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 Post subject: A Guided Tour of Pearl Jam
PostPosted: Fri December 28, 2012 12:42 pm 
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A Guided Tour of Pearl Jam


Life Wasted

Life Wasted covers ground they've covered before, but with a twist. Pearl Jam's music has always been an exploration of and response to alienation—learning to cope with a world you cannot understand, control, or feel an attachment to. But there was always a sense of immanent solidarity in the lyrics. Eddie was right there with us. Not this time. He's over forty and you can’t help but view the world differently than you did at 15, 20, or 28. This time he's speaking from the standpoint of an elder statesman, trying to give away the wisdom that the old usually can’t give away. And the message is simple enough. Until you learn to let go of whatever it is that tears away at you inside you will never be able to truly live. He knows, because he's been there, and moved past it. Life Wasted attempts to fulfill the promise of the earlier records. Pearl Jam had floated the possibility that things could get better if we stand together. Here he's telling us that they will, if we let them. We have a choice to make

Some important themes and images are introduced here that will recur throughout the album. One is the idea of a home. Ideally a home is a source of security—where we are safe and grounded. It's the foundation from which we build the rest of our lives. Without a home that can fulfill that need we're lost. The person life wasted is directed at has lost that sense of security—the home inside their head. It's much easier to just revel in feeling disaffected, to be one with negativity, but there are consequences.

The other major image introduced here is the idea of movement (escape, swimming the channel, darkness coming in waves, ascending stairs, etc)—probably the dominant image throughout the entire album. Movement carries with it a sense of possibilities. As long as we can travel, as long as we have that freedom, we can change the direction of our lives, our culture, our country, and our world. The problem with movement is that the outcome depends entirely on the direction you're going in. The songs on this record are an attempt to steer that movement away from a life wasted.

And so Life Wasted is fusion of Save You and Love Boat Captain. The idea that someone needs to be saved from himself and that he needs a perspective that comes from outside himself and privileges love in order to do it.

Musically I like the gritty immediacy of the song, and the way it roars to life without preamble. It thrusts us right into the middle of an ongoing conversation. Life Wasted is an intervention, and the music reflects that. The reprise is very different, even though the lyrics are the same.

World Wide Suicide

World Wide Suicide is a bit more of a narrative than Life Wasted, and as far as those songs go (they’re not often Eddie’s strong point) this is a really good one. I see it as a sequel to Last Solider. In LS the man is saying goodbye to his family, telling them not to worry despite his own doubts about the way a very big world threatens to overwhelm him. WWS is the end of that story. It starts out with a fantastic opening image— a great understated visual (seeing the picture as part of an obituary or a larger piece on the war dead) that brings the gravity of the situation home without overselling it. “could not stop staring at the face I’ll never see again” is a heavy line. The enormity of that kind of loss is almost too big to put into words. You get the impression that she's already known about his death. The song is about figuring out why, and coping with the loss (especially the daughter left behind with no one left to hold her).

But the song doesn’t wallow in sadness. Instead it deals in frustration and anger. There is no reason he had to die. The hell is man-made, artificial and that is what really makes it appalling (there will be a nice call back to this later in Army Reserve). And she realizes that things are only going to get worse until we realize what exactly we're engaged in. War is the destruction of love, peace, security, happiness—pretty much everything that matters to us. And it has a life and logic of its own that folds everything into it. It's a world wide suicide.

