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 Post subject: A Guided Tour of Riot Act
PostPosted: Fri December 28, 2012 12:38 pm 
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A Guided Tour of Riot Act


Now that the Bush Administration is finally coming to an end, it seems like a good time to go back and take a look at Pearl Jam's first musical reaction to the politics of this decade.

Preliminary Thoughts


Riot Act, to me, is Pearl Jam's response to 9-11 and the world created in its wake. I think the band was blindsided not only by the enormity of the event but the reactionary blindness that followed it. They wanted to respond musically and politically, but in important ways they found themselves unable to. Eddie was able to sing with confidence in the records that preceded (and followed) Riot Act because there was a sense in which he knew that he was singing for the experiences of other people. Perhaps he didn't want to be a spokesperson for his generation but that wasn't a crazy label to give him. Even after the band's popularity and cultural importance was scaled back there was still an assertiveness to the band and to the music—a sense that if they say something they know people will listen and understand.

I think that changed with the rightward, reactionary tilt to the country after 9-11. I think for the first time the band found themselves fully alienated and alone, not only failing to recognize their world or their country, but even many of the people who made it up. Animating all of the bands previous music was this really powerful sense that no matter what life throws at you, we're all in this together. That sense, if not lost in Riot Act, is heavily muted. They are alone, and powerless. The shock of 9-11 sundered, at least for a time, the ephemeral bonds that connect us to each other and make solidarity possible. The band found itself in opposition not just to power, but in many cases from the victims that they had once tried to speak for.

The cover art is perhaps the clearest statement of this. You have two crowned skeletons (Bush and Cheney?) standing over the smoldering remains of their kingdom, and there is nothing left but ashes and bones. There is nothing to hold on to--no point from which we can begin to rebuild. The title of Riot Act sounded like a call to arms, but we don't find the call anywhere in the album. Instead of outrage and engagement we find defeat and reflection. It is an assertive title for an introspective album that asks whether or not solidarity and progress is even possible anymore. Indifference has that triumphant line where Eddie declares "I will scream my lungs out until it fills this room" knowing that the struggle itself has meaning. Riot Act marks the first time in the bands history where they begin to doubt. The anger and confrontation that animates S/T is not possible until the band first surveys the wreckage and find out if their old principles still hold water when the old convictions and the old certainties are ground into dust.

Can't Keep

It is telling that the album begins with a farewell. Starting with the vaguely marching (but not martial) drum part Can’t Keep is a moment of taking stock and then moving on. It is wistful, rather than forceful, and the music conveys that effectively. It isn’t a strident song—there is hope, but it is cautious, with a very delicate certainty that crests at the end of each verse without ever actually getting too aggressive. It is almost like the song is trying to convince itself.

In that respect it is the perfect opener for Riot Act. The lyrics convey a desire to say goodbye, to brush off the baggage of the past and move on to something better. There are some fond recollections of what will be left behind (it’s been wonderful at night), and a desire for no hard feelings, but the place he’s leaving behind is stifling him, and while it may have been home once, there is no longer any attachment, nor room for growth. He can live forever, but only if he manages to get out. The politics here are subtle, but in the context of the record they become clearer. Eddie is singing to his country, saying farewell to a people and a place that he no longer recognizes. Rather than let him drag it down he’s going to have to move past it. There is no confrontation, no attempt at reconciliation. There’s no fight. Instead he washes his hands of it, and turns inward.

This is important, and separates Can’t Keep from other road songs like MFC and RVM. There is a clear sense of forward momentum in those numbers—an urgent desire to get somewhere, anywhere, other than here. The percussion in Can’t Keep tries to move us forward, but we get lost instead in the swirling haze. There is no real clarity here—the promise of the lyrics is belied by the music. When everything has turned against you, when there are no safe harbors, you have no choice but to retreat into yourself. And so in the end Can’t Keep becomes about an internal battle for maintain a certain kind of moral purity and sense of self in a world that has called all the old values, all the old certainties, into question. He wants to say goodbye, but he has no place to go.

Save You

As others have pointed out, there are multiple layers of meaning to many of the songs on Riot Act, and Save You, like Can’t Keep, has a political side even if that side is not necessarily driving the song. The general state of mind of the band, and particularly Eddie ‘s, given his role as lyricist and vocalist, greatly affects the performance of the band, and you can’t read politics out of that.

Save You, on the surface, is a pretty simple song. The music is driving and forceful (with a fairly simple, but still striking, main riff), and the lyrics are aggressive and demanding, focusing as much on the singers sense of agency (I’M going to save you, I’M feeling cocky and strong) as on the person he wants to save. In fact, most of the lyrics are about the person doing the saving, as opposed to the person being saved. This is a subtle distinction, but its an important one (compare this to Life Wasted, which is thematically similar, but focuses—outside of the chorus—on the person needing to be saved). It’s okay to fall because I’M going to save you, You have to save yourself because I (and later we) need you. I’m not leaving here until we’re done. I’m being selfish about my need to do this. The constant fucks only serve to emphasize the need to do something.

In the end you’re left with the impression that Save You is almost a selfish, rather than selfless song. The singer is more concerned with reasserting his own ability to act, to shape his destiny and the destiny of others. He’s trying to convince himself that he is a subject in the world capable of acting, rather than an object being acted on. And it isn’t clear that he believes himself, which is why there is such a disparity between the forceful nature of the lyrics and the subdued, almost hesitant way that they’re delivered, at least up until the end, when the singer musters the strength necessary for one final, explosive plea—but rather than being empowered, it leaves him exhausted, overtaken by the music and by events.

The ‘official’ story is that Save You is about Mike (and of course his picture is next to the lyrics in the booklet) but it is vague enough that it could be about anyone, or anything—the emotions involved lack a specific content or context. And I think, given the nature of the record, that it makes sense to read Save You as a political song—with Eddie speaking not to Mike, or even a specific person, but to a nation that’s lost its way, that in the process of suffering a great tragedy has surrendered its spirit, its principles, its values, and its identity as a way to avoid dealing with grief and reality. Save You in this respect is a call to arms, a demand that his fellow citizens not use the shock and trauma of 9-11 to abdicate their responsibilities, to not be drawn in by the seductive martial promises of the Bush administration to bomb our way to security and democracy, as long as we leave everything to them and retreat to our own narrow, private sphere where our only responsibility is to go to the mall and forget about the larger world we live in. And, of course, in 2002, while it was easy for the progressive to want to abdicate, there was a powerful sense of futility to the whole exercise—that for all the storm and stress, no one is listening.

Love Boat Captain

The early songs of Riot Act are all governed by the same basic tension—they each contain the same affirmation of life and agency that animates Pearl Jam’s best music, but it sounds like Eddie has lost his faith in the truth of that affirmation. He’s not signing to convince the listener. Instead he’s mulling it over himself, uncertain about whether or not it is still true. In a post bush, post 9-11, post Rosklide, post divorce world how much control over our lives and ourselves, despite our best intentions and best efforts, do we really have?

