A Guided Tour of No Code
Before I get started I would refer everyone to Frank’s tremendous No Code thread, which can be found here.
It is well worth the read.
As always with these threads, the goal is to foster discussion about the album as a piece of art--the themes that run through the words and music, the mood it creates create, the way the individual component parts add or subtract from that effort. These aren’t song of the moment threads. Hopefully we can do better than “I really like In My Tree”. And obviously what follows is just my interpretation. No Code’s Place in the Catalog
By way of introduction, it is worth saying a bit about where No Code fits within the larger Pearl Jam catalog. No Code is the first real serious change of direction within their music, at least in terms of themes. Ten and Vs. are angry, youthful albums. They are animated by a sense of loss and betrayal. They rage against the meaning and security, the sense of place and purpose, that was stolen. But they are also albums that are strongly grounded, and loss is mitigated by a feeling of certainty that is not necessarily present on No Code. The songs on these early records may not know the way forward, but they are extremely confident that they know who is to blame, and are optimistic that if we keep pushing for answers, for a way forward, we’ll find it. There is not wisdom here , but there is conviction that we’ll get there eventually (Leash captures this particularly well, but it runs through most of the early records). These albums knew where they were even when they were lost. I am here. Where is everybody else?
We see some doubt setting in, in some pretty dramatic ways, on Vitalogy--there is a sense of being overwhelmed, and whether or not the confidence and certainty of Ten and Vs. was justified, it is never abandoned--just replaced with a Sisyphean commitment to seeing the journey through. There is a lot less hope and so the album doubles down on defiance.
No Code marks a break from these early records since it is the first time the band starts writing from a place of wisdom, as people who have finished the journey and found the answers. It is hesitant, incomplete, preliminary, but a definite shift in focus. The title is misleading in that respect. Amidst all the confusion, uncertainty, doubt, ambiguity, and insecurity there is in fact, a code. There are insights and answers. We have guideposts. We may even have a guide. Although you have a seemingly random collection of pictures on the cover of the album, when you unfold it and step away--when you approach it from a distance--order starts to reveal itself.
After No Code every album will attempt to build upon the idea that the music should offer answers, not just questions and companionship. Yield does so in obvious ways. Binaural, the album that in many ways feels the most lost, is still in some sense wiser than the early records in that it is no longer looking to populate a world with black and white, heroes and villains. It doesn’t know how to come to grips with ambiguity, but it can at least identify it Riot Act, in many respects the most defeatist of all the albums, still aspires to be a guide. S/T recaptures the fighting spirit of the early albums while offering a way forward, and then Backspacer is, in many ways, the first album that confidently addresses how to survive in and make peace with an imperfect world.
All of that growth, that perspective, begins with No Code, where every song either offers an answer or clears the space to find it. No Code is in many ways the first Pearl Jam record that is not about a journey, but about a destination--every song rooted in some concrete way in a particular place. But I don’t want to overstate this, because these are also the first stabs at something new, and so the answers here are shaded in with a palpable sense of longing and questing. There is a hushed quality to the record, like it is stalking something elusive, that may not even exist, and, if we hope to find it, cannot be disturbed. So Eddie howls less, and the music creates distance (and with it, reflection). It detaches, but it does not retreat. Instead it looks to create safe spaces where, for the first time, we can be given music and songs that come from a different place--the insights of someone who HAS experienced the world rather than someone who IS experiencing it. I don’t want to push this too far, though. Maybe No Code is equal parts question and answer. Or, better, No Code is a record about arriving, the moment where a journey and a destination come together.Sometimes
In his No Code tour, Frank described Sometimes as an anti-prayer, culminating, rather than beginning, with the reference to God. I’ve always liked that idea, and think is pretty spot on. It is a prayer, as Sometimes reproduces the vulnerable surrender to something greater than yourself, the acceptance of your own insignificance, the child like hope that something you don’t understand will make it all okay, that is at the heart of a prayer, but it looks inward to the self, rather than outwards to God, to find the answer.
Sometime starts with some of the more scenic music Pearl Jam had produced up to this point. It could soft rain or gliding waves but the music feels wet and clean, like it is washing something away. The bass is warm and envelopes the listener. The music isn’t religious, but feels spiritual--sacred, private, even playful in a wry way, like you are finally letting yourself in on a joke you’ve been keeping from yourself.
So what’s the joke, then? The joke is the expectation that we can look outside ourselves for answers or for help. The world is a vast and impersonal place. It is very big and we are very small. We need to accept that, and figure out how to move forward from that in whatever small way we can. The big dramatic gestures and outsized expectations of the first records, the millennial feeling that they captured, they lead us nowhere.