There is one more break from the anger at the start of the second verse, which opens with an even more provocative image— medals on the wooden mantle next to the picture. The attack on Bush is masterfully done. It brings to mind the smiling irresponsible frat boy whose daddy always gets him out of trouble and has never been held accountable for anything taking lives for granted, writing checks that other people have to pay. There is a reason that almost every review quotes that line. It's one of Eddie's best. Then it's quickly back to the simmering anger—the hypocrisy of invoking God in the cause of slaughter (witness any number of yellow ribbons, USA stickers, and country songs) and the never ending madness of it. In the hysteria war whips up it is impossible to sit down and really reason your way through your problems—again it has a life and logic of its own that sweeps everyone up into a wave that shows no signs of breaking. And the only thing that can stand up to that wave is righteous anger at the way things are and the conviction that they can be better (embodied by the bridge)

WWS is a protest song, and that's what is ultimately important to take away from it. The fact that it is important to protest, to resist, to look into the eyes of the fallen and find another way. That's why the anger is more important than the sadness. Anger can be powerful if it’s directed at the right people and focused the right way. And I leave WWS feeling that this is what the subject of the song wants. It's why the music is catchy despite the subject matter. You leave Bushleaguer feeling angry and powerless. You leave the song feeling animated and engaged, and that's what makes it a superior protest song.

Comatose

Comatose is a political song, but it's a lot like Whipping, in that it is more about a feeling than a particular issue. It picks right up on the anger felt at the end of WWS. It's a howl directed at all that is wrong with America, so encompassing as to defy a concrete articulation, and the music seethes with the contempt the singer feels. The verses and chorus are sung from the perspective of a ‘typical’(as if there is such a thing) American, lost in his vacuum oblivious to the air and friction of the outside world, unaware of how his actions affect everyone else. There is obvious contempt in Eddie's voice, and given the subject matter of WWS, it's hard for there not to be. The lyric about hanging upside down attests to the ways in which our priorities and values have become inverted—the ways in which we celebrate hate and selfishness instead of love and community.

The chorus introduces the image of falling, which is a crucial part of the next three songs. Falling implies a mistake, an imperfection. We're supposed to be standing upright—we fall when we trip, when we're not careful about where we're going, or when the ground around us becomes unstable. Down also implies damnation. Up is heaven, down is hell. And if we're not careful that's the direction America is heading in. Not hell per se, but certainly towards disaster—see songs like DTE or the works of Daniel Quinn. But, happy in our vacuums, we have no idea the danger we're in and no fear of it. After all, we're Americans (or humans more generally if you want to push the Quinn angle). Problems are for other people. We can keep this up for all eternity. The consequences of our actions never come back to affect us, and if other people do not like they should have thought of that before they decided to be born somewhere else. Nor is it even clear that, as Americans—God’s chosen people designed to erect his City on the Hill—that we can even make mistakes. Certainly nothing we cannot justify in the name of progress/freedom/democracy/right. Ultimately we are oblivious/comatose with no fear of falling/damnation. The rising could refer to Eddie’s anger/awareness, or our own inflated sense of self-importance.

The second verse basically repeats the same sentiments. The blood on all the pistons/running my transmission lines seem to acknowledge that there are consequences to how we live. We're running our engine into the ground, and taking who knows what with us. But, happy in our vacuum, it's not our problem.

A few people have speculated that the bridge is about gay marriage. That seems possible, in the same way the album art made whipping seem to be about abortion, but I think the lyrics are meant to be more generic/universal— prelude to the themes of Marker in the Sand. He's talking from a perspective that's high above, one infused with love, compassion, tolerance, and understanding instead of hate, vengeance, and judgment. Those are seductive values. They're easier, and hate is less demanding than love. His observation that love seems illegal is a direct tie in to WWS and a transition into Marker (although Severed Hand comes first). As a society, and as individuals (since this record is about individual salvation as much as it is group salvation, although they conveniently require the same thing) we've gotten so swept up in war and hate, are so self-absorbed, that it's become difficult for us to love one another, and in some cases, even ourselves. When Jesus was crucified he was supposed to die for our sins, to grant us a new beginning, and until we leave the hate on that cross, he's essentially died in vain.

The last line expresses Ed’s general sense of bewilderment. How did things get like this, and since I'm an American, how did I play a part in it. What can I do to change it? The record is in part a working through of that problem (although in the end I'm not totally satisfied with the answer).

