Review Summary: Despite seeming sprawled and unfocused, deeper insight into the album reveal it to be Pearl Jam's most interesting, intelligent work so far.
Epic Records, 1996
Pearl Jam is:
Eddie Vedder: Vocals
Stone Gossard: Guitar
Jeff Ament: Bass
Jack Irons: Drums
The album cover of 'No Code' shows a kaleidoscope of seemingly random images. There is the picture of a palestinian woman, the statue of liberty surrounded by wavy seas, as well as various pictures of what appear to be teeth, noses, and feet. While these images seem random and almost unnecessary, they serve a purpose. When one deconstructs the album package, it is revealed to be a poster covered with these images. Then it is revealed that the multiple, random images serve a purpose:
No Code's musical content is similar to the album cover in many ways. After one brief listen, it may not appear to make proper sense, and perhaps seem to be spread all over the place. After multiple listens, it soon becomes clear that each song has it's own special niche on the album. The images on the cover of No Code show a great deal of variety, as does the music within.
With their fourth album, it seems as if Pearl Jam have decided to take a much different direction. While Vitalogy had used many experimental elements and unique sound structures, it still had maintained a certain hard rock sound. With No Code, Pearl Jam have tried yet another musical direction, and possibly find their own, personal sound. This album has a very diverse range of music ranging from acoustic ballads to garage rock to worldbeat. No Code manages to take Pearl Jam to where no other band has gone before, exploring new musical directions, and pushing the boundaries between various genres and styles.
The songwriting of Eddie Vedder appears to have undergone dramatic changes from the previous three albums. Much of the anger displayed on previous albums has been erased here, to be replaced with a mixture of inspirational lyrics and songs dealing with real life experiences. Aside from the poorly written 'Mankind', it would appear that the songwriting abilities of the band have increased by twofold. 'Hail Hail' portrays a rather bitter, yet pleasing approach towards someone seeing others fall in love. 'Red Mosquito' depicts a feverish dream that Eddie Vedder underwent on the Vitalogy tour. 'Around The Bend' is meant to be a lullaby for Jack Iron's son. The songwriting here manages to be intelligent, profound, and quite impressive.
Ballads are greatly explored with this album. Album opener 'Sometimes', while short, shows gorgeous guitar interplay between Stone Gossard and Mike McCready. 'Off He Goes' follows suit, with clean electric guitar and pretty acoustic interweaving and conjoining along with the simple beat. The worldbeat influences are showcased on 'In My Tree', a strange electric ballad dealing with loneliness and a need to separate from society. The slow build up of 'Present Tense' and the soft, whispered vocals of 'Around The Bend' are reminiscent of older Pearl Jam tunes. Eddie Vedder's 'ballad' voice appears to have improved immensely, with often whispered vocal work quickly gaining in pitch and volume, then exploding with the final build up of the song.
Stone Gossard and Mike McCready seem to have established a natural balance between each other's guitar techniques. 'Sometimes' and 'Off He Goes' only show part of their experimentation with guitar interplay. Set against a backdrop of tribal drums and inspirational vocal work, the two axemen show their interesting use of effects and interplay on the mysterious 'Who You Are'. These effects are used once more on 'Red Mosquito', where Mike manages to make his guitar bark like a seal (seriously) amidst Stone's frantic acoustic picking. The more hard rock songs found here display some great riffs. 'Hail Hail', 'Habit', 'Lukin', and 'Mankind' all have catchy, distorted riffs that hold a balance between grungy and garage rock influences. The slow, chugging riff of 'Smile' is certainly an album highlight, especially when played alongside some fast, bluesy harmonica.
Similarly to Vitalogy, the experimentation found here drags the album down a notch. 'Mankind', despite it's catchy, raunchy feel, is the only song to feature Stone Gossard on vocals. This manages to crash and burn due to Stone's weak voice and poor songwriting. 'I'm Open' reeks of atmosphere and emotion, but manages to come off as strange and repetitive. The short, furious 'Lukin' can be considered filler, but enjoyable filler that provides an interesting insight on Eddie Vedder's most furious vocal performance yet.
In conclusion, No Code is a sprawling, diverse album, but an excellent one as well. The ballads and hard rock songs are as prominent as ever, and, despite some unnecessary experimentation, the songs manage to pull together into what can be described a Pearl Jam's most focused, cohesive work yet.
-Off He Goes:
My personal favourite Pearl Jam song, this gorgeous ballad stands out as the best song on the album. The guitar work, although fairly simple, is quite beautiful. Vedder's vocal is soft, yet awe inspiring. The songwriting is also exquisite and deals with the interesting topic of moving away from friends.
-Who You Are:
Catchy and profound, the interesting tribal beat and strange guitar manage to make this strange song sound very inspirational, and quite pleasing.
The slow, distorted riff and harmonica morph this hard rocker into a strange blues-garage-grunge hybrid. The overall effect of every instrument working together is quite enjoyable and provides an easy listen.
With a slow build up, this ballad shows Eddie at his finest, the whispered vocals growing and building up into near shouts and screams before descending back into whispering once more.
The shifts between soft and loud, coupled with some baffling guitar effects make this one of the most powerful songs on the album.