Instead Sometimes emphasizes our smallness, and our imperfections. After the one brief verse the song moves immediately into its anti-climax, where the singer asserts their agency by accepting their imperfection and, as a result, their humanity. We get a litany of opposites, the good and the bad, the rise and the fall, the knowledge and the ignorance, and if we can learn to love all of this in its entirety, then we don’t need God. We don’t need answers. We don’t need mastery. We have ourselves, and it’ll be enough
Eddie’s vocals capture the feel of the song, especially during the anti-prayer’s anti-climax, where the rage is swallowed and disarmed, sliding alongside him instead of propelling him forward. There are moments where it starts to come forward, and you can hear him restraining himself (especially starting from ‘sometimes I cringe...’). That’s not a surprise. Sometimes comes from a calm and peaceful place where you feel safe enough to look inside yourself. There shouldn’t be screaming here.Hail Hail
And so, having created this quiet, peaceful, safe space with Sometimes, they immediately blow it all to hell with the explosive transition into Hail Hail, which actually isn’t that loud of a song when it isn’t following Sometimes. So why did they do it? I don’t have a great theory. We had a really good discussion about this a few months ago in some random thread. I wish I took notes. In either case, it is a brash beginning to what is otherwise a very mature song about how successful relationships are built on the mutual surrender of power.
For a song that wants to be about feeling it is more cerebral than passionate, more reflective than instinctive. It is trying to understand, rationalize, and justify love rather than experience it. And while it quite a penetrating song in terms of its insights, in the end it finds itself recognizing that some things just have to be surrendered to, regardless of whether or not there is a reason. Love is a because without a why. In some ways the song is the inverse of Sometimes. Whereas the former finds the subject rejecting the power of others over them in the pursuit of a meaningful relationship with the self, here we have someone having to accept the power of others over them in the pursuit of a meaningful relationship with another. Two songs about well being, two very different paths to get there.
The main riff, dirty and tenacious, offsets the muted vocals--almost like it needs to remind the singer what is at stake. It has to remind the head of the heart. That’s why the music sounds frustrated and stubborn--like it’s been at this for a long time and time is running out. Maybe that’s why the transition is so loud. Perhaps we needed the slap in the face.
The bridge and outro remind me a bit of Sometimes. A prayer to the self to find the strength or courage or insight to really see (and accept) what is in front of you before it is too late. Both songs are about seeing through our illusions, after all, whether they are illusions about our own power, our expectations, or about how independence is found in interdependence.
Eddie plays this one pretty straight. A few albums prior Sometimes would have been Indifference, and the prayer would have turned into the ‘I will scream my lungs out until I fill this room’ moment. Hail Hail would have been the pleading outros of Betterman or Black. Instead the vocals are an exercise in restraint, which allows the greater contrast with the music and is appropriate for the head/heart debate in the song itself.
Hail Hail is not one of my favorite pearl jam songs, although I think it is quite good. But what I really respect about it is that it understands that love is about negotiating power and submission, ruling and being ruled--willingly giving someone power over and accepting responsibility for the power you have over them. Hail Hail comes at this obliquely in places, but it gets there.
These are some of my all time favorite Eddie lyrics. I am a particularly big fan of ‘are we bound out of obligation/is that all we got’ and ‘I sometimes realize I can only be as good as you’ll let me’. But for the most part they are all pretty good, and we get the story of a relationship in crisis, a couple bound together out of habit, hamstrung by baggage they can’t let go of, finding salvation by realizing that love requires acceptance of imperfection, surrender, and risk. Love means giving someone power over you.
The dominant imagery in the song are shackles or restraint, the singer chafing under the loss of control. ‘are we bound out of obligation’ ‘are we going to the same place’ (note that he has to ask permission to come’, ‘egg rolling thick and heavy’,’ bandaged hand in hand’ ‘on the run in a race that can’t be won.’. But the ties that bind the people together, by the end of the song, are finally recognized as a source of strength, rather than weakness. Nor do they require any justification. And with that realization there is the possibility that this all could work in the end. That idea of strength through acceptance will be reprised once again in Who You Are.Who You Are
Who You Are is messy, uncertain, sloppy, playful, but committed, and in that respect is a pretty strong first single for No Code, a record about those first messy, uncertain, sloppy, playful, and committed attempts to not just pose questions but find answers. It is also a song that embraces its flaws and imperfections, and so closes out that early run of songs approaching the same theme from different angles (which I think is probably the most interesting part of the record, if not necessarily my favorite collection of songs).
Musically this is a song that seems to struggle to find itself, has some success, and then loses itself again without every actually slowing down. This used to annoy me when I was looking for Pearl Jam to offer something tighter and more definitive (which I suppose I still am), but this song, more than anything on No Code, has grown on me over the years as I’ve come to place less of an emphasis in my own life on answers and more on the process of finding them and the messy context in which that happens.
Regardless, Who You Are is closer to Sometimes than Hail Hail in that the music echoes the journey of the song rather than standing in contrast to it. We start with the sound of a song mid swing, but all its component parts coming from different places, looking to see where and how they fit in with each other. They finally come together in a vaguely eastern, vaguely spiritual backdrop, but disrupted by the slightly jarring main riff--sort of like someone has some unformed idea of what enlightenment looks like, but is too full of nervous energy to sit still and give it structure. Although it is subtle it is Jeff’s heartbeat bass and the handclaps that form the heart of the music for me, which create the feel of a journey people are taking together even though this, like sometimes, is a song for the self. The multi tracked vocals sound like a proliferation of voices coalescing into one. And during the climax and outro the song disintegrates back into its component parts without ever losing the memory of what it briefly was.