Severed Hand

Eddie has said on a few occasions that Severed Hand is about psychotropic drugs, and there's no reason to doubt him. The lyrics certainly make it seem like the song is about buying and using them. I've never done any so I can’t comment on whether or not he gets the experience right. The more interesting part of the song is not what the experience is like, but why he needs them in the first place, and whether not the drugs give him what he needs.

The start of the song has a wonderfully powerful build, and Eddie's vocals have a vaguely ominous and sinister quality to them that provides a nice compliment. For whatever reason, the singer cannot stay in his vacuum. He's exposed and vulnerable. He sees too clearly and knows too much for that to work, and he cannot cope with it. At least not yet. He needs help, and is looking for mind-altering drugs to provide it. What is clear right off the back is that the singer is the one without power in this relationship, confronting a gatekeeper who holds the secrets to the salvation he craves. It's also made clear right off the bat that this is a journey the singer has to make on his own. His woman has to be left behind, unceremoniously dumped onto the concrete floor. But the singer is so desperate for some kind of escape he has no problem with the deal. This is a decision he will come to regret later in the record. One of the messages to take away from Pearl Jam is that salvation and peace (inner and outer) cannot be accomplished without others.

The falling down chorus is my favorite part of the song, and some of my favorite lyrics on the entire record. It's meant to bring the listener back to Comatose. He has no fear except for falling, which is to say failure and damnation. But another way to think about this is that a fear of falling means you have a fear of everything, since every facet of existence has some degree of risk attached to it. And right now the singer is overwhelmed with reality and everything in it. This could be a reaction to his personal life, the state of the world, or both. I'm inclined to think it's both, with the state of the world weighing on him so heavily that it's affecting the rest of his life. The severed hand line supports that reading. It's likely a reference to a story about a soldier in Iraq (or was it Afghanistan) who had to go find a friend’s severed hand, recognizing it from the wedding ring . That experience (and the war around it that he is trying to walk away from) may have left the person so traumatized that they can’t make sense of anything else. Either way, he needs a way home, a way back to a sense of safety, and serenity. He needs some kind of grounding for his life

Are drugs the answer? They seem to be, at least in part. They offer an escape. You can see dragons instead of war—whatever kind of fantasy you want. And as we move into the next chorus the benefits of his expanded sense of consciousness are clear. His room is larger, and there's more space for him within it. It buys him time to try and think and understand, but at the same time there is a realization that this isn’t the answer. The questions haven’t gone away. Reality will be waiting for him, and he's going to have to confront it and decide how he can live in, and hopefully transcend, the world of pain outside our vacuum alluded to in Life Wasted and World Wide Suicide.

Marker in the Sand

Marker probably contains my favorite lyrics on the record. MITS is a (borderline self-righteous) shot at religions fundamentalists, arguing ‘look dumbass, you don’t understand your own religion.' Severed Hand concludes with the realization that a personal escape is not sufficient. A life worth living isn’tt one isolated from others, but a shared experience. Historically our religions were supposed to provide us with that sense of community and belonging, but something's gone wrong. Religion can be about judgment or forgiveness, hatred or love. Pat Robertson or Martin Luther King. The scales have been decisively tipped in the direction of judgment and hate, and Eddie resents that. But rather than go on a screed on how awful religion is, MITS attempts to remind us that at its best, religious faith can be a powerful sources of love and forgiveness. And the music reflects that well (although I don’t think the bridge showcases that). There is an aggressive choppiness to the verses that mirror the state of our world, and a contemplative, almost transcendent, sense of hope and promise in the chorus. Eddie said at the Letterman show that the song feels like Church, and that's what he's talking about. The music is meant to illuminate what is best about ourselves.

The song starts out with a reference to a marker in the sand. I'm not sure exactly what it is he's referring to, and I'm not sure it matters. The line could be meant to evoke the Middle East where the three great western religious traditions began, or the sand could just conjure up images of time passing, the sand covering over what was once there. Either way, we've lost track of the marker’s original message. The sand has hidden what these religions were supposed to be about, the original truth that God loves his children and expects us to love one another. What's left is an aggressive faith devoid of love. It's been left behind, buried in the sand.

