|A Guided Tour of Binaural
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|Author:||stip [ Fri December 28, 2012 12:36 pm ]|
|Post subject:||A Guided Tour of Binaural|
the original thread can be found here
A Guided Tour of Binaural
It didn’t really occur to me to try and write up an overview of Binaural until Backspacer, in part because I didn’t really understand Binaural until Backspacer (not that you need the later to understand the former), and in part because it’s harder for me to give a record coherence and unity with 3 different lyricists. But I think I have a take on that record now, so we’ll see how this plays out. Unlike my write-ups for Ten and Vitalogy, I have a sense of how I think this is going to go, but I’m going to be exploring these ideas as I work through the songs, rather than lay out ideas that were already pretty well formed.
Anyway, I’m starting from the perspective that pearl jam’s records are in conversation with each other, and that each album is in important ways a further development of or response to the record that came before. This makes Binaural a reaction to yield, so it’s necessary to say a few things about Yield before we really begin. Yield was Pearl Jam’s ‘we’re at peace with ourselves’ record (and a response to the questing/searching nature of No Code). It’s reflected in the record’s title and in most of the songs. It’s a record about giving way, about refusing to fight—either accepting the way things are now or refusing to engage them any further. The problem is that Pearl Jam has always been a band that swam against, rather than yielded to, the current. Theirs was the stubborn refusal to give in, to fight even when there was no chance of victory (see Vitalogy). The best song on Yield (Given To Fly) captures that spirit. The rest of them really don’t. You have the hopelessness of Do The Evolution (why fight what you can never change), the escapism of All Those Yesterdays, In Hiding, MFC, No Way. This isn’t who Pearl Jam is. Lyrically Yield is an outlier of an album. Rather than the victory lap they so desperately wanted it to be (and parts of Yield strike me like the band is trying to convince itself of something that deep down it knows isn’t true), the moment where they make their peace with the world around them, Yield is instead a seductive lie. Escape is never the safest path and deep down they know it. Their peace was a false peace, and it’s not surprising that they couldn’t maintain it for very long.
And so it seems inevitable that a record like Binaural would follow Yield. Whereas Yield is (on the surface anyway) warm and inviting Binaural is its polar opposite—cold and isolating. Where Yield embraces Binaural refuses. Yield is expansive. Binaural is claustrophobic. Yield is animated by a (false, I think) sense of completion and fulfillment. Binaural is a record haunted by ghosts it cannot name or see. There’s definitely something wrong here, and they cannot put their finger on it. They cannot name and so cannot confront the problem. Some of it is social/political and some of it may be personal (how long after Binaural came out did Eddie’s marriage start falling apart?), but it’s there. There is no peace, and it may still be a crime to escape. In fact, it may be that the escapism of Yield has helped to embed the problems that Binaural tries to confront. But the murky sound and texture of Binaural captures the spirit of the record perfectly. There is no definitive sense of what the problem is. It lacks the sharper focus of a record like Vitalogy or S/T. In the end Binaural can only flail in the dark. It’s a dispiriting, disempowering record, and lays the groundwork for the complete emotional collapse and destruction of agency that marks Riot Act. These two records constitute the low point of Pearl Jam’s catalog. The bottom drops out on Riot Act, but we can see the foundations buckling under strain on Binaural
So let me begin by reiterating that Binaural is a mood more than a narrative—I described it earlier as haunted and I don’t think I can come up with a better word. It charts a decline into powerlessness that really finds its fullest expression in Riot Act (All or None, while not as good as song, is Parting Ways with a larger reach). The songs on Binaural are about a loss of agency, and at times the frustration that comes with it.
That’s the spirit that is animating Breakerfall, I think. This is a surprisingly judgmental song, on a fairly judgmental album, and a real change of pace for a band whose dominant emotional space has always been sympathy and empathy. Breakerfall is accusatory, and is frustrated with, rather than sympathetic to, its main character. The song comes rolling out of the gate with a really strong, playful build, which in some ways doesn’t quite fit in with the seriousness of the subject matter. He’s describing someone on the verge of emotional collapse, possibly even contemplating suicide, and the band is surprisingly cavalier about it.
Again, the song is playful, almost mocking at times. The lyric that begins the song should trigger concern (a girl on a ledge with nowhere to turn), even though the music doesn’t send us that cue, but it very quickly blames her (the love that she had was just wood that she burned), and while it again raises potential causes for alarm (her life is on fire, equating her with prey—a word that has two meanings but it’s clear from the song that she lacks the agency to be the hunter—she’s the victim here) it is again immediately dismissive (it’s no one’s concern—she did it to herself). It gets even more judgmental in the second verse—with the fun ‘it’ like she lost her invitation to the party on earth and she’s standing outside hating everyone in here’ (who doesn’t know someone this applies to), and the disease (a strong word with all sorts of insidious implications) doll (which implies a certain immaturity) pairing. Maybe I’m missing it, but I can’t think of another time Pearl jam was this utterly unsympathetic to a song’s main character (that wasn’t political) like they are here. The chorus carries this over—from the dismissive repeat of the word fall at the end of the first verse to the taunting outro. The double tracked vocals add to this as well. There’s a bit of a sneer in the lower vocals.
Remember, it’s not just Eddie here. At no point is the rollicking, fun loving music of Breakerfall giving us the emotional cues we’d need to feel bad for this person. The subject matter would normally demand music that was much more serious, that treated this situation with delicate gravity. Breakerfall could easily be the song playing at the party on earth, and insists on shoving back in her face the fact that the music is not for her. Mike is practically laughing at her in his outro solo. If you don’t quite see this, try imagining swapping the lyrics to Breakerfall with the lyrics to Nothing As It Seems, or Light Years, or Parting Ways. They both become very different songs attatched to Breakerfall’s music, and none of them really work as well as they should, since it now lacks sympathy or empathy.