So what about the message behind that music? Who You Are, like Sometimes and Hail Hail, is a song about accepting limitations, but Who You Are is the most inward looking of the three. Sometimes asks you to come to grips with a world you can’t change--your own powerlessness. Hail Hail is about finding meaning in ties that bind us to other people. Who You Are is simply about loving yourself for yourself. There are times the sentiment is a bit awkward. This is not Eddie’s finest lyrical hour, and is one of the more clumsy songs on the record. But it is also important to judge a song by its context, and since Who You Are celebrates our flaws, this hardly needs a Leonard Cohen level of profundity in order to work. It just needs a self-aware sincerity that can laugh at itself.
I won’t dwell too long on the stuff that doesn’t work. I can’t decide if the hamfisted opening lyrics are intentionally crafted that way or not. But there is some nice stuff in here once you get past that. Most of the lyrics are about travel and movement (take me for a ride, driving winds, off the track in the mud, stop lights, etc) and while I like the distant soaring urgency in the ‘take me for a ride/just a little time before we leave’ lines the most the trampled moss image works best--calling to mind a solitary journey dark quiet places along paths well traveled, which is in part the point. When you are following where others have been it is not a journey you need to take alone, and the song tries to pull the subject out of itself--as if halfway through the journey a guide shows up to take you the rest of the way. The ‘can’t defend fucked up man’ lyric is nothing special, but the idea is important. You can’t defend them, but the point of the song is that you don’t have to. You just have to accept them.
There is a lightness and humor to this song that I would have liked to see them run with a bit more, as No Code occasionally starts to stumble under its own weight (I think Backspacer will strike a better balance, although many will obviously think it tips too far in the other direction), in particular the ‘that’s the moss in the aforementioned verse’ bit of stage direction narration towards the end of the second verse. I probably hated that 15 years ago when i was still committed to the idea that serious ideas could only be addressed in all caps.
In the end Who You Are reminds us that we’re making it all up as we go along, but we’re not making it up alone, and if you accept that you may not always know your lines, or execute them well, or that they may not even be appropriate for the story you’re telling--if you understand all that you’ll enjoy the ride a whole lot more.
In My Tree
Although this seems to be the most popular song on No Code, it doesn’t sum up or embody the album the way some other centerpiece songs might. Instead In My Tree continues to explore the same themes and ideas that define the first half of the album, focusing on its own piece of the larger puzzle. Of all the songs on No Code this one is most rooted in place--more a destination than a journey, albeit not a permanent destination. In My Tree is also less about any particular message or insight, and instead is about creating safe spaces so it becomes possible to reflect and rebuild and begin again.
In general I am not a fan of trees as a metaphor (and between In My Tree, Present Tense, and Given To Fly it looked like this was going to become the dominant in Eddie’s writing--I prefer the wave and water metaphors), but In My Tree does an excellent job creating the musical equivalent of someone sitting at the top of a very tall tree, precarious and at peace. The music comes at you from far away (this is one of the most distant sounding songs in the catalog, and even Eddie sounds curiously muted. The way the music sways, the guitars rocking the branches back and forth, the way the chorus gasps at its height and clutches the branches for balance, the accents coming out of the bridge that call to mind a breathless clarity of vision (the way you can see a great distance from a great height as all the stuff that obscures your vision closer to the ground is irrelevant)--this is all very well done in subtle ways. I don’t really think of No Code as a soundscape record, but I’m starting to change my mind. Like many of the best tracks on Binaural, the music doesn’t just create atmosphere--it paints pictures.
Lyrically this is a tale of two songs--so/so verses with a weak bridge, but an excellent chorus. Thematically this is all stuff we’ve seen before and will see again, and for a well Eddie has gone to so often this is rarely where he is at his best. The world around you is too complicated, too full of distractions, too ugly. You can’t see the forest for the trees. And so in order to be able to see again (internally and externally) and make peace with the world it is necessary to remove yourself from it, at least for a little while. And the song starts with that literal description. I am high up and very far away--no one cares about me. No one notices me. They are all distracted by the dirty grind and shiny things that the singer left behind. The world recedes, and you’re left with no one to talk to but the leaves, who presumably don’t judge and are excellent listeners. The perfect space to talk yourself through the puzzle of yourself.
There are no new conclusions reached here--this is all ground we’ve traveled before and will travel again. Accept that understanding, let alone mastering, the world around you (or yourself) is impossible. Instead you need to make your peace with the fact that everyone and everything is different, the journey never ends, the context always changes. Trees do eventually stop growing taller, but they spend their whole lives adding to their trunk, replacing the leaves and branches that have fallen.