Faith is tricky. It's one of the most powerful forces in the world, and one of the most dangerous. The problem is that faith usually defies reason and compromise. When God wants you to act a certain way there is no second guessing, no other factors to take into consideration. Nor is there any way to figure out if it is what God really wants. The appeal to god is the ultimate justification for any action, and we still accept that reasoning even today. When someone claims a religious justification for a belief we may say that this belief has no place in public life, but we're usually unwilling to challenge the belief itself. The fact that it's your religious belief makes it immune to critical examination. Faith is a conversation stopper. That's why being able to control the popular interpretation of God’s message is so important, and you can trace the broad history of America's political development as a battle over the control of that message. The great periods of progressive reform (Abolition, the progressive era, the New Deal, the Great Society) were animated by a powerful belief that God was a God of love and community. Progressive politics may not even be possible unless it is linked to that religious vision (and I say this as an atheist). We know about Martin Luther King, but if you've ever read any of FDR's speeches they sound like religious sermons, and Eleanor Roosevelt argued that a just democracy requires its citizens to emulate the ideals of love and sacrifice found in the life of Jesus. In times of reaction God is a god of virtue and vice and what matters is the personal behavior of the sinner. For the progressive what matters is fighting poverty and increasing tolerance, for the reactionary, moral purity and fighting sin. It should be obvious where Eddie’s preferences are.

We're living in a time of hellfire and damnation, judgment instead of love. It doesn’t matter if you're poor or hungry, but it certainly matters whether or not you're gay. In our rush to judge, to assert that we are better than others and thereby more worthy of salvation, we've lost our way—‘what went wrong walking tightrope high over moral ground, seeing visions of falling up somehow’. The falling imagery returns yet again. Despite our imperfections we believe that we can somehow stumble up to heaven.

This is a catholic view of salvation, namely that it something we have control over. The theology in MITS is protestant; our salvation is beyond us. As imperfect beings whether or not we're saved is a matter of God’s grace. God has to forgive us for our sins (especially original sin) and while we are waiting to see if we receive it what God expects of us is that we remain grounded on earth and learn to live with and love one another. It's a plea not only for tolerance, but that we embrace each other through recognizing our shared humanity. This is what God wants, isn’t it?

And this introduces one of the elements of tension in the song. In some ways faith isn’t enough. MITS demands that God reveal himself, that we've so lost our way that a God concerned with the well-being of his creations would send us some kind of a sign to direct us back to love and to a concern about one another. The second verse continues these themes, reminding us that strict adherence to one dogma or another isn’t necessary to be worthy of love, and that God would not have created a world with difference if it wasn’t in some way desirable. The fact that we kill what we cannot understand is a monstrous perversion of the principles of love that all major religions have at their core, but God still lets it happen.

Whereas the first chorus asked for us to be humble and recognize our limits as human beings, the second chorus highlights the plea for acceptance (a stronger, more demanding idea than tolerance). Eddie asks us to try and understand one another, to walk the bridges before we burn them down. But he knows that his message isn’t being heard, as the forces of reaction, hate, and intolerance (read Bush/religious right/Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism, etc) continue to misunderstand that God’s message is one of love. There is an element of modesty here that is in sharp contrast to the way the song ends. He doesn’t know what to do, but he does know that any solution will have to start with love. And the song ends with a challenge to God. The calling out is not a cry of despair or uncertainty. Instead Ed demands that God take some responsibility for the mess of things people have made in his name. And if God doesn’t do it, we’ll just have to do it ourselves, which may have been God’s point in the first place.