Even though they’re very similar musically a song like Gonna See My Friend works better because the target is Eddie, and because Gonna See My Friend feels a lot freer than breakerfall (every song on Binaural is glossed with that sense of claustrophobic foreboding). While not similar musically, the attitude is similar to a song like Brain of J, which is full of a kind of political contempt that we’re used to, but Pearl Jam would have almost always had a great deal of sympathy for the subject of Breakerfall in the past. They don’t here. Instead Breakerfall is a song looking for a target. It wants to lash out. It’s possible that this is just a mean spirited song, but I don’t think that’s right. So what’s going on? I think at its core the problem is that Breakerfall is performed by a wounded band looking to fight back, and since they don’t know who to blame they’re blindly flailing at whatever target is close by. That confusion will take center stage in the next run of songs.
God’s Dice is not the first Pearl Jam song to deal explicitly with the relationship between God and man, but it’s worth looking at the differences between God’s Dice and the two previous songs addressing these themes—Sometimes and Faithful. In all cases the subject is overwhelmed by the gulf between the human and the divine, and each time the singer attempts to bridge that gap. Sometimes is both a celebration of agency in the guise of a prayer, and Faithful condemns God for his silence and finds a true god in love. Both of these are very typical, traditional responses for the band—completely keeping with the ‘find meaning in community and fight because the struggle itself has meaning’ philosophy that is at the core of their message. But that’s not what’s going on here.
Instead God’s Dice surrenders to our own insignificance (we’ll see this later). The opening lyrics recognize the singers basic powerlessness, which he comes back to again and again in each verse. The chorus makes clear how our lives are completely out of our own hands—someone else designating our opportunities, our desires, our expectations, and the singer resigns himself to it (resignate is not a word but that’s okay). There are moments where the singer seems to intimate that this kind of acceptance is a giving in—a form of surrender (especially in the second verse) but he can never seem to follow through on that (interesting that in the actual linear notes the lyric reads MY power rather than THIS power), especially when you get to the overwhelmed third verse before the bridge and the ‘why fight forget it/cannot spend it after I go’ declaration. Struggling against odds like this, a power this significant and totalizing, is just exhausting—as the final verse declares, this sort of life, this sort of struggle, is no life at all, and the song concludes with a celebration of submission.
The argument could be made that the band is simply being sarcastic here, that they’re presenting an argument that they’re dismissive of. The music could lend some credence to this. Certainly this is a fast paced, energetic, active celebration of passivity, and the double tracked vocals give the song a festive feel to it. But at the same time, there’s no real sarcasm here like we find in Breakerfall. And there is basically nothing in the songs that follow that give any indication that this is the case, as the rest of this record (with a handful of notable exceptions) is a story of passivity and loss of agency. If God’s Dice isn’t serious about this message then it really has no business on this record, and should have been replaced with a song like Sad. That’s not a comment on the quality of the song. Undone and Down may be the two best songs to come out of the Riot Act sessions, but they don’t belong on that record. Another possibility is that the song is documenting a breakdown, a person collapsing under the weight of their own insignificance, which would explain the frantic pace of the song. The vocals aren’t unhinged, but the music comes closer. It’s tightly controlled, but if you listen to it sideways you can see it falling apart, and then the double tracked vocals start to sound a little schizophrenic (and then there is the little laugh (more pronounced live) after the monkey driven/call this living lyric. I’m not sure which interpretation to believe.
So in the end, God’s Dice teaches us, it’s not a big deal to surrender to fate, to accept what you cannot control. Except, of course, that it is. Pearl Jam had spent the previous 9 years arguing that escape is never the safest path, that the struggle has meaning, that holding the candle makes a difference. And so there’s something unsatisfying about this conclusion, and the problem with the overall message and theme of Binaural. Or, alternately, God’s Dice is warning, documenting the consequences of embracing this position. The way to answer that is to figure out whether Binaural is a defeatist record or a cautionary tale. Maybe it’s both, but I’m inclined to believe that the band wasn’t sure which. I think they wanted it to be the later but were feeling the former, which was only reinforced by the existential and moral crisis posed by the Bush administration and documented in Riot Act. Either case complicates the peace of Yield, and this only gets more pronounced as we move deeper into the record.
Evacuation is the most understated call to arms in Pearl Jam’s catalog. The music starts off sounding fairly urgent, attempting to approximate the sound and energy of a siren (they get this sound right during the fade out of the song—listen for it, and imagine how much different evacuation would sound if this was the dominant note), but not quite reaching it. The whole thing is fairly muted—like it wanted to explode but couldn’t find the powder. That’s the central tension that seems to be running through Evacuation. The song prophesizes some imminent collapse, and the chorus pleads for us to run away, to abandon a sinking ship—yet it sounds like the project is hardly worth it. Why bother? This is one of the things that I suspect puts people off from the song, and one of the things that makes it interesting. Eddie hardly sounds like he cares whether or not we get out. There’s something perfunctory about all this., going through the motions because you know you’re supposed to but not believing in your own agency
The lyrics have the same tension. They call for us to pay attention (to take heed and change direction, to take stock, to plant seeds of reconstruction, no time this time to feign reluctance). Something is definitely wrong. Things are definitely collapsing around us. There’s no time to wait for things to get better, and it would be naive to put off acting until everything is perfect (its like you’re waiting for a diamond shore to wash your way) He encapsulates this nicely in the final verse:
There was a solemn man who watched his twilight disappear (in the sand)
Altered by a fallen eagle, a warning sign
He sensed that worry could be strength with a plan
It sounds like a call to arms. But the problem is there is no sense of what is wrong. No sense of what that plan might be or what it could address. Something is seriously wrong, but there is no sense of what it is, or even who to blame. There may not be a more substance free ‘political’ song in their catalog. The album artwork is revealing here. You have a head surrounded by two bullhorns—the doodles convey the sense of the bullhorns about to blare something right into this guys ears—too close and too loud to be understood. The warning will probably come across as more annoying than helpful.