I’d be remiss here if I didn’t quote John Stuart Mill. This is from chapter III of On Liberty, probably the best book ever written on the importance of granting people space for finding out who they are, and building societies in such a way that people do not need to alienate themselves from it to discover this.
“Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develope itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.”
Overall I am a bigger fan of the ideas here than the execution (it is not badly done, mind you, but I’m not sure the verses are inspired, either). The chorus, however, is very well done. As KD noted earlier, the chorus gives us a hint of how dizzying the heights are--how the attempts at self discovery are exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. One wonders, given Hail Hail, Smile, and Around the Bend if this climb would have been easier with a partner, but No Code is a pretty solitary record overall (and maybe you need to make this pilgrimage in order to be able to open up for someone else). There was a prize to be won here--the recaptured innocence--but this isn’t a place you can linger for long. The innocence lyric is especially nice given the way the imagery parallels the rock a bye baby nursery rhyme. There is also that sense of breathlessness, the lack of oxygen, coming from the power of the experience (this is an epiphanal song, although the content of that epiphany gets colored in from the surrounding songs) or the danger of the isolation. The phrase the sky I scrape is especially provocative. How can you scrape the sky. How can you rub up against and hurt yourself against something that lacks substance. Since the whole thing is a metaphor the song seems to be saying that while this is a place you can visit, you can’t remain here long. it is dangerous. The nest is down below, with the people we’ve left behind.Smile
A lot of pearl jam’s music is about the balance between independence and interdependence--how much space do we need to make for other people in our lives, and how much do we need to surrender to them. When is love a shackle and when is it emancipatory? When we are forced to confront our own powerless in the larger world how much can we look to others to make up the difference? It is an important question, and pearl jam’s music has been asking it from the very beginning.
No Code spends a bit more time on the solitary inner journey than the shared outer one. Maybe this makes sense. Perhaps you need your own house in order before you can make space for guests. Having said that, Smile is one of the principle songs that comes back to this idea of self-worth being found with other people (Hail Hail and Around the Bend being the other two). And although it is a simple song, it is worth remembering that a simple presentation does not necessarily preclude complex ideas.
Just as there is a balance between head and heart in Hail Hail, Smile draws a balance between masculinity and femininity. The music is tough, muddy, crunchy, dusty, road weary (the harmonica was an inspired touch). It churns up the road it travels down. It swaggers. The piano gives it faint overtones of a grungy western bar
The vocals and the sentiment, on the other hand, are quite feminine. Eddie’s singing is gentle, and even the points where he screams the voice is still subdued, demure, almost like it’s not proper--a far cry from the ferocious abandon we’ll get on songs like Habit and Lukin.
The lyrics are pretty simple. Intimate personal reminiscences and longing for what is gone for now, the kind of celebratory heartache that comes from requited love that you expect to return. Relief at being able to confidently proclaim out loud that you love someone and not have to keep it inside you.
A complete human being is not someone who lives solely within themselves. We are social animals. And Smile comes at this in two directions. One is the simple declaration that we need the people we love, and that we are diminished in their absence (which is why we long for them). The other is the more subtle masculine/feminine interplay between the music and the vocals/lyrical imagery (like the hearts and swirls). A complete person has masculine and feminine qualities, and the separation into two distinct ideals (a social construction) does us a disservice as a person (recall the ‘are you woman enough to be my man’ lyric in hail hail). We need to learn to be strong and submissive, to think and to feel, to be dependent and independent, to be hard and to nurture. Some of this we can find by binding ourselves to someone else who adds the missing pieces to our puzzle, but some of this (in the spirit of No Code) can also be understood internally--a matter of learning how to strike the right sort of balance within yourself. And although it doesn’t come at this in masculine/feminine terms, that balance (and the failure to achieve it) is at the heart of Off He Goes.Off He Goes
On the surface Off He goes and Who You Are are treading similar ground. Who You Are is a song about accepting yourself for who you are and doesn’t move far beyond that point. Off He Goes, however, which offers us a window into a far more concrete internal debate (externalized through two characters), is not a song about accepting yourself. Instead it is a song about trying to make peace, which implies a current state of war. The song is trying to win a tenuous ceasefire. In that respect, Off He Goes may be closer to In My Tree than Who You Are. Both songs are trying to carve out the space to make self-development possible. And while both are, in certain ways, traveling songs, they are nevertheless grounded in particular places that the subject doesn’t want to remain in for much longer. And so both are uncertain songs, despite the surface confidence--although in My Tree is the more successful of the two in terms of internal resolution.
Musically Off he Goes is beautiful--rich, deep, vibrant, full of weary dignity. But there is also something almost pristine about it. In an odd way the song moves beyond intimacy into something artificial. Off He Goes, more than any other song on No Code, feels like you are watching a character rather than experiencing what they are experiencing. Or, maybe better, the other songs invite you on stage, and Off He Goes asks you to remain in the audience. This is one of the only songs in the catalog without any rough edges or imperfections--there’s nothing here to make this real. Beautiful, but artificial. Crafted. It also (in conjunction with some heavy handed writing) gives the song a narcissistic at worst, self indulgent at best, feel that the rest of the record lacks (this may be because I treat this song as being about coming to grips with being famous, which isn’t very interesting at this point--Vitalogy exhausts this subject).