LBC confronts this question directly. Is this all insurmountable? It is easy to drown in our suffering and misery without someone to guide us through it, without some kind of love to hold on to. Love in fact, is all you need (a weak line but then again I don’t like the Beatles), the most powerful source of meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. And, as usual, this doesn’t have to be romantic love. The love that comes from friendship and solidarity can be just as vital here. And LBC is an offer of love and friendship from the band to its fans (this comes across effectively live, in part because the burdens of real life disappear during the shared experience of the music). Perspective matters here. It is easy to lose hope when you are trapped in a dark place, and it is important that we look to others to remind us of the existence of light and love—especially those who have experienced it and come through it. Eddie has the people he leans on, and in the bridge he both thanks them and offers to be that person to the listener—finally confident enough that he is prepared to play the role in others lives that his musical heroes played in his own.

At least this is the hope of the song. The opening organ gives what should be an inspirational song a funeral base, and while the music does rise above those darker beginnings, the vocals never quite match it, and the song ends in the same quiet place it began, with Eddie trying to convince himself that love is enough. Eddie has made his grand declaration, but somehow the words never quite leave the ground. The sentiment is there, and he knows that intellectually it is true, but he doesn’t quite believe it anymore, or can’t quite make himself believe it. And so once again, the declaration of war, the call to arms asserted by the title, is overwhelmed by experience, a tension that will reappear again and again throughout the rest of the album—in fact, it is the dominant theme of the record, and is the reason why Undone and Down, despite being some of the best songs to come out of these sessions, ultimately can’t be on Riot Act (more on this later).

Cropduster

Cropduster is a jaunty little song about our insignificance. If the first 3 songs on Riot Act are about recapturing a feeling of personal agency, Cropduster (a song clearly inspired by Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael series) is a song about embracing our lack of agency. Eddie tries to be casual about it, even revels in it, but in the end this is a song of defeatism, a rationalization away of our own power, and not something to be taken lightly, let alone celebrated.

The song starts with some generic ‘cycle of life’ imagery notable for two things. The vocal melody is really quite nice, even if the actual performance isn’t that moving, and the obsession with death. Rather than emphasize the moment of rebirth the particular lyrics outside of the cycle (every life is falling down/dies to be part of the ground) highlight endings. Even the lyric about returning to life is immediately tempered by the reality of its impending death. A life affirming song this is not. The next verse is no less pessimistic—every life faces death and there is an inevitability in it. At best we can hope that the future may look better than this—maybe something better than who and what we are will grow out of our rot. Again the possibility of something better is there, but it is almost academic at this point. It is hard to believe that he means it

Certainly the pre-chorus and chorus celebrate this. We practice at living lives that make a difference, we practice at exerting some control over our lives, but almost everything is contingent. Our agency is an illusion and we’re at the mercy of larger structural forces and arbitrary power we did not consent to. This is what shapes our world. We are the object, rather than the subject of the system, characters in a story authored by someone else.

The second verse is likely a reminder of this, a veiled (not so thinly in the context of the record) shot at Bush and co (talking to Bush Sr (dad) perhaps?), reminding them that the world is too big for them to simply rearrange to their liking by fiat. He is asking Bush to recognize his own comparative insignificance so that he might do less harm. The consequences of losing sight of our own powerlessness are severe, and not easily undone (this aint’ no book you can close…). A useful message, but one that comes from a place of defeat.

Eddie is, without realizing it, echoing the message of the great social Darwinists from the late 19th century who argued that there is no place for human agency in society and so any attempt to intervene, to challenge the laws of nature, lead to social wrack and ruin. This was an arch-conservative philosophy designed to legitimate doing nothing to challenge the presence of poverty and human misery. The point of Pearl Jam’s music (and Eddie’s left politics in general) is to assert agency, to force the laws of nature and the laws of the market to submit to the needs of man, and not the other way around. A sense of limits is no doubt healthy (re: Bush and Iraq or the environment) but pushing this too far leads to the powerlessness and defeatism that infuses Riot Act. The problem is not necessarily Bush’s ambition or sense of mastery. The problem is that his program was so terrible. Democracy by gunpoint—bad idea. But fighting aids in Africa, hunger at home, preventing hurricanes and aiding their victims—these are good things and either we’re powerless to do anything or we have to recognize that we DO have power over our environment and these larger social forces (at least some) and then the battle involves making sure that we pick the right causes, fight the right fights. Human beings have the potential to do great harm AND great good—and we must not surrender the possibilities of the later in the face of the former. An earlier (and later) Pearl Jam would have recognized this and reflected it in the song, but this was not the space the band was in during 2002. Riot Act remains an ironic title precisely because of the bands refusal to read it.

The song ends on a potentially uplifting note—a reminder that as long as the cycle continues (as long as the moon keeps rolling there's an upside of down) we have the chance to begin again, and these are some of the most animated vocals on the entire record. Riot Act is full of these little moments, but rather than govern the songs they remain asides, and certainly Ghost does not pick up on that potential.

Ghost

Ghost was the latest in a long line of Pearl Jam’s ‘departure’ songs—musical escapes about escape. Normally these are combative, uplifting songs. The act of fleeing is a moment of triumph, a chance to leave the emptiness, violence, confusion, and darkness behind you. Ghost is different, reflected in the music, the lyrics, and the vocals.

Musically, these escape songs usually have a hard driving rhythm to it. RVM has a propulsive force, Given to Fly soars, and MFC actually sounds like someone gunning an engine, a prelude to an upcoming freedom. Ghost sounds like an engine dying—it’s giving everything it can but it can’t quite climb the impossibly steep hill in front of it. It knows it has to keep trying but as it tries it grows less and less confident that it is going to make it. Ghost is the sound of freedom grinding to a halt. Even the solos (one of the highlights on the record for me) sounds less like a vehicle taking off and more like one spinning its wheels in the mud, inflicting engine damage but afraid to stop (listen for the music coming out of the musical bridge especially). Eddie’s typical Riot Act vocals add to the effect. This is the sound of someone exhausted from all the running, utterly lacking confidence that he can escape what he is running from, or that he can get somewhere safe. What he flees is simply too big, too expansive, so much more powerful than him.

Lyrically this is certainly one of the darkest songs in PJ’s catalogue, if not the darkest. The imagery consists of image after image of something giving up, fading away, losing hope. The title Ghost is aptly chosen in that regard, and the first image in the song ‘the mind is gray’ captures the bleakness of it all. This is more than just an internal battle though. He’s responding to external forces (the city, the news, larger social forces) as much as he is to anything personal or internal. The world around him is losing its vibrancy, its color—fading to gray (rather than black—there is no destruction here, instead Ghost is a song about enervation, a rapidly shrinking vitality). He looks for love to pull him through (love of self, love of others, love of society or humanity writ large) and despite the assertions in Love Boat Captain it is of little use here. It’s too far gone—and while he works for it, digs for it, at the end of the day he’s stuck in his hole alone. At this point he is willing to give up, to accept the false peace that comes from hiding (a strong departure from the message of the vast majority of their catalogue) but even this is something he’s not like to find (one can never hold).

