top of page

Revisiting Riot Act: A Refreshing Time When Pearl Jam Stepped Outside of Self-Awareness

Pearl Jam, Riot Act

December 13, 2017 | by Jeffrey Thiessen

In the immediate years following 9/11, it goes without saying the musical climate produced some very time-specific releases and events. Whether you found catharsis through this or pessimistically chose to view this as opportunistic war profiteering, there was no debating voices in music had to be “turned up” as Pearl Jam’s bassist Jeff Ament accurately pointed out. Out of this period 2002’s Riot Act was born, an album that sticks out like a sore thumb in Pearl Jam’s discography. It also happens to be one of their best and most honest post-millennial releases, albeit more than a little difficult for longtime Pearl Jam fans to wrap their heads around.

To understand the lukewarm reaction to Riot Act, there’s first something to understand about most (not all) of Pearl Jam fans: They’re always subconsciously bracing themselves for casually oddball albums the band loves to drop with no real warning. Vitalogy was the first of the bunch, a truly excellent album with some of their best material. It balanced several of their most touching ballads with rockers that dropped the hammer down without mercy. But… it also had a song called “Bugs,” which was a nonsensical accordion romp. And it’s certainly a curious decision to follow one of Pearl Jam’s most haunting slow-burners (“Immortality”) with a nearly eight-minute noise collage featuring the actual recordings of a rambling patient in a psychiatric hospital to close out the record.

Vitalogy is still fairly beloved by Pearl Jam fans, but the inclusion of the noise-experiments remains bewildering. Typically, the band are nothing short of mercenary when releasing tracklists. After all, this is the same band that cut a couple of their best songs from Ten (“State of Love and Trust” and “Yellow Ledbetter”), so what the hell were they thinking giving “Bugs” a hall pass? One working theory is the overwhelming weirdness of those three Vitalogy cuts brought out the best in the other ones there. In other words, it’s possible the scattershot fuckaround tunes ensured Pearl Jam knew they had to absolutely rip through the more conventional ones. As a result, Vitalogy flies around at a frenzied pitch, even if the sequencing makes it impossible for the record to truly gain traction.

The band admirably doubled down with their next release No Code, certainly not being as brazenly out there as Vitalogy was, but perhaps more stubborn in establishing a clean break from the anthemic sound that defined their first two releases.

Yield was next and the name was extremely apropos. Back was the Zeppelinesque bombast with the first single “Given to Fly,” and Vedder even copped to his surrender in “No Way” when he admitted, “I'll stop trying to make a difference / I’m not trying to make a difference / I’ll stop trying to make a difference.” The context and sardonic lyrics really make no difference when trying to figure out what’s real and what isn’t — one clean listen through, and Yield makes it obvious this was an album of surrender. It doesn’t really matter if it’s through clenched teeth or not, the result is a waving white flag.

Binaural came next, and it just seemed like Pearl Jam was pouting at this point. It was a moody, annoyingly difficult album — difficult in the sense that every soaring Pearl Jam hook we are used to is bogged down by an almost purposeful aimlessness that infects the best and worst moments on the album. Some fans really love Binaural, but with hindsight it sounds like a tantrum effort, one that didn’t showcase any of their strengths while also containing a real undercurrent of outward disdain throughout. Not sure what it was really aimed at, but it wasn’t pleasant, and wasn’t their best look. Binaural represented Pearl Jam getting pulled in opposite directions and the result was a fairly poisonous album — certainly their least fun release.

A couple of years later, Riot Act drops! Obviously, a lot changed since Binaural was released in 2000. America very publicly declared war on and/proceeded to invade Afghanistan as a response to the twin towers attacks, and the country was trying to deal with its own newfound collective holy shit adjustment of “wow, this can happen to us” sense of patriotic mortality. America was fractured and confused — half the country was cheering on indiscriminate carpet-bombing in the middle east while the other half was trying to find even a morsel of geopolitical morality with their blitzkrieg retaliation. Pearl Jam finally were forced to examine the strange and unprecedented political climate engulfing them — no longer was it okay to just look inward for inspiration. Not only that, but the band was still wrestling with what happened to them at the 2000 Roskilde festival, when nine people died and 26 more suffered serious injuries in the mosh pit during their set. The country was in a very fucked up place, plunging into uncharted waters, and for all intents and purposes, so was Pearl Jam.

Pearl Jam, Riot Act album cover

I love Riot Act because it’s the only Pearl Jam album without an angle, without some grand statement of who they want us to think they are as a band at that particular time. And really, their purposive approach has always been the knock on those guys. Courtney Love said, “Eddie Vedder is a little savvy, a little calculating, more than people know.”* (Kurt also towed this line, by the way, but that’s for a different day). After hearing founding member Stone Gossard in countless interviews doing his best to deliver the most generic soundbites imaginable, I believe Love’s statement holds some truth. Pearl Jam has always been the band that truly wants to manipulate every aspect of their public image. Which is fine, of course (most bands also drive for this), but it always seemed a little more pronounced, and essentially made the band feel more safe than its contemporaries. Riot Act is when they finally put out an album that was strictly reactionary and not processed for the greater good of the Pearl Jam brand. Perhaps after 9/11 and Roskilde the band couldn’t find the energy or conviction (or perhaps forgot how) to tap back into deliberate writing and just started making music without a meticulously crafted vision.