It may make sense that the music puts up this subtle barrier (although I am sharing it, this is not really for you), since in many ways the lyrics create a space you are asked to observe, rather than participate. We watch our characters from a distance. We are told what to think. We are spectators, rather than actors.
So what are we watching? Off He Goes is a confrontation between the subject and a personification of elements of his personality that need to be more fully integrated into a stable self (wanderlust, passion, judgment, embattlement) Where this confrontation happens is unclear. I picture a living room, late at night, warm, firelit, a room surrounded by pictures, tangible memories. There is a rural, wood paneling feel to the place, presumably coming from the music. The subject is lost in memories, musings, bittersweet regrets. There is someone he cares deeply about who can’t stop running from (or fighting--probably both) the world around them. They are too afraid of stopping to slow down for very long, too busy denying the world to live in it. The imagery of the song is dominated once again (like who you are) by the language of travel and destination. And he has long been showing signs of fatigue and exhaustion. The wear and tear of living in opposition to the world, rather than embracing it. Still, there is a sense that the traveler wants to stop. He wants to come home. He wants to be at peace. The perfectly unkept hope.
And for at least a little while there is a sense he may get there. He comes home. He is reunited with the singer. They are together, whole, and there is the hope that no matter how complex and difficult our context becomes (the surrounding buillshit) the core of that relationship is soft enough to surrender and strong enough to endure.
It is a short lived victory, however. It is an aspirational peace, glimpsed, even grasped, but only for a fleeting moment. The desire to run, the pull of the road, the fear of stopping, the need to confront, the longing for escape. It is all too strong. And so the song ends where it begins. There is a moment of completeness that justifies holding on to hope, but the battle isn’t over. Peace isn’t there. At least not yet.
And so Off He Goes ends on a down note and kicks off a dark 4 song run that marks the low point on No Code’s spiritual journey, a block of songs where we fail to rise above our imperfections the way we do in the records opening run. Unfortunately, these are also some of the weaker songs on the record (with one very notable exception), and when the record itself tries to come full circle the material that is left may not be strong enough to do it.Habit
There are a few songs on No Code that feel out of place to me. Habit is one. It’s not that it is a bad song. It’s just that it doesn’t fit. This is a record about accepting limitations---your own and others. It urges you to make peace with yourself and the world . It’s not that it says don’t fight, or refuse to change. But it reminds you that crashing headfirst into barriers you can’t change is exhausting, and probably counterproductive. Which is exactly what Habit is about. So unless Habit is meant to be a step back--a reminder of what hasn’t worked--I’m not sure why it is here. Perhaps that is why Eddie sings the way he does. You scream the way he screams when you aren’t interested in dialogue. Maybe he is trying to drown this song out (the message, anyway).
The riff is heavy, brash, almost petulant. It’s one of the better punk riffs, and is an excellent platform for a self righteous and extremely judgmental set of lyrics (alongside a grating chorus), and a vocal performance that shrieks itself hoarse, and almost entirely abandons the empathy that defines Eddie’s best (and average work) for something that is frankly just a little obnoxious. Digster noted earlier that Eddie rarely screams on this record, and it is telling that the places where he does are also the songs that are most at odds with the album itself.
Basically Habit is the musical equivalent of the first time a newly minted atheist reads Bertrand Russell’s ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’ This is not a song about being happy with your righteous self. It is a song about judging those who have the audacity not to copy your righteousness.
Save You, in a lot of ways, is probably the song that Habit should have been, at least in the context of this album. Save You has the same singer confronting weakness, but the frustration in that song is from vulnerability that comes from investing yourself in someone else’s life and the fear that it’s all for nothing. Habit is its narcissistic cousin, for whom weakness in others becomes a way to revel in your own reflected strength.
All of this makes the ‘speaking as a child of the 90s’ lyric particularly obnoxious. It’s not a good line to begin with (forgivable perhaps, for the Against the 70s call back), but if you are going to peg yourself as a spokeschild for the 90s there were better songs with better messages to do that with. It could just be tongue in cheek, but if it is I’m not sure what the song is satirizing. Maybe the earnestness of the times? That’s a possibility, but if so it’s also maybe a bit out of place on what is an understated but still extremely earnest album.
The ending outro, which is a great piece of music and the highlight of the song, simply reinforces the lack of empathy and moral complexity in the song itself. It is loud, violent, cacophonous, but oddly self serving. It draws no conclusions. It offers no new directions. It’s a musical affirmation of an angry and judgmental superiorityRed Mosquito
In many ways Red Mosquito serves as the bridge track between Vitalogy and No Code, looking to reprise the embattled spiritual crisis of the former that the later attempts to resolve. It is a song about being trapped, slowly drained, and powerless to stop it. What’s worse is the subtle implication that this is also all somehow your fault (something that Present Tense will attempt to put to rest). But underneath all this the song pleads for a guide--someone to show the subject a way out. In that respect the song within the album (written before most of it) is pining for the album itself.