Parachutes

I will confess off the bat that this is one of the songs I have the least handle on, and so I've been looking forward to and dreading writing the Parachutes entry. It might be easiest to start with the music. It's both wistful and hopeful, off kilter and somehow still melodic. In short, it’s in love, and that fits the song perfectly because regardless of anything else going on here, Parachutes is an optimistic and mature celebration of how important it is to be in love, an incredibly important contribution to the record, that also foreshadows Inside Job (which along with Life Wasted, acts as the conceptual anchor for the album, even if Eddie didn’t write its lyrics). I've also always thought that the best love songs don’t need to use the word, or use it sparingly. They can find another way to express that sentiment without resorting to a powerful word that has become powerfully cliché. In that respect Parachutes is a triumph.

So Parachutes is about a relationship, and there seem to be three major possibilities here. It's clear that the person the singer is singing about/to is gone. The question is why. He may have left the relationship, he may be dead, possibly killed in war, or he may just have checked out emotionally—weighed down with other matters that prevent him from realizing how important he is to the people in his life (this person in particular). I picture the singer as a woman, in part because of the war death angle (and WWS and Army Reserve make it clear the solider is a male) and because Eddie sings it in a higher register. I think there may actually be two separate stories told here. The first one has the lover lost to his own depression; the second has him lost to war.

Right off the bat the imagery of home reappears, and as I've said in the Life Wasted entry (and elsewhere), the idea of a home stands for love and stability, a sense of being grounded, of having a base through which we can begin to deal with the rest of the world. And this home is failing. Without the lover present all our troubles are magnified—their absence weakens the emotional resolve we need to deal with life. Early on it seems that the lover is physically here, but emotionally someplace else, his eye fixated on a world without the complications present in this one—‘you’re always wishing and never here at home.’

The next series of lines are some of my favorites on the record. They're just gorgeous.

‘all the dreams we shared and
lights we turned on
but the house is getting dark’

This is great use of the central home metaphor. Together the home is brightly lit, and that light is a source of strength, courage, and inspiration. But the light is failing.

‘and I don’t want to know your past
but together share the dawn’

Whatever has happened is history. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the two of them stand together and look to the future, to face the rising light (a subtle return to the rising/falling imagery and a nice nod to a crucial line in inside job) and the possibilities that it brings.

‘and I won’t need
nothing else
cause when we're dead
we would’ve had it all
And died’

And in the end, even what happens in the future doesn’t matter as long as they have each other's love. Everything else is secondary. They had it all.

‘I would've fallen from the sky
Til’ you
Parachutes have opened now’

What a wonderful image. Her life was in freefall, inevitably destined to fall from grace/happiness and perhaps still doing so, but as long as they're together the descent slows down—they can glide towards death together, having had it all.


The second half of the song switches perspective to the war interpretation (I am indebted to RM poster Dirtyfrank 0705 for this), with the soldiers final thoughts dwelling on how fortunate he was to have had the chance to be in love. It begins by staying with the movement/rising and falling imagery that is so important to the record. God only knows how much we can hope for in this life (where the ceiling is) but we’ll never find it if we spend our time on our knees wishing for more instead of making it happen (another Inside Job nod). He finally realizes what he has (love) at the end, as the door closes and the light dims, as he prepares for a new life (heaven?) somewhere else.

The song finishes with the singer's final thoughts, realizing that love is the most precious gift we can offer to one another, and that it’s not until we realize that that we can begin to change it in the ways we would prefer. Love has to come first, and without it we cannot call our lives meaningful. And, touchingly, his last thoughts dwell not on what he will have lost, but how thankful he is that, at least for his time here, his life meant something, because he had found love.

