Review Summary: No Code is a transitional record and nothing more, but still an enjoyable album by a fantastic group of musicians.6 of 7 thought this review was well written
When you've become the most successful band in the world where do you turn? Pearl Jam experienced this conundrum not only once with Vitalogy, but now again with their follow-up No Code. However this time, things were far more complicated and the odds were heavily stacked against the band to the point where it seemed like a disbandment was inevitable. Eddie Vedder had pretty much taken complete creative control over the band, alienating former head songwriter Stone Gossard. The band's feud with Ticketmaster made several headlines and people would write the band off as conceited and just looking for attention. And while all this was happening, the band lost a member in drummer Dave Abbruzzesse and had to become adjusted to new drummer Jack Irons, who is easily the most unimpressive drummer the band has had to this date. With all this in mind, it's pretty cool how No Code ended up turning out. It's not perfect by any means, and there's far more forgettable tracks than there were on previous albums, but the fact they made an album this varied under this much pressure, and the amount of influences displayed here, is definitely something worth talking about.
No Code came out during a time period where grunge was dying, so Pearl Jam knew it was time to change their sound. Where shocking dynamic changes and wailing guitar distortion would have been found in the past, you'll now find alt-pop ballads like "Off He Goes" and "Sometimes", and even some worldbeat influences on tracks like "In My Tree" and closer "Around The Bend". No Code's sound is definitely a lot more varied than previous effort: in the first three tracks alone you'll get a soothing, dreamy ballad ("Sometimes") crushing hard rock the way only Pearl Jam can deliver it ("Hail, Hail") and a slow, bluesy track ("Who You Are"). These three tracks are definitely standouts, however it shows a definite weakness of the band: they tend to put their best songs at the front end of the album. Most of the highlights will be found within the first seven tracks, while the second half sounds surprisingly weak and is one of the worst stretches of songs in Pearl Jam's catalog.
Whereas on the first half you'll find "Off He Goes" a fantastically written ballad with a stellar vocal performance that would easily make a top 20 PJ songs list, the second half offers "I'm Open" as a rebuttal, which is easily one of the most pointless songs I've ever heard. There's no arc, nothing that makes the song memorable, just two spoken-word samples and a bland, repetitive guitar line. Pearl Jam's never been good at making closing songs either, save for "Indifference" from Vs.: usually it's just a stupid hidden track or a last-minute tacked-on repetitive rock track. In this case, it's "Around The Bend", a worldbeat-influenced track that basically says "We don't really care about this album anymore but we have to end it some way, so here you go." And if you don't believe me, listen to the extremely boring guitar part and some of the most sluggish drumming I've ever heard. And dare I say it, even Vedder sounds a bit off here. He's usually the glue that keeps the band going, but in this case no one's really on pace and the whole thing is a jumbled mess. Other weak tunes include "In My Tree" which features Irons' best beat on the album, but once again Vedder is really boring on this track and the guitars are just a chore to listen to. The redeeming quality about this song is the rhythm section, which has really been given the short stick on this record: Jeff Ament is barely noticeable on most songs, which is a shame since he added so much to the band's first 3 albums. Irons isn't really involved at all: he pretty much just plays what's in front of him without much effort: luckily, he would sound much better on "Yield".
On No Code the band once again shows us that Pearl Jam is at their peak when they write breakneck rock songs that just make you wanna get up and dance. Perhaps what will best describe this are the three tracks right smack in the middle of the album. "Habit" is easily my favorite song on the record, with for once an exciting guitar riff and Vedder actually putting some oomph into his voice. The band sounds like a cohesive whole on this tune and as a result it works better than any other song, at least for me. "Red Mosquito" is almost if not as good as "Habit", with a fantastic guitar solo and some of the best melodies I've heard the band write. This is how you write a rock song: brutal and unforgiving but with a melodic edge. And last but not least there is "Lukin" which is probably the most polarizing song on the record. "Lukin" is only a minute long, but it accomplishes a whole lot in its 62-second run time. It's pretty much just a brutal punk tune, with Vedder shrieking his lungs out over an infectious distorted riff and a whaling drumbeat. Some people say it's totally unnecessary filler, I say it's fantastic. I find it a lot like "Tourette's" by Nirvana: a short song, undeniably written as filler, but undeniably great.
No Code is an extremely inconsistent record that will have a helluva lot of split opinions. My personal opinion is that some of the band's best material can be found on the first half, but the second half is just the band experimenting with things they can't pull off. A good, fulfilling record nonetheless during a band's rather difficult transitional period.
Recommended Tracks (asterisk signifies best track):
Off He Goes