And so there is something almost tired about Evacuation. It wants to be urgent. It wants to get us on our feet and in the streets, but it doesn’t know how to do it. The screaming is exhausting, and the worry is just enervating because there is no plan, and no strength. Just a sense that we need to get out even though there is no place to go, and nothing to do when we get there.
As much as I am a booster of the Light Years demo, Light Years fits Binaural better then I think Puzzles and Games would have, and the things that I think detract from Light Years musically help it fit in on Binaural (which is why judging an album is different than judging the collection of songs that make it up (I’ll put something up about the Binaural b-sides and what not after we’ve worked through the record and say more then).
Pearl Jam has dealt with death before this, probably most movingly on Long Road. The music there is simple and beautiful, and even the dramatic swells are peaceful. The song invites us to accept and make our peace with the one thing we cannot change, and it ends (for me) with an image of two people holding hands facing a setting sun, understanding and okay with what is inevitably going to come. Light Years is not that song. We know that primarily from the music. If this was a song about coming to terms with death it would sound very different. There’s something off kilter and discordant, hesitant and resistant, about the music, even as it picks up urgency throughout the song. Eddie’s voice is even a little petulant, like a child (or someone small) railing against what he acknowledges is the basic unfairness of loss. Fitting for this record, the song is cold and isolating rather than warm and inviting, dominated by unfairness and regret rather than a calm, peaceful acceptance.
Lyrically Eddie begins the song shaken—all the things he can do and has done, all the facets of life he has mastered, none of these things are of any use to him in the face of death, they cannot undo the enormity of that kind of permanent loss. The second verse is equally personal, tinged with the regret and guilt that always confronts us with the death of someone we cared about. Did I spend all the time I could with them? Did I get everything out of that relationship I could have? Did I give everything to that person I could have? The answer is always no. It has to be. But knowing the truth of that and feeling the truth of it are two very different things, and where Long Road makes its peace with that tension, the subject of Light Years is (appropriately enough for Binaural) trapped by their guilt, haunted by the time not spent and opportunities lost (he’ll return to these themes a decade later on The End). In Light Years we’re left wondering whether we’ll spend forever in the dark now that we’re deprived of the departed’s light. It’s rare that we fully appreciate how much someone illuminates our life until we have to see things without them.
There are moments of promise in Light Years, just like there was the fleeting hope in Evacuation that worry could be strength with a plan. There’s the plea to make sure you live life now, to make every moment count with the ones that you love, but its advice being given too late, delivered with a plaintive sadness that comes from knowing you’ve missed your chance. It’s followed by the bridge that has its soaring notes and high moments, but the whole thing remains somewhat strangely discordant, almost like it’s too late for this person. Light Years becomes a cautionary tale in the end, the music promising to take us places the singer can’t go (the music elevates Eddie here, rather than Eddie elevating the music or both climbing together) and offering the possibility of salvation and redemption in its warning. One light is extinguished, but not all lights need go out.
As an aside the Light Years/your light made us stars connection is pretty clever (the last time the implications of a title were explored like that in a song was on Tremor Christ). Light years are the distance between stars, the amount of time it takes for light to travel between them. Although we can measure it, it’s a speed, and therefore a distance, that is completely beyond anything we’re capable of. Something that is light years away might as well not even exist, for all practical purposes. At the same time, we discover who we are, what shines best and brightest in us, through our relationships and connections to other people (echoes of Faithful)—we need them discover ourselves. Our own light comes from them. The question becomes whether that light can still illuminate us when the distances between us become impossibly vast.
Nothing As It Seems
Nothing As It Seems was, in some ways, an excellent choice for the Binaural single, since it encapsulates the essence of the record. I don’t think it’s the best song, but it cuts right to the heart of the record more than any other number on here.
Musically it is stark, cold, lonely, and expansive (as opposed to its sister song All or None, which feels much more narrow and cramped then NAIS). It’s a song that is looking everywhere for answer, for meaning, and finds it nowhere. Stone and Jeff create a bleak, isolated landscape (especially Jeff’s mournful bass) and Mike spends the song railing against it with no conclusion, no moment of catharsis, just a frustrated search for something. There’s not even a sense of there being a journey, just an ever present now. NAIS is also an exhausting song. For a piece that has almost 5 minutes of prominent guitar soloing and feels as open as it does there is surprisingly little movement. The song feels like it is running in place, and sustains itself only because it fears (or doesn’t know how) to stop. There’s a period during the bridge when the music finally changes and you think, even if just for a moment, that there’s something there—catharsis, confrontation, something , but it isn’t quite clear what it is, and the song descends back into the void, neither sustaining itself nor collapsing under its own weight. It’s a pretty impressive soundscape.
Eddie plays this one just right vocally. He sounds distant, removed, not exhausted per se (this isn’t Riot Act) but worn down and strangely empty. This isn’t a song about losing faith (in yourself, in others, in the world). It’s a song about how we go on without it, hoping we’re going to find something but increasingly doubting that we will.
Lyrically it’s a mixed bag. The meaning of the song is clear, but the lyrics are constructed in a way that they aren’t really telling a story. Instead they draw attention to each line, each its own snapshot of the same moment in time (Wishlist and The Fixer are written that way too). It’s just that some are better then others (I particularly like the ‘a scratching voice all alone is nothing like your baritone, but there are some other pretty decent ones in here). They’re all pretty clear though. They describe someone alienated from his life, from himself, from his own ability to even communicate precisely what’s bothering him. All he knows is that everything is not okay, that everything that is supposed to mean something means nothing, everything that is supposed to be rewarding feels empty. There’s a distance between his own life and his experience of it. The lyrics have the same spacey feeling of the music and the artwork—cold, vast, dark, and distant. Even lowering his own expectations seems hollow, his fantasies uncompelling diversions. He hasn’t given up—there’s still that part of him that wants more, demands more, understandings that he in some way is being robbed or cheated of something—but it’s getting increasingly hard for him to care.