Unemployable

Unemployable moves away from some of the war themes that dominant the first half of the record, but the subject matter is no less weighty here. Unemployable (and Gone, unfortunately separated from Unemployable by Big Wave) deal with the death of the American dream. For our non-American posters, every single aspect of American life is geared around faith in this central promise—if you put in some hard, honest work you will be rewarded with a home, decent car, material comforts, and a secure future. It is your entitlement as an American. This is an article of deeply felt faith, and is nearly impossible to understand the American mind without it, nor is it possible to really understand American culture as Americans understand it. Every aspect of mainstream American society is geared towards indoctrinating us into this vision. It's believable because once upon a time it was generally true. When this was an agricultural nation there was always new land available (provided you weren’t indentured to someone else), and when it was an early industrial nation there were all sorts of opportunities for profit available. During the period following WWII until the early 70's for the first time in American history there was actually a redistribution of wealth away from the wealthy and down towards the average American. Sadly this is no longer the case. Our health care system is failing, as is our private pension system. The middle class manufacturing sector has been (and continues to be) decimated and the unions that helped defend the middle class are anemic. Controlled for inflation, wages in this country have been stagnant for 35 years, and unsustainable deficits, no savings, and incredibly high levels of personal debt finance our lifestyle. I could on like this for pages. The staggering thing about this is our singular blindness to economic realities. Such is the strength of that dream, and its insidious defense mechanism—the belief that poverty is almost always a result of personal failure. Since anyone can make it in America if you failed it is because you are a failure. This is the backdrop for Unemployable

Our subject just got fired. The Jesus Saves ring is a great image and I think it’s meant to call to mind Thomas Frank's ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas,’ a book Eddie is likely to have read. There are some problems with Frank's argument, but his basic thrust is that religion is used as a wedge issue (along with the threat of a great liberal boogeyman) to stop poor and middle class conservatives from voting for economic policies that are in their best interests (historically, naked appeals to racism were used instead, but those thankfully don’t have quite the same traction that they used to). Jesus may save, but this guy is out of a job. And he is out of a job because his employment is no longer maximizes profits. His boss’s only concern is to make money and employees are not human beings with families, hopes, and dreams. They are costs of production. I'm not a Marxist, but Marx is right about this. What matters is the stranger's bottom line, and our lives are expendable provided more money can be made for the stockholders.

The Jesus ring also sets up the double meaning behind sacrifice. On the one hand his life is literally a sacrifice for the profits of someone else, and if he happens to be able to carve out a life for himself in the meantime than that's a bonus, hardly a guarantee. But it also brings to mind Jesus' sacrifice. He too died for someone else, but instead of a profit he died in the name of love and for the possibility of redeeming mankind. It's meant to call our attention to our misplaced priorities.

The jumping trains line is a reference to the displaced people during the Great Depression, who would hop on freight trains and travel the country desperate to find any kind of work. It's meant to highlight the things we will do to survive.

The next verse feels the most Springsteenish, and highlights the existential/psychic trauma that comes from losing your job in a country without a strong safety net. He was fired for no fault of his own and because of it he may not be able to take care of his family, the most basic of human responsibilities. The unknown future no longer represents possibilities, but a creeping dread, one almost too terrifying to contemplate. When we live in fear we lose our power to imagine a better world those who matter most to us.

There is a hopeful note to this song though. A cautious note, but it is still there, and will be picked up again in Gone. He's seen the light/he's been saved, and what he's been saved from is the trap of blaming himself for his failures. The American dream may be dead, but he's beginning to understand that what is going on here is in some way bigger than him. He's sacred alive. He's starting to see things clearly for the first time. He may still be trapped in a cage, and might be sentenced to die within it, but the bars are no longer invisible. You can’t begin to escape your prison until you can start to define its walls. It's a terrifying moment, because of the enormity of it all, but at least it is possible to begin.

Big Wave

I really don’t like Big Wave's placement on the record (or it's inclusion, to be honest), as I think Gone works better thematically following Unemployable (and is likely about the same character). Instead we have Big Wave coming in at the 8 spot. It's a joyous celebration of surfing, the sense of freedom, defying gravity (and boundaries) and ‘exceeding limitations.’ And I don’t think there is much more going on here. Nor does there necessarily have to be. Finding a way to center yourself, a healthy avenue of escape rather than staying inside the locked, cluttered home inside your head is important if you want to stay centered and grounded. Eddie achieves that through surfing.