The title and principle image of the song is inspired--one of their best. A mosquito is a parasite. It stalks you. It drains your blood (and a red mosquito will have fed, and red is the color of the devil). The bite itches, and scratching it will drive you mad. It can kill you. Swat one and another takes its place. And for all that it is a small thing, practically invisible--revealing its presence through a high pitched buzzing that whispers in your ear.
Musically this song is a masterpiece, a cacophonous but somehow melodic s wall of fuzzy guitars (with Mike’s leads buzzing loudly in your ear--the way that a mosquito’s whine blots out all other noise when you’re being harassed by it) occasionally kept at bay by what would be a gentle, even peaceful melody if not for the fact that Mike’s mosquito keeps flitting in and out of it.
Even though the song gives license for Eddie to really let loose he plays this one restrained--like someone resigned to their fate but whose wounds are still raw enough to feel bitter and indignant (especially the points where Eddie is in his higher register). There is also a sense that he’s pleading for an audience--urging the listener not to make the same mistakes he did--to ensure others know what he knows before it’s too late for them. Before they are bitten. It’s too late for him, but maybe he can save someone else.
Lyrically this is one of the best songs on the album, probably second only to hail hail. The song is in part about temptation, and being stuck (the forced cessation of movement) by it--a ‘be careful what you wish for’ song. We begin with the singer trapped in a room, staring outside, taunted by the visible freedom that remains closed to him. He pines for something just out of reach, only vaguely aware of the passage of time, his thoughts elsewhere.
He’s not alone--the red mosquito is trapped in there with him. It embodies temptation, or better, the price of it--the lingering costs of getting what you want and discovering that it isn’t really what you want. It’s not that the mosquito is literally the devil. The devil reference is intended instead designed to call up the image of the Faustian bargain. You can have your heart’s desire now, but payment is fast coming due. The entire second verse is full of stalker imagery (a nice segue into Lukin, perhaps)--climbing up hills (already difficult) without any traction. Barely ahead of the inevitable reckoning and slowly being bled. Unable to go back and change things (recall that he’s trapped where he is---locked in his room or incapable of running fast enough/far enough).
Still, despite the presence of the third party tormentor here, one is left with the sense that really the person torturing the singer, the person bleeding him dry, may be himself. His own regrets over poor choices and past decisions that it is seemingly too late to change. If he knew now what I knew then (a line he’ll come back to in I’m Open) things could have been different (a sentiment reprised from Hard to Imagine--he’s been playing with this idea for a while). Payment is due, but it is something he may owe to himself, and if he figures out a way to let go, to forgive himself (he could not have known then what he knows now, and so that’s not a grudge that makes sense to carry--and even if he could have, there’s still no reason not to let go of it--the person who pays the price for your regrets is you) he can move forward. He can leave. Present Tense will pick up where this leaves off, but before we can get there we have to go through Lukin.
Like Habit, this was one of the first songs written for No Code, and while it does not really fit in with the rest of the record, it may very well have inspired it. Lukin is a musical tantrum.. Maybe the song was meant to be a primal scream--a kind of stress relief. But if so it is inadequate, and points to the need for something a bit deeper, more substantive, more permanent.
The song feels vaguely claustrophobic, like walls are closing in with a deceptive speed (the siren accents are distant and gentle, and gives you a sensation in the back of your mind like the rest of the song isn’t as frenetic as it actually is). Eddie’s shrieking vocals are hard to listen to. Angry, but there is a ‘woe is me’ feel to them that is a bit of a turn off. As with Habit it’s the lack of empathy that makes it difficult to relate. This is one man’s private hell.
The lyrics match the claustrophobic sentiment. The verses describe an intense feeling of alienation--you get the feeling that the worst part about losing your keys is that it is going to force you to spend time around people that are alien to you, that judge you, that want something from you. An invasive intimacy. Like a virus. Stopping off at a friend’s for a beer doesn’t make the rest of the world any less relentless, and as soon as he leaves things just got worse.
We’ve all had days where we felt like that. But this doesn’t just seem to be about a bad day. It feels more like a ground state--and an unsustainable one at that. In that respect Lukin poses the problem the rest of No Code attempts to solve, and Present Tense may very well be the most efficient summation of the insights the album offers.
There is a case to be made for ending No Code on Around the Bend , but in many ways Present Tense is the obvious way to close out the record. The principle journey is completed here, the hidden insights made manifest. It is a concluding paragraph, reprising the journey of the previous nine songs, and it does so quite effectively. No Code is about searching for a guide, finding someone or something to help you navigate the road we’re all traveling (and those same travel metaphors reappear here). And while previous songs have pointed the way there is a gentle confidence in Present Tense that wasn’t necessary there before, suggesting that we have at least begun learning how to decipher the code. After a long stretch of songs about feeling lost, it is almost a relief to know that there is a path, and that we are tantalizingly close to it.
