It feels strange to write about a song without the context of an album. But of course, when I first heard “Even Flow,” “Alive,” and “Hunger Strike,” I didn’t have the context of their albums, and so I was allowed to live in the worlds of those songs strictly on their own terms, and my imagination. Also, it occurs to me now, when I first heard Pearl Jam, I saw them as well. I saw them on MTV at my best friend’s house after school; I didn’t hear them on the radio.
So I guess it’s fitting that my first exposure to “Sirens” came via the video they just released on their website. And similar to my 13-year-old self, I’m looking and listening and using my imagination, asking myself anew “who are these guys?” and “why does their music make me feel the way I’m feeling?”
Life of course, is much more complicated at 34 than at 13. I read somewhere today (memory starting to slip) about adult taste, and how much work it takes to cultivate it, whereas you have a much better shot as a young teenager of just gravitating towards what you’re meant to gravitate towards, at least if you can avoid the pressure of your peers. Happily, and I’ll explain more about why in a second, but I found myself taking to “Sirens” almost instantly, with a similar sense of unintellectual wonder that I did to the songs on Ten. I’m not saying the song reminds me of Ten in any way, quite the opposite, I’m just comparing my instant, pure reaction to it, and it’s something I haven’t felt in a while–even for other songs from the last few albums that I’ve adored and admired (“Unemployable,” “Johnny Guitar,” “The End,” etc.).
As I’ve been thinking and reflecting in the weeks leading up to Lightning Bolt, I realized that Pearl Jam has more or less always been what I needed them to be, and I’ll bet for fans my exact age, or close to it, there’s been a similar trajectory. Ten was an emotional outlet I experienced just as my emotions were starting to get woolly and overwhelming. Vs. and Vitalogy added layers of resentment and cynicism, and gnarled punk ferocity that carried me through the frustrations of high school, of social and political awakening. No Code‘s experimentation dropped right before my senior year, preparing me for the broadening of horizons that college represented.
But then, to be honest, for a long, long time, though I remained an obsessive fan, and bought a stupid amount of live shows, and tracked down every original song I could find, I’ll admit that the band ceased to be what I needed them to be. And that’s exactly how it should’ve been. The band does not exist for any one fan, or any one type of fan, and they write songs that satisfy their creative aspirations first and foremost. I’ve continued to follow their music, to enjoy it, to see concerts, even though the music that most fills me with wonder and inspiration and writerly jealousy has mostly come from other artists, other bands.
So actually, what I guess I’ve wanted from Pearl Jam for all of these years, or maybe what I’ve wanted from myself, is to make me forget about the legacy, forget about the lineage of the songs. I’ve wanted to hear new songs without the baggage of the old, and old songs as if for the first time. Oh my god how I wish I could hear “Tremor Christ” the way I did at 15. Shit was intense. Let’s get down to business, “Sirens” (despite a musical choice at the very beginning of the song that I personally would have nixed, but…) kinda does this for me. It blows up the past about as well as any Pearl Jam song in recent memory. I don’t even care what the lyrics are. I’m talking the melody, the song structure, the production, the feel of the song. “Sirens” sounds like it belongs to its own moment. This moment.
I’m not saying that it exists completely out of time or canon. These are the same dudes. But their musicianship and songwriting skills are still growing, still surprising. Mike McCready wrote the music for this one, and holy shit–the chord changes alone! And Ed, to his credit, has found new, creative ways to curve his voice around those changes, over and through the meter, and it’s affecting to me not because of what the song is about, but how it goes about expressing that.
Brendan O’Brien called it one of the best songs they’ve ever done. Some jackholes on the Rolling Stone message boards say this sounds like a country song (seriously, if this thought occurred to you when you heard it, you know absolutely fuck-all about country music, seriously). One of the dude, maybe the main dude, from the most prominent fan site said there’s no catchy melody in the song. DUDE. LEARN WHAT A MELODY IS. LEARN HOW TO SING. JESUS H.
But whatever, hyperbole and dumbassery both don’t serve. It doesn’t matter to me whether or not this song, or any Pearl Jam song, goes over like gangbusters to the masses. Lord knows I have my own list of duds and favorites. What matters is that the band is who the band needs to be. And I’m willing to bet that if there are songs on Lightning Bolt that I don’t like, that they’ll still have that ring of truth to them. My 13- and 34-year-old’s hats off to that.