The chorus plays off of the tension between these hopes and these failures. He declares that he’s going to escape, and references RVM and Given To Fly (driving, flying), and looks to find something new, something he’s missed before, something to hold on to and be his lodestone as he tries and find his way out. But again, the vocals give away the conclusion of the song. He is trying to convince himself but he no longer believes.

The second verse reminds us that the isolation is much larger than just some kind of inner self-torture. The TV and the larger institutions that keep us in touch with one another and the world, have betrayed him. The 9-11 connection (and Bush’s response to it) is all over this. The constant drumbeat from the TV is one of suspicion and doubt. Anyone could be a terrorist. No one can be trusted. We are forced to live in fear. People can learn to live with fear, but primarily through solidarity and engagement—by being willing to share that fear with others and confront it together. But if you remember Bush’s post 9-11 message he told us the opposite. We were a nation shocked out of complacency, that was prepared to challenge its old order, to begin to believe in something larger than itself, and to reach out to its fellow citizens in a declaration of solidarity. Instead Bush told us that our greatest contribution to the war on terror was to be suspicious of everyone, to go to the mall (the primary duty of the citizen is his continued participation in the American economy) and leave everything to him. Rather than confront the destruction of our old world view as agents in solidarity with one another we were told by our leadership to retreat into each other, to be afraid, and to shop—to be passive consumers instead of active citizens. We built walls around ourselves to keep the bad things out and look to that new TV, that new computer, that new outfit, that new soap (the sentiment is a good one even if the lyrical choice was poor). We confront our terrifying new world as isolated, confused, adolescents. Not a particularly empowering place to be, and the singer feels it—we’re overloaded with news of events we’re powerless to affect, to weak and insignificant to do anything other than be conscious of our own lack of agency.

The climax of the song tries to put a brave face on this powerlessness. He flees, but doesn’t expect to get anywhere. He leaves his old world, his old friends behind, and claims he won’t miss them, but he doesn’t mean it (compare that line, for example, to the climax of RVM). He claims he’s not in any pain, but then immediately retracts it. The psychological torment, the sense of isolation (the worst feeling in the world for someone who equates freedom with love) is killing him. He takes a brave final stand (bring it on cuz I’m no victim—a line that references both President Bush’s call to Al Quadea to ‘bring it on’ as well as a refusal to allow the events of 9-11 to define him) and prepares to face his uncertain future on his own terms, but his will gives out, almost immediately. The final escape of the song is not found in his freedom, but his spiritual death, as he finds himself dying away as his world, his life, his potential, and his self gray out, fade away, becomes a ghost.

I Am Mine

I Am Mine is, in my estimation, one of Pearl Jam’s most important songs—one of their ‘mission statement’ pieces that really encapsulates what the band is about, the dogged, stubborn hope that is at the core of their best music. It’s the relative absence of that hope on Riot Act that makes it such a challenging (and perhaps ultimately unsuccessful) record.

I am Mine IS a hopeful song, the most important ray of tarnished light in an otherwise dim and shadowy collection of songs, especially given the way it ends. Musically the song is introspective (especially the way the keys anchor the song) but it’s questing, rather than wondering. The song is trying to recover, rather than discover, the truth of the singer’s existence. As such there is an edge to it, a sturdy confidence underneath a fragile veneer. This is, I think, the musical highlight of the album. No other song on this record is quite as rich, has quite as much depth, or is as powerful musically, as I Am Mine.

Vocally I think this is also the strongest moment on the record. Again Eddie seems withdrawn and self-centered, rather than expansive, but in this song he sounds like he’s advancing, rather than retreating—ascending out of the darkness instead of descending from the light. The song isn’t exactly a call to arms, at least, not until the very end. Instead it is about marshalling the strength needed to fight the battle to come. I am Mine is the journey someone needs to take in order to defend the convictions advanced in Love Boat Captain.

Lyrically I Am Mine is a mixed bag, with some lyrics that come across as weightier than they really are alongside some quite excellent writing. The song beginss with the singer taking stock of the world around him, and the people inhabiting it. What is most striking about the first two verses is the sense of powerlessness and insignificance that characterizes people’s lives. There is no agency here, no sense that we can control, or even understand, the lives we’re forced to live. You can read the senseless tragedy of Rosklide into this, or the paralysis any decent citizen had to have felt under Bush, but in either way we face a world too big, too impersonal, and seemingly without justice or meaning (the first two lyrics of the second verse try, unsuccessfully I think, to convey this) for us to master, and too often we find that in the face of our own insignificance the best we can do is surrender and hope for mercy (and maybe privilege). This is the meaning of the first two sets of line (the selfish, they’re all standing in line/faithing and hoping to buy themselves time). They’re selfish, but it is a selfish born of powerlessness, the result of being forced to live in a world where, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, we have to hope for privilege because we cannot count on justice. The third verse only ratchets up the tension, our sense of powerlessness and isolation, in language far more powerful than the first two verses. The ocean is full because everyone’s crying, and yet in our misery we turn away from each other rather than towards each other, and our isolation is what traps us—in a world in which solidarity is impossible justice is impossible, and our lives will remain lonely and incomplete.

So I Am Mine, like all of PJ’s best music, is about trying to build that solidarity. And, as always, that fight begins inside the self. We begin by mastering ourselves, our own sense of insignificance and our own fears of both our powerlessness AND our power—that by declaring ourselves willing to fight, willing to resist, taking responsibility for our own lives, we have the chance to rebuild the world, to begin again. We don’t need the certainty of victory—the meaning comes from the struggle. These are the ideas that Eddie concludes each verse with (As each breath goes by I only own my mind, I only know my mind, I know I was born and I know that I’ll die, the in-between is mine). The one thing that can never be taken away from us is our sense of self, and that is a powerful base from which we can begin to rebuild a new and better world provided we embrace it, since we can only really begin to love one another, and through that love heal the world we live in, when we first come to know and love ourselves.

This plays itself out through the magnificently written chorus, with its subtle shifts in meaning and allusions to Rosklide, 9-11, or whatever personal tragedy the listener needs to invest the song with to find meaning. In the face of tragedy it is easy to lose the self-confidence, the connections to other human beings, that give our life substance and direction. While our world collapses around us I Am Mine urges us to look behind our eyes, deep into ourselves, to find the strength we need to endure. It implores us that there is no need to hide, that we’re safe, that we are in control, as long as we can tap that strength

As the song approaches its climax Eddie tries to bring I Am Mine back down into the murk that so much of the rest of the record inhabits, but it he does so only so he can dismiss it—that we will endure in the face of the lying, the lost innocence, that we steadfastly will refuse to let Bush, to let the world, break what is most valuable, most precious, most human within us. We may need to hide, but we don’t have to, we don’t need to, as long as we cling to ourselves, and through ourselves, each other.

And I Am Mine ends with a gloriously cathartic release, one of the most powerful musical moments in their catalogue with Mike’s gorgeous solo rising out of the shadows and dust reaching towards the promise of that distant, better world.