The bait-and-switch at the beginning of Riot Act, with two pretty standard Pearl Jam gallops (“Can’t Keep” and “Save You”), certainly makes the listener wonder if they put those tracks right at the front to fuck with us. After the opening cuts, the switch from monochrome to technicolor is fairly swift as they go straight into a beautifully sincere and purposeful organ-based track (“Love Boat Captain”) that is absolutely willing to cheese out with the chorus, “It's already been sung, but it can't be said enough / All you need is love.” Brilliant! Finally, Pearl Jam is dumbing itself down to necessary levels, and even have the balls to begrudgingly acknowledge it in the same hook! About time! At long last we have a totally authentic declaration of Pearl Jam’s sovereignty.

That may read as sarcasm, but when you compare it to lyrics in, say, “Smile” on No Code when Eddie moans “Don’t it make you smile / When the sun don’t shine?” the sweeping chorus in “Love Boat Captain” qualifies as outright literary genius in regard to the source in question. Simple sincerity leads to unexpected touching moments, like later in the song when Vedder poignantly sings, “Lost nine friends we’ll never know / Two years ago today” (the later one-minute track “Arc” is also supposedly a dedication to those nine people). Yes, parts of it are sanctimonious and unbearably sincere but it’s Pearl Jam — that’s always been sort of the point, hasn’t it? The cornball hippie proclamations have always been there, but for Riot Act Pearl Jam offered up no annoying metaphorical detours to wade through.

Elsewhere, the surprises keep coming at a frenetic pace, and a twisted art-punk aesthetic begins to organically reveal itself the further into Riot Act one gets. “Cropduster” pops up and actually harkens back to the FM staple “Glorious G” from VS., except here the bravado is chiselled down to a rhythm still serrated but a little more tempestuous to accommodate Pearl Jam’s newly confused spot in a rapidly warping industry. “Green Disease” is towards the end of Riot Act and is also pretty startling, although the driving tempo doesn’t sound dissimilar from the slew of New York bands coming out right around that time (The Strokes, Jonathan Fire Eater specifically). Drawing influences from a huge, adjacent scene just starting to break through isn’t anything unique, but it certainly was new for Pearl Jam, whose influences in the past have all generally peaked during the Nixon administration. Considering it’s still very faithful to the bedrock of Pearl Jam’s fundamental sound, “Green Disease” serves as an extremely refreshing change of pace that allows them to be heard contextually within the music scene of 2002, and not just as a big, epic Pearl Jam release existing unto itself.

Right after “Green Disease” is “Help, Help” and again there is very little here for the protectors of Pearl Jam’s old-guard sound to latch onto. Jeff Ament wrote this one, the clotted noise and tune a perfect backdrop for Eddie’s buried vocals to sadly muse, “The man they call my enemy / I’ve seen his eyes / He looks just like me, a mirror / The more you read / We’ve been deceived / Everyday it becomes clearer.” The United States no longer makes sense to Pearl Jam. The country that gave Vedder a life and career he’s loved has seemingly broken his heart. It’s easy to stand arm-in-arm against Ticketmaster; it gets a little more messy when a band declares war on their own country.

In case there was any doubt about how far sideways Riot Act is willing to go, enter the infamous “Bu$hleaguer,” a song notorious not only for the very literal, very anti-George W. Bush lyrics, but for the song’s sound. I’ve heard Vedder’s vocal delivery here be described as rapping, but that is a pretty big reach. It is, however, a very definitive spoken word approach that's a far cry from Vedder’s customary primal scream. As far as how much one can actually appreciate something like “Bu$hleaguer,” well, it’s safe to say it won’t fit within the mold a vast majority of Pearl Jam fans safely nestle in. But the ghostly narrator doesn’t hide behind any abstract imagery or hedge any bets, and even if it doesn’t soar to the heavens like “Alive,” the scorched earth audacity it leaves behind has to be admired on some level.

Those bizarro diversions featured on previous releases were sort of viewed as small annoyances, but on Riot Act the strangeness is incorporated into nearly every song. And some really solemn lyrics leave the listener’s feet planted firmly on planet earth with the problems and paranoia we were all faced with in 2002. It’s uncomfortable at times and forget the luxury of skipping that studio experiment to move onto the next McReady riff. The escapism that Pearl Jam made a living from (before and after) Riot Act is obliterated. Finally, they allow themselves to share our world, and the result is a humbled, confusing, and surprisingly human effort.

Following Riot Act, the band took four years and delivered a “return to form album.” This is a concept I’ve always hated, since it sort of implies the band tried something different, and then retreated to the safe zone with their tails between their legs. The self-titled release in 2006 was actually a pretty solid entry in the Pearl Jam catalog, but I distinctly remember listening to it when it came out and feeling a tinge of sadness.

The adventurous (and yes, at times, a little awkward) sound and words of Riot Act is more or less totally vanquished on its follow-up. In its place is that well-oiled Pearl Jam machine storming back to reclaim its rightful place, and I have no doubt it was a shift that left most fans very satisfied. Perhaps on some level, I sort of was too. I just don’t think Riot Act was very sustainable in regard to the hardwired aesthetic Pearl Jam has beat into themselves, and their fanbase. I accepted this then, and considering what came after the self-titled release (ushering in two of their most forgettable albums), I definitely accept it now. Their fate and safe place now seem one and the same.

I still listen to Pearl Jam a fair bit, and generally lean towards Ten or Vs when I do decide to give a full record a spin. But when I want a reminder what they might sound like if they weren’t so damn self-aware, I always find myself coming back to the slender bunch of balkanized high-charged electric wire that is Riot Act. Those “departure from form” albums don’t always work (see: Lulu), but here it’s a beautiful break from the brand.

*taken from “The Girl with the Most Cake” by Jim Derogatis

Weekly Stuff


bottom of page