This is the darkest moment in the first half of the record, and the next few songs move into a different space, but you definitely hear Pearl Jam laying the groundwork for Sleight of Hand and Parting Ways and the slide into Riot Act.
Thin Air is one of the two counterpoints songs on Binaural (Grievance is the other). These songs play a role similar to I Am Mine on Riot Act—they’re reminders of what the record is struggling against, what it hopes to regain. As has already been pointed out, its inclusion on the record serves to draw attention to miasma that covers the rest of the album. It has the same sense of distance and space (even though the music is meant to be warm and inviting it’s easy to imagine this song sounding different had it been recorded for Yield) but it has made its peace with it. There’s a smoky quality to Eddie’s vocals, which fits the mood of the song of the song perfectly. It’s dark and rich, wispy and delicate. Even the song’s outro, the most energetic moment in the song, still sounds a little fragile. It sounds like there’s something of substance that’s slowly dissipating, appropriately enough, in thin air. But it’s hanging in there.
And that’s the point of Thin Air—to remind the listener, at the halfway point of the record and especially after the lost and empty space of Nothing As It Seems, that there’s still someone or something at the core of that space worth preserving. The lyrics manage to convey this despite being pretty unmemorable, even trite (Stone is much more successful on Rival). The most important lyric is found in the bridge. “How to be happy and true is the quest we’re taking on together.” Eddie has the word together circled in the liner notes, just in case we miss the importance of the lyric. Binaural is an intensely lonely album. In almost every song the main character is alone (sometimes by choice, sometimes because they made a mistake, sometimes because it is forced on them) and it is precisely because they’re alone that they’re in the trouble that they’re in. The one message that runs through every pearl jam record is that the only way to confront alienation is in solidarity with other people—that love is the only thing capable of creating light in the empty spaces we find each other. And Thin Air understands that, however imperfectly it expresses it. The important part of the lyric is not that they’re trying to be happy and true, but that they’re trying together. Light Years is a song about a dying light, and wondering how we’ll be able to see once it’s extinguished. Thin Air generates its own light—as long as his baby’s in his arms the light remains.
Insignificance is one of the crown jewels of Binaural. It’s a monster song, and it’s fitting that we find it in the middle of the record as it is, perhaps even more than Nothing As It Seems, the song that embodies the spirit of the Binaural, the way in which it and Riot Act represent a wrong turn, or the lowest point, of the character profile that has developed (and is perhaps still developing) over 9 records and almost 20 years of music.
Insignificance, as the title would indicate, is a song about the loss of agency—about realizing how little power we have, how much we are at the mercy of people and forces beyond our control. It’s perhaps the first moment in the band’s history where they openly addressed this (with the exception, perhaps, of Bugs—but it’s telling that there it was on an experimental track, and here it is on what is probably the flagship song of the record), and tried to come to grips with it. Even songs like Immortality or Indifference ask questions or pose provocative scenarios. They let the listener decide whether it all makes a difference, and you can certainly intimate from the surrounding songs on those records that it does. Binaural does not offer us much in the way of hope, but it doesn’t quite surrender either. Instead, in the darkest of spaces and in the most stressful of times it reasserts our fundamental humanity—it reminds us that we all want to live, that we all want to be heard, that we all want a voice—and that even if it is denied to us that denial is a crime and needs to be answered.
Musically Insignificance is quite possibly the most sophisticated piece of music Eddie ever wrote, although much of this is due to the song the rest of the band constructed around his skeleton. Insignificance sounds like its chorus. It’s not that loud a song, but it sounds like a war. The rolling, distorted guitars, the low end, the drums, the starts and stops—they all work to convey this sense of destruction and collapse, of bombs exploding, buildings collapsing, people dying. Even the quieter parts of the song (the bridge, for instance) have a feeling of impending doom—the guitar is nervous, the bass foreboding, the urgent build into the final chorus prophesying the end. It’s an impressive piece of work, and a great example of Pearl Jam really using the studio to perfection, as there’s never been a live version of this song that comes close to capturing the atmosphere. The energy perhaps, but not the atmosphere.
Although I’m not sure the live version necessarily captures the particular energy of the studio version either. The live versions of so many Pearl Jam songs mean something different then darker incarnations of those songs on the records. Alive becomes a question, not a celebration. Betterman becomes the promise of a better life and better days. Not For You becomes a song about inclusion. And it’s impossible to sing a song about your own insignificance with a room of 20000 people signing it with you.
Like the music, Eddie’s vocal performance on the record captures the essence of the song perfectly. For such a dynamic song Eddie’s voice is muted, even subdued. The natural move on a song like this is to swing for the fences, to be as aggressive as possible, to defy the lyrics with the performance. Instead Eddie can’t overcome the music. He sings underneath it. His plea for forgiveness can’t be heard over the dropping bombs, and it would almost be a lie if it was—that’s the sense of absurd tragedy that the song wants to capture. Even the most important moment in the song “It’s instilled to want to live” has a hard time registering over the musical firestorm that takes us into the last chorus.
Lyrically this is one of the best songs Eddie’s ever written, with a great mixture of mysterious, provocative images and the simple truths that the empathy and conviction in his voice manages to make profound. Just about every lyric in the song is worth looking at. I’ll leave it others to bring up some of the ones that I miss, but a few of my favorites
“the swallowed seeds of arrogance, breeding in the thoughts of ten thousand fools who fight irrelevance”
This is probably the most clever lyric in the song (perhaps even on the record). It sounds like an accusatory lyric, and the first instinct of the listener is to think that he’s taking a shot at the masters of war dooming the innocent subjects of the song, but instead it’s a lyric about the victims themselves, a celebration of the ‘arrogance’—the sense of self worth and basic human dignity that leads to people reasserting their humanity in impossible conditions and the way in which innocence given a voice bears witness and demands an accounting for the sins of war and the abstract euphemistic distance between those who order bombs to drop and the people they murder.
