Pearl Jam | Pearl Jam (J Records)

Pearl Jam, as an album, is all about dynamics, ebbing and flowing like the waves Vedder so much loves to surf.

The conventional wisdom says that this is the best Pearl Jam album in ten years, and for once, they got it right. The Seattle fivesome has a remarkably consistent discography, to be sure, but Pearl Jam-the band's eighth studio LP and 186th overall, depending on how one counts live albums-is a refinement of the band's strengths, a fiery, compelling document of five musicians at the height of their power attempting to construct the perfect rock record.

You couldn't be faulted for thinking at first blush that Pearl Jam is a calculated attempt to draw back in the millions of fans that the band has shed over the years. After all, 2002's Riot Act debuted at #5 on the charts and was certified gold (500,000 copies sold) within a month of release, which isn't too shabby until you compare it to the 12 million copies that their debut Ten has sold in the last 15 years. Coming on the heels of the overly somber Riot Act makes Pearl Jam seem like more of a departure than it really is. But what truly marks Pearl Jam as an honest evolution and not cold calculation is the passionate performances, especially that of singer Eddie Vedder, who hasn't sounded this savage, this alive, in years.

Opener "Life Wasted" bursts out of the gate already at full speed, propelled by Stone Gossard's chugging guitar. It's a fine start to the album, but oddly, it fails to incite the listener the way the band's best opening songs have, such as Yield's "Brain of J" or "Go" from 1993's Vs. Still the differences between the band today and the band that created Riot Act are immediately apparent in Vedder's throat-shredding howl. The song is followed by the slicing guitars and snapping drums of "World Wide Suicide," the first single and the album's mission statement. "World Wide Suicide" is everything one looks for in a Pearl Jam single; the tension gradually builds through the escalating vocals as Vedder goes from his trademark mumble to a yelp to a full-on bark for the chorus, echoing the fury of the 1998 single "Do the Evolution."

Pearl Jam, as an album, is all about dynamics, ebbing and flowing like the waves Vedder so much loves to surf. "Severed Hand" rides on Gossard's explosive riff as the song careens, speeding up and slowing down but never stopping. Mike McCready adds to the tension in the second verse, his guitar blaring like a burglar alarm. "Marker on the Sand" begins with a rollicking, Pete Townshend-worthy guitar lick as Vedder rails "I feel a sickness, a sickness coming over me/Like watching freedom getting sucked straight out to sea" before escaping to a higher vantage for the gentle, floating chorus.

The shelter from the storm of the rest of the album arrives in the form of "Parachutes," a song that could have been an outtake from 1996's No Code, its unusual, almost ukelele-like acoustic guitar bouncing along as other instruments that fade in and out. Touring keyboardist Boom Gaspar is a secret weapon here and on other songs, most notably "Come Back," a rollicking, Stones-y ballad that would fit alongside much of Riot Act, where Gaspar's organ takes it to church while the insistent drums from Matt Cameron-the ex-Soundgarden drummer now on his third album with the band-give the song its emotional heft.

Vedder finds salvation out on the surf of "Big Wave," a savage rock tidal wave of punchy guitar riffs and call-and-response "whoa-ohs" and "yeah-eahs" that rival the band's cover of the Holland-Holland-Dozier classic "Leaving Here." The album then takes a turn for the darker on "Gone," a sonic cousin of Ten's "Garden." The atmosphere is dark and foreboding, but the song explodes into the kind of epic chorus exemplified by Yield's "Given To Fly" as Vedder triumphantly declares "I'm gone, long gone/This time I'm letting go of it all."

"Life Wasted" is reprised later on the album, Vedder singing quietly the lyrics he screamed with such authority a half hour earlier. Gaspar's organ lends a funereal tone to the introduction to "Army Reserve," the album's emotional knockout. McCready's chiming guitar gives the song the feel of Disintegration-era Cure, but the chorus is pure Pearl Jam as Vedder, singing of the plight of a wife awaiting her army reservist husband's return from overseas, launches into the kind of anthemic chorus that Pearl Jam's many ham-fisted imitators caused Vedder to downplay ever since Ten. Its return both here and on "Gone" is both welcome and flawless.

Held together by Jeff Ament's supple, fluid bass work and accented by a tinkling piano, "Inside Job" is a quiet album closer in the spirit of Vs.' "Indifference." But whereas that song had Vedder declaring "How much difference does it make?" here he declares, in spite of the hardships and darkness the rest of the album describes, "How I choose to feel is how I am/I will not lost my faith." Tellingly, the words are also written by McCready, not Vedder, leading one to wonder if salvation has truly been reached at all. | Jason Green

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