It’s not the most striking piece of music in the catalog, but it is completely appropriate for the mood--warm, deep, memories of once raw wounds finally starting to heal. The transition from Lukin to Present Tense is a bit abrupt, but it is entirely possible the music doesn’t have the same impact if it isn’t following a run of songs about broken and suffering people. There are some call backs to Sometimes, both in the very precise way the song begins--like each note is , a particular memory--and the quasi spiritual journey of the outro. The chorus takes stock of those individual moments, and it weighs them, judging, but the intention of forgiving, rather than punishing. The song builds in fairly subtle ways, and the climax in the second chorus feels organic--earned within the journey of the song (or perhaps the record as a whole. The outro is exploratory, searching, running to find something but confident it’ll get there. There is the haze of voices--whether they are judging, blaming, forgiving, spurring us on or holding us back isn’t clear--but the music pushes us past them with an increasing level of urgency until we finally make it through. We’re clear of the past, in the present tense. We don’t stop there--the music keeps going (and the fade out implies that nothing is finished), but we’re able to walk towards the future having made our peace with the past, ready to accept the future, and moving in a permanent present tense.
Eddie’s vocals are restrained, as is typical for the record.--no screaming in places where there would have been in the past. There’s an unwilligness to completely destroy the tranquility and stillness--and besides, yelling at someone is a terrible way to get them to listen. There’s an interesting juxtaposition here with Leash--it’s a song that is also looking for answers, but assumes that it is external walls that hide them. And so Leash attempts to batter them down, and looks to make up for the lack of answers with an intensity of conviction. The harder you believe the more likely they are to exist. Present Tense can be more subtle because it found them.
The lyrics are pretty straightforward. Let go of the past so you can grow in the present. I talked about the tree as a metaphor during the In My Tree post, so there’s no need to go through that again. And the travel metaphors are all here, alongside some specific references to knowledge and learning--reminding the listener that there is something here they are supposed to be taking away. A few things are worth commenting on. The song seems to urge us not just to let the past go (and we are the person holding both the lock and the key--the only one who can forgive us and who seemingly cannot), but to not worry too much about the future. Accepting our powerless (recall Sometimes) means understanding that there are limits to what we can control. Life may be getting harder, but you can’t predict what’s going to happen next and there are limits to how much you can prepare. And, of course, if you spend your time anxious about or anticipating the future you end up missing right now. It’s not simply the past you need to let go of. You also need to abandon the conceit that life can be controlled. It can only be lived.Mankind
Mankind is a tough transition from Present Tense, if for no other reason than the fact that Present Tense so nicely encapsulates what No Code is trying to do, and Mankind feels like a bit of an outlier (and not just because Stone is singing). So why have the songthere, or why track the album the way they d? Yyou could just as easily moved mankind and I’m open up and leave around the bend following Present Tense, which might feel a bit better ( though I’ve never tested this out).
One possibility, and the best reason I could come up with (if we’re going to try to do better than nothing) is that each of these songs represents a way to live your life after the personal journal, the growth and self-development, of the rest of the record, each song telling part of the story until Around the Bend ties it all together.
One way to live in the present, to not take the world too seriously, is to disenchant it. It’s all fake, it’s all posturing, none of it is real, none of it has intrinsic meaning. If there is nothing at stake in the world you don’t have to care too much about it. You can live a self-referential life if you live in a self-referential world.
The music reflects that. It’s a sarcastic, wry song, smiling at a joke that the uninitiated just do not get. Stone’s voice is perfect for that, since he always seems to come across as slightly removed from everyone else--like you are in possession of some secret the rest of the world that would blow people’s minds if they knew to look for it.
But there’s something unsettled about all this. Although the song chronicles how artificial our lives are, the singer keeps wondering why people don’t see it, or, if they do, why do they keep trying to pretend otherwise. It’s an important question (‘what’s got the whole world faking it’) and it needs an answer. If the answer is simply that we’re all sheep following the herd (we do it because everyone else is doing it) then we’ve essentially negated the entirety of the album, and Mankind is a bit too slight a track for that to be its intention ( Pearl Jam doesn’t really write/think like that anyway). A dismissive, cynical apathy gets us nowhere. It stops the journey too soon, when the point of the album is to make the journey easier.
Instead people keep faking it because they want meaning. They need it. It is quite likely that all the surrounding bullshit stops us from finding it, that it gets harder to find an approach and a way to live (not Eddie’s most elegant line, but the sentiment is clear). It’s not that Mankind is artificial, superficial, full of shit. The problem is that Mankind is lost, a reminder, after the fact, of why the journey was necessary in the first place.I’m Open
If mankind represents a cynical dead end (why bother caring), I’m Open is a reprise of the deep, raw longing that lies beneath most of the songs on this record, closer to the surface some places, hidden others, but always present. No answers here, but we do have a palpable need for them, and a willingness to make yourself open to them, to strip yourself of your past regrets, the surrounding bullshit, the past you carry, and actually seek them out.
