Before they had anything—a legion of devoted fans, walls of platinum records, a destination festival—Pearl Jam had a community. In the Seattle grunge scene of the early ’90s, they emerged as part of a larger mosaic, members of a supergroup before their debut even came out. This support from contemporaries is likely what empowered Pearl Jam to find their voice, writing earnest, soaring rock songs inspired by punk but delivered as arena anthems in jam band-style marathon live sets. Now that they are an industry all to themselves, their origin story might seem like a footnote—especially in 2020, when they remain the last band intact from their particular scene. But this sense of uplift still defines their work.
Communal goodwill is the saving grace of Gigaton, their eleventh studio album and first in nearly seven years. At 57 minutes, it’s their longest album, as well as the one that took the longest to complete. You feel the weight of both durations throughout. The ballads stretch out slowly, and the uptempo numbers are derailed by meandering build-ups, like stopping for a chat while running in place mid-jog. From the curveball disco-rock of first single “Dance of the Clairvoyants”—a portal into an alternate universe where David Byrne produced the Who to soundtrack an ’80s action film—the band immediately forecasted an attempt to revitalize its sound. In context, it’s more of an outlier: a reminder of their underdog mentality, that they have some fight left in them.
From the sounds of it, Pearl Jam pieced Gigaton together from various sessions over several years, with Vedder adding vocals to the choice bits after the fact. It’s hard to imagine this process leading toward a unified statement from any band, let alone one that’s already been having trouble finding inspiration. After records like 2009’s Backspacer and 2013’s Lightning Bolt combatted their dearth of ideas with low-stakes thrashiness—a throwback to the rowdy garage band that they never actually were—Gigaton attempts to reinstate their ambition. Co-produced by the band and Josh Evans, it’s filled with all the markers of cerebral, studio-born rock music: drum loops and programmed synths, swirling keys and fretless bass, wide dynamics and spacey textures. For the first time in a while, the winning moments are the slower cuts: songs like “Retrograde” and “Seven O’Clock” that evolve patiently into their atmosphere, as opposed to pro-forma ragers like “Never Destination” that never quite find their groove.
To unify this sprawling material, Vedder offers wordy, zoomed-out lyrics that directly address Trump, the climate crisis, and a growing sense of apocalyptic unease. And if his lyrics occasionally come out jumbled (“They giveth and they taketh/And you fight to keep that what you’ve earned”) or totally miss the mark (a reference to the title character of Sean Penn’s novel), his performance is as keyed-in and comforting as ever. For all the record’s studio experimentation, the moments that cut through are the subtle choices he makes as a vocalist: his anxious speak-sing in “Seven O’Clock,” the way he mimics the wordless refrain of the eerie “Buckle Up,” the seething cry of the chorus in “Quick Escape.” With songs contributed by each band member, Gigaton is an undeniably democratic statement, but Vedder remains their guiding light—the voice that allowed this particular band to outlast an entire generation of imitators.
The artistic rejuvenation that Gigaton aims to provide still seems somewhat out of reach. In that sense, it reminds me of U2’s No Line on the Horizon—another late-career attempt at experimentation after a series of back-to-basic statements. Both records indulge an influential band’s artsier side in mostly superficial ways—longer songs, pasted-in ambience, grand attempts at state-of-the-union philosophizing—while backing away from the actual subversion that made them exciting in the first place. Like U2, Pearl Jam have been able to sustain their legacy even without vital new studio work. But unlike U2, Pearl Jam seem content to deliver their messages to the already converted, with no interest in the mainstream attention that once came naturally. Their self-awareness both grounds this music and confines its ambition.
For a long time, Pearl Jam had an uncommon strength for asserting their individuality while pleasing the masses, looking to the future while staying true to their own history. On Gigaton, they admit they don’t know what happens next. Their message hits hardest in the closing tracks: the singalong strummer “Retrograde” and the fragile pump organ ballad “River Cross.” Both tracks forecast darker skies with calm, reassuring music. In the final moments of the record, Vedder offers a mantra: “Can’t hold me down.” As the music swells and his voice rises to the occasion, he switches from “me” to “us”—a last attempt to gather the community, to band together before the coming storm.