The band could have built off of this. If they chose to end with I Am Mine instead of All or None the record saves itself—it meets the political, social, and existential crisis of Bush’s America and triumphs over it. Had they gone on to include Down and Undone after I Am Mine it redeems the optimistic potential interpretations of so many of the other songs on the record. But those songs weren’t included because they didn’t fit the ‘feel’ of the record, and this isn’t a musical fit they were concerned about. Down and Undone work perfectly well in that regard. The problem is thematic. They are rays of light and hope in a record that turns away from them—they represent a faith that the songs cling to, but no longer believe. I Am Mine is all the more poignant for its failure—it strives for so much, and cannot ultimately get there.


Down/Undone/Otherside (a digression)

Riot Act is potentially a thematically ambiguous album. I hear it as a document of defeat, a response to a world that has broken the faith, optimism, and dogged determination that characterizes the rest of the catalogue. There are some potentially hopeful moments in the record but with only one clear exception (I Am Mine) I think they are songs where the singer is trying to convince himself that the old faith still holds, and he ultimately fails. The lyrics are potentially ambiguous, and reading a happy ending into Riot Act makes some sense given the band’s general take on these questions, but that’s not my interpretation, for a few reasons. Beyond just my particular take on the lyrics the cover art, the music, and eddie’s vocal delivery all speak in defense of Riot Act as an album written in retreat, rather than defiance. But the biggest support for my view is, I think, the exclusion of Down and Undone from the record.

These are the only two unconditionally positive songs on the record—the moments of light missing from an otherwise dark album, and there is no reason not to include them if that was the message the band wanted us to take from Riot Act. In fact, the message doesn’t work without it. Without them the only clear moment of triumph is I am Mine, and that is buried in the middle of the album, a temporary moment where the swimmer’s head breaks the water before they start the slow drowning of the rest of the record.

If I was tracking Riot Act to be a positive record I’d probably start, rather than finish the record, with All or None, which is so depressing as to be almost unlistenable, and get the down numbers (All or None, ½ Full, Ghost, Help Help, Cropduster, TMY)out of the way and use Down as your pivotal transformation track, as the lyrics essentially tell the triumphant story that the band excluded from the record. It starts from the funk the singer disappears into at the end of Ghost, and while both are heavier, guitar driven songs, Ghost sounds like an engine dying whereas Down is the sound of it gunning back to life. The riff is infectious, the sound is rich, and the moment in the beginning where the band comes in after a few iterations of the riff (with the drum roll) is like shocking a heartbeat back into existence. Eddie has more enthusiasm here than on almost any other song on the album and he walks us through the dark journey he’s been on before he was able to reclaim his faith.

Down. Fall by the wayside no getting out.
Down. Cry me a river dried up and dammed.
The names can be changed but the place is still the same.
I am loaded. Told that all's for naught. Holds me down.

He acknowledges the depths to which he’s fallen, the sense of feeling trapped, the utter lack of agency. He universalizes the experience (the names can be changed but the place is still the same), but he’s describing a place he’s been, rather than the place he is.

The song continues with a command (one of the few, if only on the record). He demands that we rise, that we accept responsibility for, if not making the world, then changing it, and the act of engagement itself is the best cure for depression (think I’ll throw these pills away), and leaves us with his reminder that if he can ascend from his darkness than anyone can escape from theirs. The song ends with a moment of defiance, a refusal to surrender his light to the encroaching darkness, before the song finishes with Mike’s celebratory solo (more playful than cathartic, but clearly the sound of a person unbowed by the world around them.

Undone backs away from the churning optimism of Down. It’s a less assertive song musically and vocally, the sound of someone maintaining themselves after a hard fought battle. The groove (this is musically one of my favorite moments in their catalogue) is more reflective and patient than Down, the lessons less immediate, more considered.

The song begins with a homecoming, with the singer returning to a place of safety, comfort, love, and stability after a long time away, and Undone conveys that beautifully, that feeling of finally being able to exhale after a long, tense, moment

The second verse tells us where the singer has been, his homeland occupied (exactly the right word to use although its power is diminished by the ‘corporations rule the day’ lyric which lacks any subtlety and is too much a cliché) and affirms his hope that none of this is permanent, that we can fight back, that having lost a battle does not mean you need to surrender the field, which the pendulum lyrics do a great job conveying (well you know the pendulum throws/farther out to the one side swinging/has to sweep back the other way). He has found his lost faith in his community and himself, enough that he is prepared to join the fight once again, sloughing off the hopeless depression that had left him paralyzed (summarizing Down in the bridge couplet ‘all this hope and nowhere to go/this is how I used to feel but no more). The chorus makes all of this clear. His use of the word Undone is well chosen. It is less that his world has been trampled and destroyed as much as it has been picked apart piece by piece, and we don’t need to put the entire thing back together at once. We can rebuild one battle at a time. It is precisely by moving the fight from an impossible need to create a utopia to a series of discrete engagements that we can move forward---the wave needs to build before it breaks, and we cannot construct it alone.

If these songs were included in Riot Act I’d have a very different impression of the record, but I take their inclusion to be a sign that the band was not ready to reembrace their fighting faith. At least, not yet. They ran from the optimism of these songs, and if they were not willing to stand by it here I have a hard time teasing it out of the record as a whole. These songs can’t be on Riot Act because their inclusion means Riot Act is no longer Riot Act. This was not the story they wanted to tell

Interestingly enough, Otherside could have done quite well on Riot Act. I don’t think it is a particularly good song and am glad they left it off, but it fits the record far better than either down or undone. It is one of the most miserably hopeless songs in their entire catalogue, with every lyric just digging the singer deeper into his whole. It is a song chronicling a near total collapse of joy, faith, meaning, and even agency, with the concluding image of the singer trapped in himself, begging for a way out that he knows he can’t provide himself.

That's Riot Act in a nutshell. There is no space for Down and Undone on a record like that. I am Mine works, but only insofar as it gives us a brief moment of hope that makes the subsequent decline all the more tragic


Thumbing My Way

People have argued on Red Mosquito that Thumbing My Way is a hopeful song, and I emphatically disagree. In fact, I think the only song in PJ’s catalogue that might be more depressing is All or None. Other than possibly Ghost, it is the first hopelessly lost song on the record, and the fact that it follows I am Mine adds to the effect. That moment of clarity and inspiration at the end of I Am Mine, the high point of the record, is immediately beaten back down, signaling that the narrator of the record has tried his best, and that his best just isn’t good enough. Thumbing My Way is a song about enduring in a dark, empty, lonely world while being almost entirely devoid of faith that things will get better. This is not a political song, but it fits in with theme of succumbing to a totalizing desolation that runs through Riot Act (political, social, and personal).

