7 of 8 thought this review was well written
Eddie Vedder- vocals/guitar
Mike McCready- guitar
Stone Gossard- guitar
Jeff Ament- bass
Jack Irons- drums
PRODUCED BY BRENDAN O'BRIEN
In 1996, Pearl Jam were at a crossroads. They had followed their massive selling 1991 debut 'Ten' with two records of similar commercial success, 'Vs.' and 'Vitalogy'. However, within these first five years all had not been plain sailing; although confrontational compared to the reclusive Cobain, frontman Eddie Vedder struggled with the burden of fame. The media-fuelled conflict between Nirvana and Pearl Jam for the status of 'Grunge Kings' also led to an unjustified reputation being formed that the latter were sell-out 'bandwagon jumpers', an accusation which the band took very much to heart. Then there was the 'small' matter of the legal saga with TicketMaster, and guitarist Mike McCready's sporadic substance abuse. But perhaps the biggest influence on 'No Code's creation was indirect: when Cobain died, the mantle was offered primarily to Pearl Jam, who were fundamentally both musically and philosophically different from Nirvana. Therefore, by making their first post-Kurt album, 'Vitalogy', a largely experimental and decidedly non-'Ten' affair, the band effectively turned their back on this potential Godly position. Yet surely, thought the critics, this was just an anomaly? 'Vitalogy' had, after all, been recorded in the immediate aftermath of a draining tour for 'Vs.', many of the songs evolving from rushed jam sessions during soundchecks on the road. Thus, all things considered, 'No Code' was eagerly awaited by fans and critics alike.
The band's decision to replace hard-hitting drummer Dave Abbruzzese with former Red Hot Chili Peppers sticksman Jack Irons immediately sparked curiosity: Abbruzzese's physical assault approach to his kit had made the music on 'Vs.' and 'Vitalogy' much more aggressive than that on 'Ten', which was backed by the more subdued Dave Krusen. What effect would Irons have? Those who knew Irons joined due to the fact that he was an old friend of Vedder's rather than anything to do with his musical background will therefore not have worried that the band were about to go funky: in fact, Irons' playing has an almost 'worldly' feel, calm yet understated and powerful, the drums having a much more organic tone than Abbruzzese's super-tight explosive shots. Irons' drumming is representative of Pearl Jam's musical attitude as a whole on this album. A big, brash attempt to reinstate themselves as Lords of the Seattle Scene it is not. The truth is grunge was dying, but Pearl Jam were not disturbed in the slightest; they had long since moved on.
After the roaring energy of Once, Go and Last Exit, Sometimes is somewhat of a revelation as an opener. A light, bouncy riff is joined by some strange fretless bass from Jeff Ament and a pleasantly softened drum beat, before Vedder recites what can be best described as a sort of prayer, ending in the line "Sometimes I reach for myself, dear God..." as the song fades out, accompanied by the sound of running water. As this reached its conclusion at a little over two and a half minutes long, I personally was left gently stunned by both the peaceful sincerity and almost omniscient maturity which I had been exposed to. Before this elegant expression of angst has even ended however, the booming intro of Hail Hail arrives from out of nowhere to alert the listener to the fact that yes, Pearl Jam are still going to be loud, and yes, Vedder still has issues. Yet considerations about the nature of love and the relationship between lovers is slightly apart from biographical accounts of suicidal school boys. Although it would be an overstatement to call Vedder optimistic, the darkness which lies beneath the likes of Rearviewmirror and Black has been seemingly lifted, and it sounds as if he's taken the hair from in front of his eyes, lifted his head and is willing to at last feel unashamed about feelings of happiness and contentment, as he sings in this song, "I sometimes realise/ I could only be as good as you'll let me". Hail Hail never loses the head of steam it built during the opening, Irons abley pumping things along, before the cymbal smashing, delay laden outro brings the song to a crashing close.
As Hail Hail fades out Who You Are fades in, all tribal toms, free-jazz instrumentals and, interestingly, a steady cowbell beat which ends up underpinning most of the song. When the guitars are introduced this instantly solidifies from the whirling amalgam of sounds into a simple yet touching analysis of what it means to be a person. In both its wise lyrics and melodic, superbly disjointed musicianship, Who You Are turns out to be one of Pearl Jam's most thoughtful songs to date.