Musically I’m Open creates the same hazy dream space as Present Tense and Sometimes, although this feels a bit darker and heavier, beautiful, but with something stifling underneath it that needs to be let go. Songs like Sometimes, Present Tense, and Who You Are are clearly further along the road to self-discovery, have uncovered more of the code, than has happened here. Having said that, the music does lighten during the chorus (during the ‘come in’s’, especially, where the music slowly, gently ascends ), as if the healing has begun.
Eddie’s voice has its customary deep richness, but spoken word is rarely when he is at his best--the music in his voice is diminished. It’s too bad, as it results in a deeply personal song losing some of its intimacy, and comes across as a bit heavy handed (especially given the I AM NOW THINKING BIG THOUGHTS feel to the music, which lacks the subtlety of other songs on the record). it also draws extra attention to the lyrics, which may be the point.
Lyrically there are some nice moments here, but it does border on overwrought at times. They address a deep disenchantment with the world, the replacement of magic for fact, a world where everything is what it is, and we are bound to what it’s in front of us. You can’t dream in a world like that, let alone move beyond it. The singer feels trapped, innocence long abandoned (a call back to In My Tree).
However, through nothing more than force of will, a willingness to open up (open up to what we don’t quite find out yet) and let go, the singer prepares himself to reenchant his world, to look for places to let the magic back in. What he imagines we don’t discover in the song, although we’ve been offered glimpses throughout the album. We may get the clearest picture in Around the Bend .Around the Bend
Although songs like In My Tree, Present Tense, and Sometimes may feel like they are the core of the album--the key moments with the take away insights, I think it is probably Hail Hail, Smile, and Around the Bend where we learn the most important lessons, and where our ability to make peace with imperfection while striving for something better is showcased best. As is almost always the case with Pearl Jam’s music, salvation is found through other people, leraning to open yourself up to them, accepting their imperfections, and letting them heal you. They make us whole. Oddly enough, for a band that doesn’t write too many love songs, almost every Pearl Jam song is, at base, a love song--a celebration of or longing for it.
Around the Bend is no different, and offers the clearest insight into what gets let in during I’m Open. If I’m Open looks for a way for an adult to recapture the magic the world strips away from us, Around the Bend tells us we can most easily rediscover it within family, within the people we love enough to make ourselves open to, vulnerable--the people who come to mean more to us then we mean to ourselves. Forgiving yourself for your transgressions, the peace you can make with yourself, doesn’t make the world magic for you, but it lets you find magic in other people, and perhaps see the magic in yourself reflected in them.
This was a song that took me a long time to come around to--probably not until I had a child. I have an appreciation for the gentle peacefulness, the longing for it, the awareness of its fragility, the way the music captures the way time freezes a particular moment and keeps you there even though the rest of the world is still moving past. How each day lasts forever and passes so quickly. Most of the time you’re aware only of the grind, but the moments where you can live in the stillness are magical, and the music captures that. It captures the aspirational warmth, the desire to keep everything perfect for the person in front of you--the need to make the world a better place, for all its flaws, because there is someone in your life who deserves better.
Eddie’s vocals linger on each word, in no hurry to move on, grateful for the chance to be here. It’s an understated performance, but more realistic for it. These are quiet feelings and honest enough to not require much dressing up. In a lot of ways this is one of the more genuine sounding song in the catalog---which is only amplified by the heart on sleeve earnestness of I’m Open and the dismissiveness of Mankind.
It is also worth noting that the other songs about relationships with others (Smile, Hail hail) are loud, the tenderness in them roughed up a bit by the music. Around the Bend, with the focus on parent and child, is much softer, more intimate, because the parent/child relationship in many ways obliterates (for the parent) the distinction between self and other. And because they are unified the music lacks the opposition present in the other songs.
I do not have much to add regarding the lyrics that I didn’t say above. There are few memorable lines here, but together they describe the experience of watching your child (or anyone you care deeply for) sleep, thankful for the moments you have, praying that the world becomes worthy of them, and vowing that no matter what, you make yourself worthy of them too.
And that’s what the album is about. If we learn to forgive ourselves we can start to become the person our loved ones deserve. If we make our peace with the world we can make the most of the time we have with them. There may not be a grand unifying theory of everything--there may not be one answer to everything that is wrong with the world, and ourselves, But there is this, and it is enough.
As a postscript, I think No Code was one of the more ambitious albums they had done to date. Making peace is a lot harder than making war. There is a lot on here that is tentative, and the album has always felt disjointed to me--perhaps the pieces all fit together, but there isn’t a particularly satisfying rhyme or reason to how they are arranged. Still, that may also be what gives the album its heart and its charm, and it may be what so many fans find compelling about it. These are the first tentative steps down a new road, the first stabs at finding safe passage through difficult spaces, and beginnings are imperfect. We stumble. We double back. But the important thing is that the journey has begun.