Pearl Jam has written plenty of songs about struggling with a sense of personal loneliness and insignificance, but there is has always been a vibrancy to Eddie’s voice, a softness or even lushness to the music, a sense of depth that hints at the possibilities of things getting better. Almost all of that is absent here. The music is start and unadorned, and when the extra guitars chime in at the start of the second verse they sound almost distorted or corrupted, as if they are meant to chime, to herald new possibilities, but find themselves highjacked by a lack of faith and conviction (compare this to Elderly Woman, where they play a similar musical role but sound very very different). Vocally Eddie plays this one perfectly for what the song needs. He sounds more defeated here than almost anywhere on Riot Act (except for possibly All or None). Even the moments where he’s supposed to break away (I let go of the rope thinking that’s what held me back) he sounds defeated. This isn’t laziness as there is a lot of subtlety and nuance in the way he delivers the lyrics. He just sounds beaten, and it’s a deliberate effect. It doesn’t make the song enjoyable to listen to, but such a lonely song shouldn’t be enjoyable. The place where he is writing from could make for a compelling artistic statement, but not easy listening. There is no joy, no anger, no transcendence, no confrontation, not even any healing. No moment to draw the listener in

Lyrically this may be the best written song on Riot Act. The central image, despite the slightly awkward phrasing (I’m not a huge fan of the line ‘thumbing my way’) is very powerful, and with the music paints a picture of a solitary, insignificant man walking alone along a vast empty stretch of highway, shivering in the winter, keeping his thumb outstretched hoping for a ride, but not expecting one, doubting he deserves one (this is part of the song’s darkness—the narrator doesn’t think he is worth loving, worth saving), or even caring if he gets it. He endures because he doesn’t know what else to do, but he has no destination, and without any place to go, no hope for the future. It’s telling that he’s trying to thumb his way back to heaven. He can’t go home, and so at best he can hope for some form of imaginary salvation that he has no faith in ever reaching

As the narrator walks his lonely road he’s left with nothing but his thoughts of how his life went wrong, wondering what he could have done to salvage the relationship that destroyed him—at some times he’s reluctant to blame himself (there’s no wrong or right but I’m sure there’s good and bad—he knows the outcome is unacceptable even if he’s reluctant to assign responsibility) but at other points he knows that he fucked up, perhaps irrevocably (the rusted signs set of lyrics speaks to the singer having fallen victim to some kind of destructive temptation). The rope lyrics bring us back to themes from Love Boat Captain (and PJ’s catalogue in general)—that true independence and true freedom is found in love and solidarity with others. The mistake that was made seems to have been mistaking the obligations that come with love and with relationships as something standing in the way of his independence and happiness, instead of its foundations. It is hard to find optimism in a song with lyrics like “I let go of a rope thinking that’s what held me back, and in time I’ve realized it’s now wrapped around my neck”.

The moment of light that people sometimes pick up on in the song is the ‘no matter how cold the winter there’s a springtime ahead’ lyric. It’s a bit of a cliché, but powerful sentiments usually are, and whenever we’re lost we need to hope that things are going to be better. But as Eddie makes clear in the song, he doesn’t believe it. Rather than face the future he hangs his head down, shuffles his feet and counts his steps towards…nowhere. There’s no destination, just a future of walking alone, punctuated by meaningless rides that can’t take him anywhere since he has nowhere to go. And though he beings the final verse repeating that sentiment he immediately negates it “I smile, but who am I kidding.” He’s in such a dark place he draws no power, no hope, from that sentiment. He recognizes it as empty words devoid of any real promise.

Marx wrote that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” It is what we turn to when we have lost faith in the possibilities of this world. And so it is fitting that the final image of the song is the singer extending his finger, trying to find his way (and here hitchhiking is not an image of freedom or independence, but a mark of his powerlessness—a recognition that his happiness is dependent on other people, that we can’t reach that destination without them to give us a ride) to an imaginary salvation, since there is nothing left for him here. And so Thumbing My Way is ultimately meant to be a cautionary tale, a warning to cherish the love that we have, because without it we’re lost.


You Are

You Are is one of the potentially redemptive moments on Riot Act, and the last one to appear on the record. Riot Act is in large measure a record about a lost, or failing, faith—faith in love, faith in each other, and faith in ourselves. The final third of the record consists of songs groping in the dark with nothing to hold onto, which suggests that the earlier attempts at preserving a weakened faith (Save You, Love Boat Captain, I am Mine) had failed. It’s worth looking at You Are in that light.

You Are is one of the more muscular songs in PJ’s catalogue, with a grinding, solid strength to it. It’s a plow truck in the middle of a terrible winter storm, headlights giving off a hazy shine in the dark and cluttered night, enduring where others cannot go. It belongs in Pearl Jam’s collection of ‘car’ songs, but this is the first one that really emphasizes solidity rather than speed. Musically it’s strong song, probably the finest thing Matt’s written during his tenure with Pearl Jam.

Lyrically it is hit or miss. There are some terrific lines here (the opening sequence “this broken wheel is coming undone/and the road’s exploded” is one of my favorite set of lyrics to start any of their songs) alongside some clichés whose truth does not negate their triteness (Love is a tower). The music gives some of these lyrics a pass because it is so atmospheric—Love may be a tower, but it is one that is perilously difficult to reach, and you can just as easily imagine You Are being an ad for the Marines with that one brave solider risking his life scaling the perilous cliff face, with jagged rocks and crashing waves below him ensuring his death should he falter—and the music does convey that sense of risk. You Are is a song about uncertain certainty. Love is the rock in the subject’s life, and within it the promise of security and salvation—but there is no guarantee that the love will endure, and without it, we’re lost. The vocals are key here. There is a confidence in the written lyrics that is utterly lacking in the delivery itself. Eddie lacks confidence, sounds worn down by a constant struggle that he is no longer really sure he can win. He’s exhausted (listen for the muted deep breath before the first ‘love is a tower’ lyric) but still enduring. The outcome is unknown—the song can play out both ways, which means we need to look for the resolution in the rest of the record, the way Riot Act itself plays out, and in the context of the album itself the answer is not encouraging.

I remember reading somewhere that this song was originally called Undone. Presumably they changed it from Undone to You Are after Undone was written, but the original title is suggestive. Undone as a title doesn’t negate the central importance of love as sanctuary in an otherwise uncertain existence, but it does seem to indicate that that this sanctuary is lost to the subject, which plays nicely into the larger themes present in the record.

Get Right

If Get Right was a b-side I’d like it a lot more. It’s got a fun, crunchy rhythm and it’s an enjoyable song with nothing at stake. Nothing particularly memorable, but nothing really insipid either and because it aspires to nothing it can’t be held accountable for its failure to get there.

Having said that, Get Right has no business being on Riot Act. Perhaps they justified the song as a moment of levity or to serve as a breather, but You Are is not nearly as emotionally draining as a song like Thumbing My Way, and Green Disease has enough false sunshine in it to have served that purpose equally well. I’m not going to even try to argue that the song is there to serve as an inward retreat/escape (when your whole world collapses what is there left for you to do except get hi) since the lyrics are terrible and I’m not inclined to give Matt Cameron the benefit of the doubt on this one. This is no Severed Hand. All Get Right does is disrupt the emotional narrative of the record. It’s a momentum killer, and given the fact that Riot Act is probably too long to begin with (too many songs anyway) I just can’t defend the presence of Get Right anywhere on it. This song’s inclusion was a conceptual mistake, and the record suffers for it.