“Please forgive our hometown in our insignificance”
There’s two meanings here. Eddie is singing about he people dying—the innocent victims who pay the price for the actions of others, who have to die because others dreamed of war—but he’s also singing about himself, about the Americans who have others murder in their name, who have to take responsibility for what they cannot control. This song meant something very different to me the first day of the Iraq War, watching footage of ‘shock and awe’ on CNN when all I could say was ‘I’m sorry’, then it ever did before.
I also love the ‘play C3, let the song protest’ and the ‘I was alone and far away when I heard the band start playing’—for the recognition that even in these times of powerlessness we’re not truly alone—that there are others who have given voice to what we’re thinking, what we’re feeling, and that we are not alone in our witness.
Insignificance doesn’t have a happy ending. It doesn’t end with the joyful coda and promise of Grievance. Unlike most anti-war songs it doesn’t accuse, at least not directly, as the ability to accuse is the act of an agent, and this is a song about the loss of agency. Insignificance does remind us that if we’re powerless together it is better then being powerless alone, and it raises all the right moral questions, but it’s a chilling, dark reminder of the odds against us if we want to assert control over our lives, and hold those in power responsible for the damage they’ve done and reminds us that even if there is such a thing as a necessary war, there is no such thing as a just one.
Of The Girl
Of the Girl undeniably creates an interesting atmosphere, smokey and seductive, full of mystery and dark, forbidding promises. But at the same time the atmosphere never really goes anywhere. The song spends its time sitting at the bar, fantasizing about the girl at the other end, but never makes it move. The swells in the song during the chorus reinforce this—they sound like they’re pushing something away, instead of drawing it closer. Mike’s leads and fills underneath the rest of the song give it an air of frustrated indecision (especially during the outro, where you can hear him arguing with himself)—someone making the same mistake over and over because they don’t know how to do anything else.
The lyrics in this song are simple, fairly understated, and not particularly memorable, but the sentiment fits the music well, as does Eddie’s lack of commitment (there’s not the resignation of Riot Act here, instead we find someone so familiar with a scene that’s played out for them so many times before that it’s hard to get excited about it. Of the Girl doesn’t tell a story. There are no details here (other than the quarter to four lyric, and I have no real sense of what that’s referring to or signifying). Instead, like so much of Binaural, it’s a warning or a cautionary tale. It’s the story of someone looking for love, looking for meaningful human connections with other people, but because he doesn’t love (or cannot forgive) himself he can’t bridge that gap between himself and the other people. He knows what he needs but every time he gets close to finding it he sabotages himself. He’s trapped in that pattern and can’t figure out how to escape it. There’s no grand conclusion here. The music doesn’t quite fade out as much as it peters out somewhat inconclusively. There’s no need to resolve itself because this is all going to have to play itself out again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that—as long as the subject can’t overcome himself and the barriers he places in his way he’s going to be stuck in this loop forever, this enervating and perpetual now . A number of the songs on Binaural aspire to make grand and sweeping statements, but that’s not Of the girl. It’s just another lonely moment on a lonely record.
If Grievance ends Binaural suddenly we have a very different record on our hands. The fact that it does not (and is followed by 4 of the darkest songs on the record) is significant. On a record that sometimes feels like drowning Grievance is a last gasp, the sound of one last deep breath before going under, possibly for good.
This is one of the best political songs in their catalog—probably their best. Despite knowing that it’s about the WTO protests, it works in part because it is not specifically tied to that moment in time . There are details in the lyrics--Progress laced with ramifications/progress, taste it, invest it all/for every tool they lend us, a loss of independence--that ground it in the politics of that moment, but they’re also describing a process and a power relationship that transcends the WTO and the World Bank. Instead it’s a call for frustrated underdogs to rally around something larger than themselves and to demand more.
Politics is about power, no matter how much we try to obscure that (just like any talk about states rights during the civil war turns back to slavery), and in modern democratic politics there are two sources of power—money and mass. Money dominates, and we accept it because it manages to clothe itself in democratic symbols (we have elections, so the people rule, right?) and because we’ve had a tendency going back 100 years or more to equate markets with freedom, which means that everything that happens reflects people’s choices. The world is a consequence of our individual actions, the results are fair, and we own them. Our world is governed by a theodicy no different in practice than the belief that God has already written everyone’s fates or the divine right of kings. The point of this theodicy is to systematically disarm and in some cases delegitimate the power of mass against money
Grievance is a war cry, an attempt to awaken within people a reassertion of the power of mass, and with it democracy. Like Insignificance, Grievance requires us to first recognize just how powerless we currently are. It demands that we call our current system, our illusions of freedom, into question. Unlike Insignificance, the characters in this song are agents capable of acting. Insignificance asks us to bear witness. Grievance urges us to act—to see the world for how it really is, and confront it. There is no immediate space for action when bombs are dropping down, when your life is being destroyed by forces far away for whom you and your life is an abstraction. But that's not the case here. The great promise of democratic regime is the possibility that people will use it, the great fear of those with power is what will happen when mass decides to awaken, when they realize that they deserve something more. The sticks come down, but they can only do this as long as we divide ourselves. They can only come down as long as we let them.
As is the case on pretty much every song on Binaural, the music helps tell this story. It starts off somewhat playful and sarcastic, dismissive of illusions. It gets frustrated more than it gets angry. Grievance doesn’t punch its enemy in the face. It grabs its allies by the shoulders and tries to get them to focus. It shakes them awake. We see this in Eddie’s vocal performance too. There isn’t anger in Grievance as much as there is exasperation, which should tell us who the audience is.
