Review Summary: The product of a singer and a band pushing each other to the peak of their abilities, Pearl is one of the most emotionally compelling rock albums ever made.
Not everyone I know is sold on Janis Joplin, and I could understand why. Despite her undeniable vocal power and performance energy, even her classic work with Big Brother & The Holding Company often saw her lapse into melismatic overkill. She had a gift, but hadn't quite learned to wield it yet.
By Pearl, the final album she recorded in her brief lifetime, she'd honed her voice into a deadly weapon, capable of slicing through hearts and studio-band arrangements with equal precision. Some may complain that her backing band on Pearl is too tight, but any looser a band would have been no match for her. The Full Tillt Boogie Band keeps her histrionics in check with their precision, while the act of keeping up with Joplin pushes the band to the height of their powers.
Pearl is one of the most emotionally powerful rock albums ever made. While Joplin's vocals shoot off in all directions on her earlier work, on Pearl voice roughly alternates between the knife-edge rasp she's known for and a softer, hushed coo. This allows her moments of unfiltered primality to stand out all the more, most impressively during the cocoon-shredding scream that opens "Cry Baby," and her moments of vulnerability to sink in even deeper.
But the moments when she switches from one into the other are devastating. The lush "Trust Me" finds her voice going from zero to sixty so gradually it's hard to register until the chorus explodes into vivid life. And it's in no small part because of her effortless play with vocal dynamics that the monologue on "Cry Baby" is one of the most powerful moments in all rock music. Try not to feel at least something when she coos "you've got a woman waiting for you"--anyone who's thrived on at least the faintest hope of a lost love returning knows her pangs all too well.
Pearl rolls by in 34 spectacular minutes, each song tumbling into the next. The first side of the album is stronger due to Side Two being disrupted by the album's only conspicuous outlier--"Me And Bobby McGee." It's a hell of a radio single, a clever and catchy gender-swap of a Kris Kristofferson tune. But it's the only song on Pearl over four minutes, the only one with multiple sections, and the only one where she doesn't ad-lib. Putting it elsewhere on the album could have mitigated the issue, but its placement slows Pearl's avalanche-like pace unpleasantly.
But rock is a business, Pearl needed a single, and it's got as much personality as anything on here. Pearl is one of the best and most emotionally compelling albums in rock history, the product of a singer and a band pushing each other to the peak of their abilities.