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Pearl Jam’s ‘Gigaton’: 8 things we learned listening to the band’s comeback album

Pearl Jam, 2020.
Pearl Jam, 2020. Danny Clinch / Universal Music Group

Pearl Jam fans, rejoice: the Seattle-based grunge band has finally released its 11th and latest studio album, Gigaton.

Serving as the followup to 2013’s Lightning Bolt, the long-awaited record was released March 27 across all platforms, in digital and physical formats, through both Republic Records and Pearl Jam’s own independent label, Monkeywrench.

Alongside the band’s longstanding members — frontman Eddie Vedder, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt CameronGigaton was produced by music engineer Josh Evans (Soundgarden).

Not only does the 57-minute body of work include the three singles — Dance of the Clairvoyants, Superblood Wolfmoon and Quick Escapeas well as 9 other brand new, previously unheard tracks, but it’s a vessel for some of Pearl Jam’s most diverse and complex offerings to date.

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In celebration of its release, here are some things we learned on our first few listens of Gigaton:

What’s the story behind the album artwork?

The album artwork is actually a photograph named “Ice Waterfall” taken by Canadian photographer and marine biologist Paul Nicklen. The image was captured in Svalbard, Norway, sometime in 2014.

So why did they pick that specific image? Well, the album title correlates with it. A “gigaton” equates to one billion metric tons and is also the measurement used to determine the continuous melting of polar ice caps across the world.

Pearl Jam postpones first leg of upcoming tour over coronavirus fears
Pearl Jam postpones first leg of upcoming tour over coronavirus fears

It’s particularly relevant because the inevitable doom of the Earth is one of the many topics explored in Gigaton.

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Describing the picture, Nicklen wrote: “Even though this was taken just 600 miles from the North Pole the temperature was in the high 60’s. The Arctic could be completely devoid of sea ice during the summer months in the next 10 to 20 years.

“This striking scene is a reminder of the fragility of this icy ecosystem.”

Paul Nicklen\’s \’Ice Waterfall\’ also serves as the artwork for Pearl Jam\’s eleventh studio album, \’Gigaton\’ (2020).
Paul Nicklen\’s \’Ice Waterfall\’ also serves as the artwork for Pearl Jam\’s eleventh studio album, \’Gigaton\’ (2020). Paul Nicklen / Universal

Is Gigaton a concept album, then?

There’s no specific concept.

Sure, the artwork alone forces us to look at the state of the environment. Yes, the musical elements are mostly brooding and indignant. But there’s an array of other concepts to digest, too. The anger and darkness contained within Gigaton is frequently deferred by Vedder’s particularly hopeful lyrics.

Throughout, he offers the listener a sense of solace in (non-specific) times of crisis — which seems especially relevant in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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As opposed to the rest of the album’s mature nature, Comes Then Goes sticks out like a sore thumb in the sense that it’s pouring with emotion. It acts as an almost-tribute to one of Vedder’s fallen comrades. Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, perhaps? Maybe, but it’s never explicitly said.

In the melancholy tune, Vedder, 55, sings: “High or low, where’d you go / Are you stuck in the middle? / A spectral invisible ghost / I’m here juxtaposed / Like images of angels in the snow.”

Cornell and Vedder, along with the rest of Pearl Jam, were part of the Temple of the Dog together decades ago and all close friends. Cameron, 57, also served as Soundgarden’s drummer — the band Cornell fronted.

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“Ed’s performance and lyrics continue to move me still,” Evans told Global News about the song. “He writes and sings from his heart and soul and there are very few that can convey such personal, and universal, emotions so well.”

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There are even a few political references

While Gigaton is in no way politically charged as a whole, there are a few angry lines aimed towards U.S. President Donald Trump — in songs like River Cross and Seven O’Clock.

In the latter, Vedder references the legendary Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull, calling Trump, 73, “Sitting Bulls–t” instead, “our own sitting president.”

With the album being the quintet’s first, and possibly last, full-bodied offering during the Trump administration, the critiques seem appropriate. Though elusive, Vedder’s jabs against the Republican leader are both humourous and effective.

“The lengths we had to go to then / To find a place Trump hadn’t f–ked up yet,” Vedder sings in the less-than-subtle Quick Escape; which covers the story of an environmentally doomed planet, simultaneously serving as one of the songs calling back to the album’s environmental arc.

Pearl Jam, 2020.
Pearl Jam, 2020. Danny Clinch / Universal Music Group

“We’ve been living through some dark times — and things aren’t looking too much brighter considering the current state of the world,” Evans said. “The guys put their heart and soul into their music, so it’s only natural that these issues would come out in the lyrics and mood of the songs.

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“I think the element of hope is present throughout the record,” he added. “The band has never been one to sit back and moan or criticize the state of the world without also trying to find a way to connect and make things better.”

Gigaton feels really short, but concise

With a nearly hour-long timespan, Gigaton is on the lengthier side in terms of modern-day rock albums. It’s jam-packed with enough intricacies that it diminishes the fear some might have that it will be an intimidating or gruelling body of work to listen to. On the contrary, it actually zooms by.

In fact, if you don’t focus on the album, you’re likely to miss out on a lot of the hidden gems contained within it — especially upon first listen.

Like it or not, this is one of many reasons why Gigaton should be heard front-to-back and certainly more than Once (ha). The variety of sounds backs that point up as well.