Green Disease

There is an interesting juxtaposition between the music and subject matter of Green Disease. The music isn’t quite danceable but it is somewhat lighthearted, almost as if the only way to respond to the mess that’s been made of our world is to say ‘fuck it’. But it is a disingenuous dismissal and the song knows it, since underneath the jaunty melody there are some discordant guitar parts showing that there is something clearly wrong underneath the surface (that sounds more than a little like parts of Help Help, anticipating that song nicely, especially during the verses). I would like the discordant part of the song to be a little more prominent. It’s too buried, and they go for a similar affect with a lot more success in World Wide Suicide.

Lyrically the song falls short as well—thematically it’s right on the money but the lyrics don’t quite manage the weight they’ve been asked to bear. Part of the problem is that the song comes a bit too late in the record. Most of the album is a response to post 9-11/post Bush alienation, and yet it isn’t until the 10th song on the record that they finally begin to address the reasons WHY they feel that alienation (it doesn’t help that the Green Disease—Help Help—Bu$hleaguer stretch is arguably the weakest three song block on the record).

The title itself isn’t all that ambiguous, but using Green Disease instead of Greed Disease was a nice touch, unfortunately ruined by the immature G-R-E-E-D lyrical beginning, and the utter lack of enthusiasm with which Eddie delivers it probably shows he’s not too happy with the lyric either. It’s too obvious, which is one of Eddie’s difficulties as a political lyricist. Because he feels so passionately he has trouble moving past superficial lyrics, since the superficiality/cliché is felt by him as a living truth. The problem is just greed, and sometimes the simple answers are the right ones, but Eddie’s lyrical talent is with misdirection, metaphor, and making emotional abstractions accessible and immediate. He often runs into trouble when he tries to be direct.

So the song is about greed, although this can be taken in a couple of different directions. One is an indictment of a morally vacuous acquisitive culture made by political philosopher Leo Strauss (others have made this argument obviously, but I love his phrase) –the problem with Americans is that they spend their lives in “the joyless pursuit of joy”—the way in which we spend our lives chasing happiness instead of being happy (see soon forget). But other than some intimations Eddie doesn’t really go in that direction. After all, the problem there isn’t greed—the problem is a limited and enervated understanding of happiness.

Instead he makes the more traditional critique—the problem is the desire for money---both because money means power (and the people who pursue it this way rarely have the best interests of others at heart) and by making money and acquisition an end, the other values that are so important to us (love, community, solidarity—the causes of lasting happiness) drop out. Whatever cannot be quantified is useless, and has no value. For instance, we’ve spent the last 8 years measuring the comparative well being of America by its GDP—how much the aggregate wealth of the country has increased. Of no concern is either the distribution of that wealth (it isn’t greed, or is less so, if we all benefit) or other non-monetary indicators of happiness (health, leisure time, stable homes, a clean environment). If it isn’t green it has no value. If it doesn’t generate more green it is a waste of time.

But that’s only part of the problem. It’s not simply that some people have this priority. Attached to this worldview was a ruthlessly destructive public policy that told us that anything we do collectively as a people is doomed to fail, that responsibility for each other was something private, that we are ultimately isolated and alone. I still have a pamphlet I got from the government in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (which gives a prophetic air to the the ‘tell the captain this boat’s not safe and we’re drowning lyric) saying that the only thing to do in case of flooding is make sure you have flood insurance. That’s it. Don’t look to your state, because they will not help you, and if they have their way, they will ensure that they cannot help you, that our capacity to envision a world of collective responsibility and collective security is being taken away from us.

That’s the real tragedy of Green Disease—not that we have a world full of greedy people, but that they are working to ensure that greed becomes more than a choice. If given their way our right to live in a world defined by compassion and cooperation is taken from us, and that we’re sundered from each other and thrust back into a state of nature where we’re engaged in a day to day struggle for survival where we cannot depend on anyone other than ourselves, a war of all against all and a life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Thomas Hobbes). At least for those of us on the bottom. The people at the top, the ones who are (temporarily) ahead might live lives that are materially comfortable, but only at the cost of their humanity.

This is, I think, what Eddie is trying to get at with Green Disease, but in the end it lacks the immediacy of a World Wide Suicide, the bite of a Comatose or a Do the Evolution, the righteousness of Grievance, the sympathy of Insignificance, or the wisdom of Marker. Green Disease is certainly an earnest song, but in the end (because of the music perhaps) it is a little too petulant and maybe a little too obvious to pull it off.

Help Help

Help Help continues the final run of social commentary on the album after the inward turn running from I Am Mine through You Are, and although this is one of the weaker stretches of the record (which is a shame since it is thematically so important) Help Help is fairly strong song and one of the more interesting musical pieces on Riot Act.

Musically the song is perfect for what it is trying to do. Help Help is a musical breakdown—not an emotional breakdown as much as a loss of certainty and stability, the collapse of everything familiar and dependable into a frantic, swirling, sinister existence in which we lack any touchstones, any way to ground ourselves and rebuild---it’s all movement and collapse with no base.

The song starts out peaceful enough, but everything is slightly off kilter, like it’s about to fall apart even though on the surface everything seems fine. I really like the guitar effects coloring the song during the verses, which remind me of a perverted and demented bird song in this fake pastoral scene. It all builds nicely to the chorus—there isn’t a complete juxtaposition since the observer in the song knows that things are wrong and isn’t totally surprised when things fall apart—it’s like a logical conclusion rather than a break. Matt and Mike deserve some special credit for their performances in this one—matt keeps everything off balance during the verse and mike does some really great work, in the chorus especially, but you have to listen to hear it. Nothing stands out here by design—the singer is so lost, so confused, that nothing has any clarity anymore.

Eddie’s vocals play nicely into this setup, as they share the same basic distortion as the music, the veneer of peace and calm built on unstable foundations. The vocal melody is pleasant enough, the lyrics are clam, yet you know that something’s wrong—that it is all an illusion. Usually Eddie conveys this in his lyrics or his delivery—here they do it through the distortion effects, and the break from past practices makes it more striking. It is a nuanced and textured song, but it isn’t very subtle.

Lyrically Jeff (like Stone) is usually hit or miss, but Help Help works, given the songs intentions. The lyrics reflect the complete and total alienation of the subject. He no longer wants to fight. He no longer wants to resist. He wants the storybook. He wants the lies. He wants to go along with everyone else into this pleasant lies, easy answers, and attractive illusions that the rest of his country has embraced. It’s far better to surrender then to resist alone.

Understood this way there are two ways to interpret the ‘help me’ cry in the chorus. He’s asking to be saved from himself (help me to stop thinking these nasty unpatriotic, un-American thoughts—make me just like you) and to be saved from the illusions and the lies (help me to stop believing the story, give me the strength to keep thinking the things that I’m told are unpatriotic and un-American since in these circumstances they represent the truer, higher form of patriotism that others are so easily threatened by).

