Thin Air

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.


~ by Michael on October 8, 2007.

5 Responses to “Thin Air”

  1. One of my favorite things about “Thin Air” is that its two primary chords are E and C. In the key of E, which “Thin Air” is, that makes no musical sense. But it works like magic. I call it the Gossard Paradox.

    I came to appreciate this song a lot more post-2000 when it stopped being a setlist staple. It’s a song not meant to make a nightly appearance – the mood has to be right, the atmosphere perfect, for “Thin Air” to work. It’s also one of the songs that irritates me most when it’s botched, likely because it’s so delicate. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me – I could care less when Ed confuses the second and third verses to “Whipping,” for example – but when he botches something like “Thin Air” (“Wishlist” is even worse), I start wanting to smash some heads.

  2. Ed, or whoever decides such thing…let’s say the band…the band should’ve decided that Stone sing this…I just think it would’ve been better for everybody…it just makes so much sense that he sing it…it would be a different, maybe better song with Stone’s thin voice…and, added bonus, it would’ve removed the possibility(and now ever increasing probability) of heads getting smashed. Maybe it’s not too late…i can almost see/hear Stone singing it at some point in the future when Pearl Jam concerts, because of age or consequence, become much more subdued affairs…

  3. oleyever, I almost posted the same thing, but changed my mind. I guess that I’ve changed it again. I admire those who are capable of appreciating this song. Maybe I would appreciate it more if Stone were singing it.

  4. I’d love to see Stone perform live, doing the Bayleaf material, as well as the songs he’s written for Pearl Jam. That said, I don’t think Stone singing “Thin Air” would work in the context of Pearl Jam. But maybe it’s just because I’m used to Ed singing it. He did do a great job on “Sunburn.” (Is that one getting included in this blog?)

  5. Love the version on Benaroya Hall when Stone fucks up his bit and Ed makes sure to remind us they were not gonna get away with that one.

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