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It’s the band’s most experimental release to date

Gigaton is comparable to Vitalogy (1994) in the sense that it goes here, there and everywhere. Sure there’s a lot to digest, but the diversity works in favour of the album — especially for already diehard Pearl Jam fans.

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While it bounces between different musical genres and a sundry of sonic elements spanning the band’s extensive back catalogue — and not just the albums from their heyday — it’s enjoyable and remarkably easy to ingest.

From the beloved Yield (1998) to the highly condemned Riot Act (2002), or even 2009’s often-overlooked Backspacer, the band seems to have taken a piece from each of their albums to make Gigaton.

Pearl Jam, 2020.
Pearl Jam, 2020. Danny Clinch / Universal Music Group

Evans backed this up, nothing that the band “intentionally decided” to collaborate together in a different manner than they have in the past.

“Some songs were recorded in the ‘traditional’ fashion, with everybody playing together in the room at the same time, but other songs were created in a more experimental, sound-collage, assembled process,” he said.

“There were no rules about who could play which instrument, or come up with lyrical or melodic ideas, and everything was up for editing or influencing by any other member of the band.”

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Josh Evans’ production work is essential to the album

Compared to Pearl Jam’s last few albums (and sound engineers), Evans’ grittier and raw production work is utilized to perfection throughout.

Though it’s not as refined or clean-cut as Lightning Bolt, which many considered to be a hit-or-miss record, Gigaton wields a much fuller sound than most other Pearl Jam releases.

This is a blessing in itself as it beautifully highlights the overall experimentation and instrumental assortment found throughout the album, specifically with songs like Dance of the Clairvoyants, Alright, Seven O’Clock and River Cross — the epic and sombre grand finale.

“It’s really an honour to get to work with musicians and people of such calibre,” Evans said. “All the members of the band are incredibly serious about their art and their craft.

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“From songwriting to instrumental technique to their live shows, the band is always striving to do what they do better. They are always looking to connect and excite and challenge themselves and their fans, to create something that is honest and real, or intense and powerful. They’ve never been known to stagnate or rest on their laurels.”

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There’s something for everyone

While the overlying maturity of themes contained within Gigaton show the band is continuing to both develop as a unit and stray from the relative simplicity of their 1990’s grunge-era roots, there’s still a healthy package of tracks within it to help longtime fans reminisce on their glory days.

Equipped with an abundance of rapidly-paced rock bangers like Who Ever Said, Superblood Wolfmoon, Quick Escape, Never Destination and Take the Long Way, there should be enough to keep nostalgia-based fans satisfied.

Gigaton, as a whole, is quite notably acoustic-heavy; especially towards the end. Songs like Buckle Up, Come Then Goes and Retrograde stick out among these in particular, shadowing the likes of Oceans and Release from their debut album, Ten (1991).

(R) Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Matt Cameron perform onstage at the 32nd Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Barclays Center on April 7, 2017 in New York City.
(R) Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Matt Cameron perform onstage at the 32nd Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Barclays Center on April 7, 2017 in New York City. Kevin Kane/WireImage for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

With the help of 12-string guitars, funky guitar riffs, gripping solos and Vedder’s vocal contributions, Gigaton triumphs above most other modern rock albums.

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What does the band think?

About the creation of Gigaton, McCready, 53, said: “Making this record was a long journey. It was emotionally dark and confusing at times, but also an exciting and experimental road map to musical redemption.”

“[It] ultimately gave me greater love, awareness and knowledge of the need for human connection in these times,” added the guitarist.

Ament, 57, admitted that the seven year-spanning break “benefited” the band, helping them take “more chances.

“We’ve opened some new doors creatively and that’s exciting,” said the bassist.

 

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It’s not only a comeback for the band, but a rebirth in a way. It’s dynamic, it’s complex and it’s fresh. It might even be a sign of what’s to come from the group in the 2020s.

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So what’s Pearl Jam up to now that the album’s out?

Keeping the “safety and well-being” of their fans in mind, according to a statement issued by Vedder on March 9.

Nine days before Pearl Jam’s 2020 Canadian tour was set to kick off in Toronto — with three more concerts scheduled days before the release of Gigaton — the tour was postponed amid concerns of the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus.

The statement read: “We have and will always keep the safety and well-being of our supporters as top priority… We have a unique group of passionate fans who travel far and wide. We’ve always been humbled by this and respect their energies and devotion, however, in this case, travel is something to avoid.”

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The band was then scheduled to head back to the U.S. to perform 12 additional shows and promote the album starting this week, but the full North American tour was delayed as a result.

Currently, there’s no word of when the rescheduled shows will actually take place.

As of this writing, Pearl Jam’s June/July European and U.K. legs of the tour have been unaffected by the pandemic.

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Gigaton is now available worldwide through all major streaming platforms.

Physical variants of the record can be purchased through the official Pearl Jam webstore.

Gigaton — Full tracklist:

  1. Who Ever Said
  2. Superblood Wolfmoon
  3. Dance of the Clairvoyants
  4. Quick Escape
  5. Alright
  6. Seven O’Clock
  7. Never Destination
  8. Take the Long Way
  9. Buckle Up
  10. Come Then Goes
  11. Retrograde
  12. River Cross

For tour date listings, updates or additional information, you can visit the official Pearl Jam website.

adam.wallis@globalnews.ca
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