Speed of Sound
The availability of demo versions of officially recorded music has seemed to grow to ubiquity over the last decade with the internet and deluxe reissued albums flooding our ears with our favorite artists’ rough sketches. Yet, we’re usually afforded the opportunity to hear an artist’s earliest takes on a new composition long, long after the fact. Rarely do we have the chance to compare both a skeletal and fleshed-out version of the same song immediately upon (or, ahem, before) its release.
“Speed of Sound” provides a fascinating comparison between the solo Ed Vedder version offered via an internet promotion/game, and the fully-crafted, Brendan O’Brien-produced final result. The song, like its Backspacer compadres “Just Breathe” and “The End”, is a folky, finger-picked ramble, clearly the result of the major stylistic breakthrough Vedder underwent which resulted in the Into the Wild soundtrack. That much is evident to anyone who downloaded the demo. The final version, however, is strikingly arrayed with different textures that weave in and out in ways that have already befuddled some early listeners, and which, to anyone who hadn’t heard the demo, would barely suggest the song’s humble beginnings.
I’m of the mind that, good or bad, “Speed of Sound” demonstrates the most new growth for Pearl Jam on Backspacer, in terms of the band’s collaborative process both among themselves, and with a producer. First, as Ed’s contributions in the form of three aforementioned songs sound so distinctly like his growing body of solo material, the band could have easily let those songs go toward a seperate project of Ed’s. Ed’s earlier acoustic forays (“Elderly Woman”, “Thumbing My Way”) and even some of his ukelele compositions (“Can’t Keep”) lent themselves much more easily to Pearl Jam as a full band than the prospect of these fragile, warbly little tunes. But considering the strength of the material, it’s no wonder the band decided to tackle them and expand what they’re capable of doing in the process.
But whereas “Just Breathe” and “The End” are more conventionally (but no less wonderfully) arranged with strings, shakers, and various leads, “Speed of Sound” was taken in a dramatically different direction, as if the band with O’Brien’s guidance decided it had to stand out as something different than a dressed up acoustic song, an Ed solo cut with embellishments. As anyone who writes songs alone on an acoustic guitar can attest, it can be difficult to introduce them in a band setting and think beyond just adding leads or little textural colors. Particularly if the song is based on fingerpicking patterns, which suggest finer rhythms and highlight individual notes that perform some of what a full band provides.
What the band decided for “Speed of Sound” was to take the motion of the acoustic guitar and replace it, most noticeably, with drums and piano, which both mimic the nimble movements of Ed’s picking on the demo. The guitars are either pushed way back in the mix, or converted into sustained little drones, blending with gentle pulses of organ. In the short amount of time since Backspacer has been leaked, “Speed of Sound” has become one of the more controversial songs on the record, which I suspect is because rather than sound rooted in one or more acoustic or electric guitars, it’s assembled from lots of smaller sounds and details (with piano being perhaps the most prominent —> not something Pearl Jam fans are used to). Matt Cameron’s drums provide something of an anchor, but the pattern is still unconventional. It’s like listening to a cloud as opposed to the rain.
But as it stands, whether or not it becomes a favorite of fans, or a concert staple, it most surely will open the door for more of this type of exploration, of breaking songs into symphonic fragments and expanding the band’s sonic palette. It’s proven that there’s more than one way to play with Ed’s new acoustic songs, and created a world of possibility for the future.