Around the time of Binaural‘s release, I remember reading about some connection between “Thin Air” and Stone Gossard’s appreciation of the band Wilco. It may have even been a direct quote linking the two. Regardless, I remember thinking “Really?” I still wonder. Wilco’s another band that I considered creating a “catablog” for (which I abandoned, but for which there’s now So Misunderstood), being fairly steeped in their music, and for the life of me I can’t find anything in “Thin Air” that compares to what Tweedy and company had produced by 2000. But for sport, let’s make an attempt here.
The music of Wilco has been described, at times more or less appropriately, as “Americana”. Although this is an umbrella term that could include musical forms as diverse as zydeco, delta blues, jazz, and gospel, it’s most often used to describe music derived primarily from Appalachian folk music and by extension, traditional balladry from the British Isles. Jeff Tweedy’s band prior to Wilco was Uncle Tupelo, which combined aspects of country and folk music with punk. And though more recent Wilco material has seen that band progress into more avant garde directions, the foundations of most Wilco songs are still beholden to structures and melodies of traditional songcraft.
Gossard’s material for Pearl Jam, on the other hand, has never really had a strong folk music vein. Pop, funk, metal, punk (though there’s so much crossover and sharing between all musical genres), even “world” and hip-hop, more often characterize Stone’s songwriting. “Thin Air” is no exception, which to my ears owes much more to classic R&B than the Louvin Brothers or Woody Guthrie. And it sounds more like the band’s covers of Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” and “Last Kiss” than any of Vedder’s folkier contributions, Ed being the member of Pearl Jam seemingly most rooted in folk-derived styles by influences such as Springsteen, Dylan, and Young.
The point of attempting to debunk the “Thin Air”/Wilco connection, is that even though Gossard may have been inspired by that band, that inspiration, filtered through his own talents and tendencies, made “Thin Air” something else entirely, and a good lesson on the nature of inspiration. Inspiration does not have to equal mimicry. The surface qualities and aspects of a particular piece of music don’t need to be replicated in order an artist to claim inspiration. Though “Thin Air” features a strummed acoustic guitar, it follows a groove typical of classic R&B and pop, an odd chord making the song a sort of warped version of an old ’50s romantic ballad. Stone’s lyrics (“There’s a light / When my baby’s in my arms”) could also have come right out of the Righteous Brothers or some such, were it not for idiosyncratic details like “Byzantine is reflected in our pond”.
“Thin Air” never struck me as particularly great, either as a Pearl Jam song or a Gossard composition; it’s strictly in the middle of the pack. But I’ve always appreciated listening to it from a writer’s perspective, as an artist’s attempt to pay homage to another in their own way. In that respect, despite or because of its not sounding particularly like its inspiration, I’d say it’s quite successful.