The song culminates with its statement of principles. Life derives its meaning from the ability to act. We’re not really free unless we’re agents, and we become agents when we embrace that desire to live. Grievance urges us to remember that it is the act itself, and the hope and faith that create it, that makes anything and everything possible.
If Binaural ends with this thought then we are listening to a record of redemption. But it doesn’t, and so Grievance is an outlier on the record—a reminder of what once was and perhaps might be again someday, but are currently not. Like I Am Mine on Riot Act, it is an ember to preserve, in the hope that one day there can be a new fire.
Rival is another example of the brilliant job so much of Binaural does in establishing atmosphere. From the first moments of the song with the growling dog there is a pervading, ominous sense that something has gone very wrong, that the world is not the way it should be. The music almost has a demonic carnival quality to it—celebratory if not for the sharp, discordant notes that drive the song (especially the bridge and outro). Eddie’s double tracked vocals (especially his higher/strained notes) add to the sense of insanity running through the song. The music also does an excellent job inverting a fairly standard Pearl Jam formula that we see in songs like Unthought Known—where we see piano noodling, the high notes bursting with intensity, and brief inspirational solos designed to carry us someplace new and help us transcend the forces that hold us back. This is what Pearl Jam does best, and so it’s particularly striking to see this demented fun house mirror reflection of that aspect of the band. This is probably the most menacing song in their catalog.
Lyrically I think this is the strongest of all the songs penned by someone other than Ed (and it is better than a few of Ed’s lyrics). Not every line here is a slam dunk—and the call back parts are noticeably weaker than the main lyric (and some, like the well hung part, make me cringe a little bit) but there are enough provocative moments here (in particular I like the imagery in ‘I’ve been harboring fleets in this reservoir’, the clever shot at moral self-righteousness and small town piety ‘how will the man who made chemicals difficult’ and the bridge lyrics ) Although this song is ostensibly about the Littleton, CO school shootings it’s no more about that then Whipping is about abortion. There’s nothing in the lyrics to make that apparent and you’d never guess it if not for the liner notes. Instead, like Whipping, we have a series of individual snapshots of a person’s mood—their rebellion against a diseased society, although in Whipping we have a call for action and an attempt at restoration. Despite the presence of lyrics like ‘we all’ve got scars they should have em to’ or ‘don’t mean to push but I’m being shoved’ there’s still a sense of angry optimism in that song, or failing that, at least solidarity. Rival is not a passive song (there are too many intimations of violence), and so in some respects it makes sense that it follows a number like Grievance, but there is no optimism here. There’s no hope. Instead it’s largely defined by the song’s nihilism, its loss of faith that any of the problems that affect us so deeply can actually be addressed. The singer has seen the sticks raised and brought down one time too many, and he is far more pessimistic about discovering within American culture and American character any serious desire to really try and address the things that matter. We’d much rather lie to each other than confront it (how’s our father supposed to be told?) This nation may be about to explode, but no one seems to care. We’re fiddling while America burns (hence the festive undertones to the music)with no real hope of us coming together to fix it. The plea at the end of Grievance has largely fallen on deaf ears. There’s no solidarity here. We’re all rivals to each other, and divided there is no way for us to move forward. Rival makes clear that Grievance, at least in terms of the album (not the overall arc of the band) is an outlier--a temporary resurgence of principles no longer dominant.
Sleight of Hand
Although far from my favorite song on this record, Sleight of Hand might be the most important, the most archetypal, the one that cuts right to the heart of what this record is about. The song is cold, lonely, and would be hopeless if it wasn’t so tired. Sleight of Hand is what happens to the character in I’m Open if he forgot to make time to dream for himself, or the character in Small Town without her epiphany that it’s not too late to begin again. Sleight of Hand tells us the story of a man trapped in the same dull, repetitive, dark, monochromatic life devoid of color and light. Whatever hopes, dreams, plans, and ambitions got lost in the daily grind of living—the hours, days, years lost to the commute, the meaningless work, the routines necessary to fill the empty hours. He is alive, but feels absolutely nothing, so is he? You get the sense that this is a character who had spent some time running away from himself, trying to escape who he was and who he is, and he was ultimately too successful. In his struggle for peace, his fear of engagement, his fear of himself, he lost himself—all that’s left is a shell, devoid of substance, meaning. Sleight of Hand is American Beauty without its second chances.
There’s still a tiny spark left—the part of him that remembers who he was, what he wanted out of life, what he was capable of doing. But it is so small, so insignificant. The listener is left with the sense that he might actually have been better off without remembering it. He’d still be empty, but he wouldn’t be haunted in the same way
There is a really powerful ambiguity in the climax of the song. There’s no redemption here. He waves goodbye to the spark—the part of himself that survived in the void that became his life, but we don’t know if this is because he chooses to kill himself or if he just buries the thought because it’s too hard, too painful for him to live with the memory.
The title concept is intriguing too. A sleight of hand is the misdirection involved in magic, pick pocketing, or anything where the subject ‘s focus is elsewhere. While they’re looking at what they think matters, what they think is significant, the agent is acting on him without him realizing it. A victim of sleight of hand has lost their agency and they don’t even know it, or don’t recognize it until it is too late.
The music tells this story perfectly—in some ways even better than the lyrics. While this is a strong lyric (the second verse after the Mondays were made to fall lyric is particularly strong )it is not as solid from top to bottom as I recalled—some of the lines are awkward or confusing, especially in the chorus. We don’t notice or care in part because the sentiment is still clear, but the real star of Sleight of Hand is the soundscape. The delicate, mournful sound of the guitar, the lost, wistful fills, the crazed feedback of the chorus, the uncertainty in the drumming, the distant sadness in Eddie’s voice. Sleight of Hand works best at this elemental level.
The question that remains is whether or not we’re supposed to feel sorry for this person. It certainly seems like we’re supposed to, but Soon Forget undermines quite a bit of that sympathy. That’s an argument for tomorrow, though.