It’s telling then, that the song ultimately abandons the help me chorus for the outro—there is a moment of clarity, or rejection, in the bridge—a recognition that the story is dangerously seductive, grounded as it is in hate and fear, emotions that are always easier than love and courage, and that this is no way for people to live. The song builds to a frantic conclusion musically as he tries to claw his way out of the illusion—rejecting politics of fear and division (the man they call my enemy I’ve seen his eyes he looks just like me…a mirror---referring to Muslims, his fellow Americans, or anyone with whom we share a common humanity). People with power so often use the idea of division and difference to prevent those they wish to rule to build the bridges and bonds of solidarity that are capable of resisting that power.

Help Help culminates with a desperate attempt to grasp at that truth (clearer…clearer…not my enemy…not my enemy…) but since this is Riot Act, and ultimately a document of defeat, there is no resolution. As with almost every song on this record the subject knows the truth, but sometimes knowing the truth is enough. The clarity isn’t enough to overcome all the forces working to beat it down. It can’t overcome the confusion and alienation. It’s a false catharsis, like the painting The Scream. The subject can rage against the way we’re divided against each other but he can’t put the pieces back together at the end, just like the subject of The Scream can yell all he wants without actually putting the picture back into focus. At best it gives him the personal clarity needed to level the accusations in Bushleaguer, but it is a private enlightenment, nothing that we can build on.

Bu$hleaguer

Bu$hleaguer, like Green Disease, is one of the most important tracks on Riot Act, and, like Green Disease, it unfortunately falls a bit short. It is so critical because it is Eddie’s chance to really lay into Bush, the man who embodies everything that Riot Act rebels against (and ultimately succumbs to). He is the man responsible for the collapse of the band’s world, and all the attendant fear, suspicion, confusion that follows. Here is the man who made the love and solidarity that anchors a social existence nearly impossible to come by. What should follow needs to be a seething indictment, and the song ultimately falls short (and in a way this is fitting and makes sense, but it is no less disappointing as a result

Musically Bu$hleaguer is excellent. The music is amongst the most sinister pieces the band has ever written—it stalks the listener, it looms and threatens. There is an excellent counterpoint in the seemingly casual, almost sing songy garden party music of the verses before moving back to the ominous music of the chorus. The atmosphere in this song is incredible, and is unjustly forgotten since we tend to associate atmosphere with the spacier effects of a Sleight of Hand or Can’t Keep.

Vocally Eddie is hit or miss on this. The spoken word part lacks any real sense of gravity, but that may be deliberate—a casualness that matches the banal music of the verse. Overall, however, I think the effect doesn’t quite work. It comes across as too monotonous—arguably it works when the music is casual, but the start of the song needs to have more at stake. The pre-chorus and chorus is a lot more effective. The distorted vocals take the listener back to Help Help and that similar feeling of the bottom dropping out and the world no longer making sense. There is a plaintive, almost pathetic quality to the chorus itself, with the distorted vocals begging not for accountability (which requires more assertiveness and confidence than the song can muster) but answers. Something went horribly wrong, and he just wants to know what. You can almost picture him curled up in a fetal position as the song ends, rocking himself back and forth murmuring ‘change’ to himself. He ultimately finds himself overwhelmed by the object of his contemplation. The Bush phenomena is too big, too destructive to resist.

The song pulls that part off. But the lyrics (outside of the chorus) are just not any good. There are some clever baseball lines in the second verse, but those expressions existed before Eddie appropriated them. The third verse, which should be an indictment of the times, a grand statement of outrage and disgust, is buried in a bunch of abstract metaphors, none of which are really of any consequence.

The chorus is more effective. The blackout phrasing is nicely done, and the vocal melody crawls along nicely. There are allusions to the rolling blackouts of California and the Enron debacle, that image of our world darkening, both literally and figuratively if we think of it in terms of notions of accountability and the like. There is an encroaching darkness, and we are powerless to resist—at best we can offer that weak condemnation that Bush is a liar, failing to deliver what he promised—but in the face of the social, political, and above all human costs of the administration this comes across as underwhelming, more than anything else a testament to the totality of Bush’s consequence and the destruction that followed in its wake.

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 Post subject: Re: A Guided Tour of Riot Act
PostPosted: Fri December 28, 2012 12:39 pm 
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½ Full

½ Full is a great example of how track listing matters. If this song closes the album it is much easier to read Riot Act as a positive, hopeful record—a dark journey that sees light at the end. Musically there is a muscular playfulness to the song, and it sounds like they’re having a great time recording the song. It lacks the seriousness and the weight found in Red Mosquito (its sister song musically), almost as if to say ‘fuck it’. There is a sense in which the music tells us not to take it all so personally, that our problems aren’t quite as weighty or troubling as we think they are. It is almost dismissive—reminiscent of a line at the end of Avenue Q (“George Bush…is only for now”). There’s no dawn in ½ Full, but there’s a willingness to say up all night drinking until it comes. We may be in the midst of the blackouts of Bu$hleaguer, but there’s nothing that stops us from singing until the lights are turned back on. If Riot Act ends here we have a different record.

But of course it doesn’t, and the lyrical content undermines the abandon of the music. ½ Full is, like so much of Riot Act, a document of defeat, and the music is just an attempt to shield us from its reality. There’s a few things to notice here. For starters, the scope is much larger than the rest of Riot Act. This isn’t a song about the self, the community, or even the nation. It’s a song about the state of the world, that the smoldering, ruined domain of Kings Bush and Cheney that grace the cover may be much larger than we think. Riot Act was written in 2002 and Eddie was likely still under the sway of Daniel Quinn, as there are important elements of his thought in the lyrics. The song starts out affirming our own comparative insignificance—the reminder that in the grand scheme of our planetary history we don’t matter all that much, and this moment doesn’t matter all that much, as well as the implicit condemnation that we put ourselves at risk when we forget that. It’s an indictment of our hubris as a people, and of Bush and company in particular (the rich and powerful and their insatiable, restless desire for more, and their willingness to use and abuse the rest of us in their attempt to acquire it).

But at the same time ½ Full is a fight song. There is no middle anymore. You have to take a side. You have to commit. You must be willing to take responsibility for the world we’ve made and the world we want to live in. In this respect ½ Full is more a call to arms than the call to apathy that is so tempting in dark times.

Therefore, the last lyrics become critically important, and undermine both the optimism in the music and the need for engagement in the lyrics. There is a broad recognition that something has gone wrong and something needs to be done, but there is also no agency. At the critical moment, at the last high point on the record, Eddie retreats. The world needs to be saved for sure, but SOMEONE else needs to do it. I can’t. So ½ Full becomes less about action and more about faith—a hope that someone else will come along and do what needs to be done because we no longer have any confidence in our ability to save ourselves. We’re left with nothing but a blind sort of desperate hope for salvation because we’ve lost faith in ourselves.

Patriot and Arc

Before we close the record I want to take a moment to look at I Am A Patriot, probably the most important PJ cover of that period. In particular I want to compare two performances, the one from the MSG Nader rally in 2000 and the performance at Uniondale (an hour or so before the Bu$hleaguer incident) in 2003.