The soaring melancholy nostalgia of In My Tree provides the first real signs of the sentiments of old ("Wave to all my friends/ They don't seem to notice me"), but any fears of a regression are remedied by the truly uplifting nature of the music. McCready and Stone Gossard's U2esque guitars ring with enough reverb to sound like they are being played on mountain tops, apt since Vedder claims "I feel so high the sky I scrape". However, the real surprise lies in the last lines "And I got a glimpse of my innocence...Still got it". Bruised, world-weary Eddie Vedder proclaiming his innocence? The picture the vocalist paints of himself as a naive creature who associates himself with a tree as a metaphor for growing up is once again a shock to the system, and it is at this point that you will find yourself realising you're listening to a Pearl Jam album, and the smile hasn't yet left your face.
The pace drops for Smile, a basic, stripped down track, and the harmonica interludes and fuzzy guitars sound a little rough after the focused momentum of the previous songs. Nevertheless, although this may break the perfect opening hand sequence, the minimalistic style of the song is such that within a few listens the underlying depth and quality of Vedder's barefaced admission of "I miss you already" lift this from mundane ballad to a sensitive and emotional piece, powerful in its simple statement rather than any kind of poetic expression Vedder has previously utilised.
In Off He Goes the vocalist returns to another old technique, that of detailing an abstract character: as with Jeremy and Daughter,Vedder is concerned with a hurt figure, someone who struggles with emotional strain. The fact that the song is led by an acoustic guitar, joined only by a restrained rhythm section and pretty lead guitar, means that the storyline lyrics take centre stage, exposing once again the singer's preoccupation with introspection. Yet although the direction Vedder travels in is inevitably the one his bandmates will follow, they match the tone of his words to perfection at every turn. On Habit, Vedder's first 'return' to anger, which deals with the exasperated frustration he feels for those who cripple themselves with drug addiction, the band magnify his passion tenfold with raw, coarse power which avoids any unnecessary melody. In doing this, the band, through their instruments, make their vocalist's feelings their own. Subsequently, although he's singing the songs, 'No Code' is not Eddie Vedder's album, but an assuredly collective group effort.
Red Mosquito is by turns a combination of the previous three songs: aggressive, distorted guitar work breaks into a calmer, more collected acoustic verse, the alternation continuing throughout. McCready's clear, piercing lead work is one of many examples of the guitarist's willingness to experiment with different sounds, a trend which continues from 'Vitalogy'. Lukin is by contrast a punkish, minute long rush which Vedder barks over in a manner which is largely inaudible. If the song were any longer, it would badly taint the album. Yet as a brief, sixty-two second burst of fury, it acts to even the broad balance between 'quiet' and 'loud', and more importantly, it is a perfect juxtaposition to Present Tense, an epic, slow building song which shows an incredible musical craftmanship, as each progression improves upon the one before. Beginning with just Vedder and a lone guitar, Present Tense slowly grows until the serenity is broken by a bass-driven groove, which in turn develops into a full pace blast of guitar and drums, before finally blossoming into a lilting little McCready ditty. Just as the experiments with harsh simplicity were beginning to show signs of tiredness, this song brings back a certain level of intricacy and intelligence which is, in its own unique way, the real soul of Pearl Jam.
However, it is the unfortunate nature of experiments that things can go wrong, and two of the final three songs, Mankind and Around The Bend, show this. The former, a rock n' roll styled effort penned and sung by Gossard jarrs badly with the eloquent majesty of Present Tense, and to be blunt simply sounds amateur compared to the rest of the album. Around The Bend is conversely a lazy, plodding song complete with Brendan O'Brien on piano and 'cowboy' guitar, which could easily be taken straight out of a Mid-West American bar from the turn of the century: although it does have charm, it is again nowhere near the quality the listener has come to expect.
Intersecting these two is I'm Open. Taking the blueprint set down by Indifference and Oceans, the song is awash with haunting guitar effects, deep bass rumbles and hollow percussion. The sheer melodic beauty which the band achieves here is at times almost overwhelming, and it is this track more than any other which demonstrates just how far Pearl Jam have come since Alive.
'No Code' was not the album the critcs were expecting or the majority of 'fans' wanted: it sold only a fraction of the copies its predecessors did. Yet as an artistic statement which expresses the band's position it is flawless: with 'No Code' Pearl Jam elevated themselves up and above the mainstream still gagging for a new 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' to rescue their fad, and distinguished the band, in my opinion, as one of the best of all time. The one thing Pearl Jam posses in higher quantities than their peers is maturity, and it is fitting that 'No Code', their most mature album, is also their most accomplished.
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: I'm Open/ Present Tense/ Who You Are