The B-sides and outtakes
I wanted to talk about these a bit before we actually finish Binaural. These were amongst the bands most prolific sessions (that we know about), and only the Ten sessions has produced as many songs perhaps good enough to include on the record itself. But Pearl Jam writes albums, not singles, and being a good song does not mean you necessarily make sense on a particular record.
I’m going to ignore the three instrumental pieces from Touring Band, since we’ve never heard complete songs. Likewise, while Anything in Between has a fun riff, it’s not clear that the band ever got around to finishing that one. Eddie’s vocals in particular feel like they’re placeholders. Had they finished it it does not really sound like it would fit in well on Binaural anyway.
So that leaves us with
In the Moonlight
Puzzles and Games
Not including sad was a mistake, and the only possible reason to justify leaving it off was the bullshit ‘we don’t want to release songs people would like’ garbage they were spouting back then. In three and a half minutes Sad manages to reproduce the coldness, the loneliness, the isolation, the loss of agency, the feeling of being trapped, and the uncertainty that runs through the rest of the record. That it manages to do all this in a fast song with a great riff is even more remarkable, as songs that make you want to move are empowering due to their speed if nothing else. This is also one of their most atmospheric fast songs they’ve ever written, and it’s impressive that they could duplicate the feelings in a song like Sleight of Hand, Nothing As It Seems, or Of The Girl in a hook laden pop song.
Sad could go anywhere on the record, and any song could be substituted for it. Personally I would have removed one of the first 3 tracks or Thin Air, but removing Thin Air makes an already dark album even darker.
Bracketing whether or not this song is any good [it’s not] it is far too playful and light for a record as weighted down as Binaural is. You could draw some thematic parallels between hitchhiker and the rest of the record but it is far too much of a mood killer to include
In The Moonlight
This is another song that, regardless of its overall quality of the song, doesn’t really belong on Binaural. It’s a bit too relaxed and casual and towards the end too rawk, and would stick out a bit too much on the album. I could see this song replacing evacuation, but Evacuation is doing stuff that’s more interesting lyrically. There’s a fairly interesting atmosphere too the song, but it’s too open. The atmosphere in songs like Of The Girl and NAIS are supposed to speak of closed off possibilities and lost chances. In The Moonlight tries to seduce—it speaks to the things that haven’t happened yet and that’s not really what Binaural is about.
Like Sad, I think Pearl Jam probably made a mistake keeping this one off. The song is about the things we’re taught that make us strangers to each other and ourselves, the ways we’re socialized into alienation. It makes perfect sense to include this in a conversation that includes songs like Grievance, Rival, Insignificance, and Sleight of Hand. The thing is the placement on a song like this matters. The last lyric “I’m a seed wondering why it grows” speaks to all sorts of future possibilities. It’s an optimistic thought set to fairly defiant music. You either need this song to begin the record (which means the rest of the album will largely consist of shooting it down, cataloging all forces that stand between the seed and the light it needs to grow) or end it (even after all this there’s still the chance to start over). It all depends on what kind of story you want to tell.
Like Education and Sad Fatal fits really well, but I’m not sure it’s doing anything all that different. Does Fatal actually add to the record? Lyrically it’s hitting moments similar to Nothing As It Seems and God’s Dice, and none of these songs have lyrics that are appreciably any better or worse than the others. There’s an atmosphere of uncertain questing to it—it knows what questions to ask even if it has a reason to wonder whether or not it actually wants to receive the answers. It’s also fairly similar to Education (less ‘political’ and more ‘philosophical’ I suppose) but that didn’t make the record either. In the end I’d probably include it over a song like God’s Dice
This is really the emotional core of the record and I have no idea why they didn’t include it. Career sabotage I guess.
Puzzles and Games
As much as I like this song (and I think it’s a superior song to Light Years) Light Years is a better fit for the record itself. Puzzles and Games is a song about starting over or getting second chances, and that’s not really what Binaural is about. It would have made more sense on Yield.
I may be wrong about this, but I believe the ukulele songs that Ed wrote are all from this period, and if that’s the case Goodbye belongs on Binaural—certainly over Soon Forget, with its juvenile lyrics and uncomfortable sarcasm. This is simply one of the saddest songs they’ve ever written, and the aimlessness, the sense of loss and longing in the song, fit perfectly.
So if I was going to retrack Binaural I think I’d want it to look a little something like this (I’m keeping it to 13 songs)
Nothing As It Seems
Of The Girl
Sleight of Hand
Goodbye (hidden track)
So I'd remove Breakerfall, God's Dice, Thin Air, and Soon Forget for Education, Sad, Fatal, and Goodbye, and resequence the record this way. And I would have been thrilled to discover Breakerfall on Lost Dogs
First of all, it should be noted that Eddie Vedder has this remarkable ability to turn a ukulele, which I always associated with Hawaiian luaus and beach parties, into one of the saddest, loneliest instruments I’ve ever heard. It’s a pretty amazing achievement.
I’m not totally sure why Soon Forget is on Binaural, and this is the only song I think I’d say unequivocally should not be on the record. I don’t really like God’s Dice or Evacuation or Thin Air, and there are songs I would have put on over those numbers, but those songs make sense on the record nevertheless. Soon Forget is sandwiched between two intense, moving numbers and I’m not sure the listener really needs a break. It’s not like this is a breather between two 8 minute songs, and as you’re trying to build to your climax I don’t see why stopping is a good thing. This is not quite as bad as following Present Tense with Mankind, but it’s up there, and in some ways kind of insulting to the audience (we don’t think you can sustain this intensity for this long so we’re going to give you a little intermission).
