rarely been as fresh or real. Witness:
“He’s got a big gold ring that says ‘Jesus Saves’
And it’s dented from the punch thrown at work that day
When he smashed a metal locker where he kept this things
After the big boss said ‘you best be on your way'”
Visually, aurally, and texturally these lines can’t help but be experienced. You can imagine the dented locker, the sound of the fist hitting, the feel of bruised knuckles, the flash of a gold ring, the coldness of the boss’s voice: all of it. And that’s the point of the song: whether or not this exact experience has happened to you in every detail, you are forced to see it, hear it, feel it, and best of all, make your own mind up about it. It’s no secret that Pearl Jam’s history of populism and leftist politics makes it all but certain where their sympathies lie in “Unemployable”, i.e. not with the big boss but with the now-unemployed working man. But the song stops short at railing against the suits, asking instead, with little polemics, for listeners to consider the real-life implications of poor job security and an uncertain economy.
“Well, his wife and kids are sleeping but he’s still awake
On his brain weighs the curse of 30 bills unpaid
Gets up, lights a cigarette he’s grown to hate
Thinking if he can’t sleep, how will he ever dream?”
There are two particularly masterful lines in this verse, primarily because what they’re doing is so hard for most other writers to pull off. First, cigarettes are usually WAY overused in movies, poetry, and music to try and simulate some sort of jaded cool, to create a mood, etc. Here, the cigarette is just a cigarette, a detail that feels both realistic for the character, and appropriate for that moment when he can’t sleep. Plus, we’re told he’s grown to hate it. Why? Maybe because cigarettes cost $6 a pack, and without a job, that money’s probably better spent on feeding his family. Or because he’s so stressed out, the nicotine no longer calms his nerves or gives him satisfaction, despite an addiction. Well played Ed, well played.
The second bit of brilliance is that last line, “Thinking if he can’t sleep / How will he ever dream”. This is a fantastic example of one’s metaphor working in total conjunction with the actual circumstances of the story. The line works both literally and figuratively. Too many writers rely solely on the latter, which ends up sounding trite or baseless. But here, the sleeping and dreaming are both literally longed for, and the dreaming means both actual dreams and the character’s waking dreams for his family’s future. What this line pulls off wholly without pretension is something that poses a surprisingly large challenge for artists in all media.
And of course, none of this would mean anything at all if the song weren’t solidly and pleasingly constructed. Happily, “Unemployable” sounds fresh, earthy, tough, pretty, endless adjectives. The first thing I notice is Matt Cameron’s stick and cymbal work in the opening moments. How many songs do you know where the cymbals stand out enough to exclaim, “damn! those cymbals sound great”? Cameron’s inventive rhythms and playing inform “Unemployable” in ways that are creative but unobtrusive. The song flows as easily as any of the band’s poppier efforts, but with enough quirkiness to push themselves and listeners. The verse riffing underneath Vedder’s sublimely double-tracked vocals makes your insides move, as the song itself feels full of motion, stoic but worried, proud but frustrated, fluid yet turbulent, coming to the sad realization that for too many people this life is indeed “sacrifice”, when a disproportionate amount of the fruit of their labors is sent to those who have never known an honest day’s work.