There is a seemingly irrepressible sense of optimism and of moment in Eddie’s 2000 performance of the song. I was fortunate enough to be there for that and you could feel it in the building. No one there seriously thought Nader had a chance to win an election in 2000 but there was a powerful and profound sense that we were there to witness the start of something big, the birth of a new America, a new way of looking at the world. Probably the most telling moment of the entire song was during Eddie’s introduction, talking about the way the media, opinion makers, politicians, and the rest of what C. Wright Mills called the power elite have to stand up and take notice. “They can’t ignore this.” And with that Eddie launches into what is arguably the most powerful cover he’s ever performed, and the song is lifted by the optimism of the moment until it practically soars during the final lyrics “and the river will open for the righteous someday…”. That day isn’t here yet, but if you were there for that moment you KNEW that it was coming.

The depth of the collapse that Riot Act chronicles, the nearly complete loss of faith, needs to be understood in this context. It falls so low in part because expectations were so high. The more powerful the hope the more total the disillusionment. And the song Eddie sings at Uniondale is almost unrecognizable. The music is somber, almost dirge like, as if Eddie is burying a dream instead of living one. It climaxes earlier than MSG, during the moment where he asserts his identity “I only know one party, and that is freedom…” The moment is cathartic and inspiring, like a shaft of life shining through a seemingly impenetrable darkness. But the moment doesn’t last, and Eddie chokes it off, strangling the promise of redemption in it. The light goes out and the final lines “and the river will open for the righteous” are somber and bitter. Self-assertion may not be enough in a world that just isn’t prepared to recognize it. The lesson Eddie learns on Riot Act is that freedom isn’t something that can be experienced in isolation. It is something that must be shared—we find it in communal expressions of solidarity (which is why a good concert is so liberating, and this is what the band understands so well), and solidarity is just not possible in Bush’s America. At least not then.

And this brings us to Arc. We all know that Arc is dedicated to the lives lost at Rosklide. It is a farewell to them, their 21 gun salute. But Eddie is burying more than their memories here. Arc tries to encapsulate what words cannot---the bewilderment, the absence of hope, the alienation, the nearly totalizing loss of faith that lifted us so high that moment in MSG just 3 short years ago. Arc is music for dying dreams.

All or None

All or None is a stark, desolate song, and more than any other number on Riot Act puts me in mind of the cover art. It surveys a broken, defeated planet, country, and self, and wonders what, if anything, we can do next. And ultimately there is no answer, which is what makes Riot Act both so tragic and ultimately unsatisfying.

In terms of musical craft All or None is a fairly strong number—there is a richness and fullness underneath the primary guitar line, but it serves primarily to highlight just how desolate the soundscape is. Each strum rings out clearly against the silence, and the fills that punctuate the song sound alternately like sighs and tears, and Mike’s outro solo is weighted down with sadness and despair. There is emotion, but no real catharsis, because there is no way out. This quite possibly the loneliest song Pearl Jam has ever written (Thumbing My Way might top it, but TMW lacks the beauty and majesty found in All or None).

As is standard for the album here Eddie sounds tired, weary, exhausted, but here he finally embraces what he had been attempting to deny for the rest of the record. The first lyrics could not be more appropriate

“It’s a hopeless situation and I’m starting to believe that this hopeless situation is what I’m trying to achieve.”

The first part of the lyric is simple enough, lacking even the strength that comes from confrontation and discovery. Admitting this is not empowering the same way the dark revelations of Betterman or Rearview Mirror prove to be. You cannot emancipate yourself until you learn to see your prison, but sometimes the bars are solid and the locks are strong and there really is no way out. You’re left not with a prelude to redemption but a confirmation of failure. The baggage of an entire record, 14 prior songs, is nicely summarized in that one simple lyric.

The second part of the line (the hopeless situation is what I’m trying to achieve) is a bit more challenging. There is self-recrimination here. He’s clearly on the verge of giving up, and chastising himself for it, for the acceptance of his new dark and dismal world.

The second verse is meant to steel his nerves. ‘The selfless confession leading me back to war’—the desire not to quit, to keep walking (a throwback to TMW, Ghost, LBC, Green Disease, and every other song on the record that used movement as a central image), even though he is convinced that there is nothing new waiting for him. If he is going to surrender, he vows (weakly, a tired vow coming from a lonely place) that it will be to himself, to his own grim defiance and stubborn determination. Better to be miserable and faithful than coexist in a happy, or at least benign, acceptance of the world he’s now forced to inhabit

The chorus, therefore, is meant to be an affirmation—a call to arms, to still run on, despite the odds. It’s not quite as habitual as it is in Thumbing my Way, where he walks on thanks to muscle memory more than any conscious choice, but the lack of belief, or even faith, is apparent, and we’re left wondering why he’s even bothering. The fact that he uses the word try “I still try to run on” rather than the more determinate will “I will run on” shows the paralyzing doubt (compare this to the confidence and stubborn defiance in a song like Indifference) Even the emotional climax going into the final chorus is something of an anti-climax, his voice trying to take flight but finding itself grounded, unable to pull it off, and the wordless vocalizations that are his final contribution to the album are deflated, far too burdened by what he’s seen and experienced to be inspirational.

And the record closes with Mike’s solo, one of his saddest pieces on record, gradually fading off into silence, no end in sight. There is no resolution, no hope, no fight, just a primal sadness directed at how far we’ve fallen, and the impossible heights we would need to climb to ever see light again.

It’s a melodramatic conclusion perhaps, but Riot Act is a crisis of faith, the first time in the band’s history where they no longer had faith in the future, no longer believed that the fight itself could invest life with meaning. In retrospect this was all temporary, and looking back we can see the sparks of resistance are still there, buried deep perhaps but still alive, and ready to come roaring back to life with the explosive beginning to the self-titled record, the record the band HAD To make to follow up Riot Act, a reaffirmation in the face of the totalizing doubt of this record.

We saw this shift begin almost as soon as the band hit the road—the feeling of solidarity that comes from being in a room with tens of thousands of people who share, if not your politics, than your heart—the communal good will that is at the core of the live experience—all of this gives you a foundation from which you can remind yourself that you’re not alone, that the darkness isn’t quite as permanent, quite as all encompassing, as it can sometimes appear. It was not an easy journey back, but it had begun.

As a final ‘official’ thought, I clearly have a dark interpretation of Riot Act—the first moment in Pearl Jam’s catalogue where there is no light, or, more accurately, that the light that’s there is extinguished during the course of the record. I think it is important to pay attention to the way Riot Act was crafted in order to make sense of what the band wanted to do. They could have made it an album of redemption, but they didn’t. Songs like undone and down were left off the record because they did not fit, and by that the band really means thematically. They don’t fit because that is not the story the band wanted to tell. Had they chosen to end the record with Love Boat Captain or I Am Mine, or even You Are, it might make sense to go back and interpret songs like TMW and All or None slightly more optimistically, and of course we’re all entitled to listen to the record we want to hear. But I don’t think it is the story the band wanted to tell. They have an entire catalogue full of redemption. We don’t need to force it into the spaces that it was never intended to fit, and now that we know the ultimate story has a happy ending, there shouldn’t be a need.

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