But lets look at the song itself. This is actually the meanest song on Binaural (moreso than Breakerfall, whose occasionally viciousness is defensive), and one of the meaner songs in their catalog. There is essentially no sympathy or empathy for the subject of the song. Instead the singer is basically taunting him, getting off on his own poor choices and personal failings. The anti-materialist ‘it’s love, not money, that makes you happy’ message is fine, but the love people win in the end. There’s no threat here. The guy dies alone, unloved, unmourned, and the singer and his friends spend their time singing and dancing instead. There is a cautionary tale here for sure, but you don’t have to have the dismissive sarcasm for it to work, and it is kind of off putting.
This is especially the case given the fact that it follows Sleight of Hand, where you have another person who has made equally poor choices (the one main exception seeming to be that the character in Soon Forget was better at it. At least he sacrificed his soul and got some money for it. The character in Sleight of Hand had nothing) but we’re expected (and do) feel this heavy sadness and sense of tragedy for what’s lost in Sleight of Hand. There are moments (and not surprisingly, the best moments) in Soon Forget where we have some sense of this in the two main verses (the two that begin with Sorry is the fool…) where Eddie feels some sympathy for this characters poor choices and the emptiness he’s trying to hide. But its surrounded by two of the most awkward lyrics in the entire catalog (counts his money every morning/the only thing that keeps him horny and he’s lying dead clutching benjamins) and this dismissive celebration of his death (you’re gone fucker, and no one is gonna miss you. How do you like your money now?). There’s nothing wrong with that as an artistic choice per se, but Pearl Jam does not do sarcasm all that well, and they are particularly bad at humor (there are occasional exceptions). Pearl Jam’s strengths come from its sympathy, its integrity, its solidarity, and its empathy. Occasionally its anger, but this isn’t anger. It’s smugness, and smugness requires a cynical detachment that the band doesn’t do well. Earnest and cynical don’t mix.
So in the end the problem I have with Soon Forget is that it dismisses all the complex and intertwined emotions the record had just spent 11 songs developing, and right before its emotional climax. Maybe we’re not prisoners of these forces, circumstances, relationships, and emotions we can neither see nor control. Maybe some people are just assholes and deserve their tragedy. There’s a sense in which we’re starting over with Parting Ways. Maybe that’s what they intended, but that’s bad sequencing if that’s the case. It basically gives your arc a second ending without the time necessary to really tell a new story. Maybe it wants to impart in the listener a certain callousness for Parting Ways, but that would lead to a fairly superficial reading of parting ways.
Pearl Jam chooses the songs that close their records very carefully. They are always ‘statement’ songs that sum up or illustrate in some important way the most important themes of the album, the final take away message that the band wants to leave the listener with. And so the song they chose matters. Love Boat Captain or I Am Mine could have closed Riot Act, but if they had we’d be listening to a different record with a different message. So what Parting Ways tells us what the band hoped we would walk away from Binaural with.
I’ve been arguing throughout this thread (and there has been pretty broad agreement on this—this is not something I can claim ownership for, I’m just the one saying it first) that Binaural is a record about the loss of agency, about feeling trapped and powerless, isolated and alone, without really understanding why. In fact, it’s the inability to understand why that makes it so maddening. You can’t emancipate yourself from your prison until you learn to see the bars of your cage (Daniel Quinn still would have been fresh in people’s minds, and this is one of the central messages from his books). This is before Eddie got involved in Nader, so there’s not that brief upsurge of optimism that would need to be crushed to get the defeatism of Riot Act. But this isn’t just a sense of political powerlessness that runs through the record. Although they usually manage to phrase this without the crassness of Love Boat Captain, the core emotion that runs through all of Pearl Jam’s records is love. Without love you don’t have solidarity, community, or the strength to endure. These other problems cataloged throughout the record all feel so big and so overpowering because the subjects of Binaural feel alone (thin air is the exception here, but it’s an exception that proves the rule). And so even though more of the songs on Binaural are about political or social themes than relationships, they end with love because this is where any attempt to pick up the pieces has to begin.
As befitting this record, Parting Ways is one of the more atmospheric love songs in the catalog. The guitars manage to feel fuzzy (warm) and distant (cold) at the same time. There is a gentle drifting melody that gets punctuated by harsher discordant moments, especially every time the parting ways lyric is mentioned. The strings manage to enhance the mood without sounding overwrought, which is hard to do since strings in a sad love song are such a rock music cliché. Eddie sounds distant and manages to walk the line between boredom and disengagement like a champion. He can’t over commit to the song given the subject matter (parting ways can’t be sung like black) but he still has to sound like he previously cared—that the connection between him and the person he’s singing about was once strong, and while there’s a wistful remembrance to the delivery (he can recall those feelings intellectually) he just doesn’t feel those things anymore. They’re drifting away, but remain just close enough so that he knows he should be troubled by it. It’s a very intellectual delivery in that sense—knowing what emotion should be there but not quite feeling it.
The lyrics match the delivery perfectly. There’s this superficial sense that everything is fine, but things are fine only because the subjects refuse to confront what’s wrong. It’s probably because they don’t know how to fix it (there’s a fear they’ll soon be parting ways. Neither side wants this) and because it’s easier to smile and pretend everything is fine, but the costs are real, and the images reflect that (behind the chin of stone is heart of soft, malleable clay, the curtains in the eyes are closed so neither person has to confront the fire that’s hidden there, the needs and desires that go unmet).
Parting Ways, in that sense, is a song about the costs of lying. We cannot be there for someone else unless we’re open and honest, and if we cannot be there for others we cannot be there ourselves. The subjects of the song are not just drifting away from each other. They’re drifting away from themselves, floating and lost in the void of Binaural.
In a world defined by alienation, it is easier to die the slow death then fight to get it back again. Parting Ways, and Binaural, want to remind us that gradual decay is not an escape. It’s not a life. It’s just a muted death. And so Binaural, more than any other record in the bands catalog, is a cautionary tale. Its answers are negative. Its anthems are warnings. And that’s what makes it unique.
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