I will comment on the evolution theme, and I'm basing all this on my understanding of Daniel Quinn, which is where I am assuming Eddie gets his views from on this as well. On the one hand, he's just being cute—‘I like to surf because somewhere in my blood is this primordial connection to the waves and water’. But Quinn wants to make something more out of this. He deals with this primarily in his two books on tape (The Tales of Adam and The Book of the Damned) where he fleshes out his animist religion. Quinn critiques the idea of evolution the way we normally think of it. Evolution is about adaptation, not overcoming. Humanity (at least the west) looks at nature as something to be conquered and mastered. Because we have evolved we have somehow earned the right to emancipate ourselves from nature and its laws. This is a misunderstanding of what evolution means, and Quinn’s books are in part a warning that you cannot permanently remove yourself from the laws of nature. Nature will reassert itself and we will pay the price if we don’t evolve (that is to say adapt) new forms of social organization that are environmentally (and evolutionarily) sustainable.

For Quinn (and Eddie in this song) we are all part of a large biological web. An example he gives involves hunters, grass, and Caribou. Grass, Caribou, and the hunter are all the same organism, the same life energy, just at different stages. The grass feeds the caribou, the caribou feed the hunter, and when the hunter dies his body feeds the soil that produces the grass. So when Eddie says he used to be a crustacean that's what he means. In some ways he still is—he’s just at a different stage of the life process. And that's where the desire to surf comes from. It is a recognition that we are all in some ways intimately connected, and he surfs to celebrate that. Despite the billions of adaptations that separate us, we're still connected; he's just riding that link.

Gone

One of my biggest issues with Avocado is the sequencing of Gone. I feel that this song needed to follow Unemployable as they are about the same character, or more accurately same feeling—namely a profound sense of disaffection with America and a desire to escape it.

The idea of just in the car and leaving everything behind is nothing new in PJ songs, with a pedigree stretching at least as far back as RVM. Gone is a bit different though. Previous road escape songs were always about running away from some personal issue or some social situation. Gone is much larger. It’s about trying to escape from America itself. He's tired of attempting to make a failing situation work. He's sick of the upset mornings and trying evenings. We're taught from day one that anyone can make it here if they try. The American dream is theoretically open to all. But his own experiences have taught him that this is bullshit. Saying that he disbelieves the American dream doesn’t mean he rejects it as an ideal. It's more a recognition of how far we've fallen from it. He feels trapped and needs to get out. He can’t sleep, let alone dream, where he is.

Some people have attacked the gas in my tank line, but I'm a fan. There is a lot going on in it. There's an obvious reference to the price of fuel, but underneath that it also calls to mind how tenuous a grip so many of us have on our middle class existence. Even a small rise in gas prices can be devastating, and for lower middle class and working class people, the rise in gas prices often means going without luxuries, entertainment, and in some cases even food (the nation had a moving article on this a few months ago). It puts the American dream out of reach and it does so by making that great American symbol of progress (the car) and the freedom it represents the cause of the problem.

There likely isn’t anyone who gets the symbolic power of the car more than Springsteen, as just getting into your vehicle and escaping has long been a dominant image in his work. And the same thing happens here. He's not taking the bus to Atlantic City. The subject in Atlantic City has accepted his cage, and is taking a last desperate shot at saving himself in it. In Gone he's filling up the tank with gas and just getting away. He needs air and space to think. The United States is a stifling, unsympathetic place to be when you need help, but there is still freedom on the open road. And while he's there everything begins to make sense. The music quickens, the vocals begin to soar, and for at least a little while the subject of the song is free. His head is clear. He's able to let go of the weight (30 bills unpaid?) that limits his imagination and understanding.

It's a minor, personal act of rebellion. No one notices it, but as the American dream continues to fail, more and more people will share his experience. They’ll have their own epiphany. He begins to understand he hasn’t failed, that in fact it is his country that has failed him. It's a huge realization, and an intimidating one. It's not knowledge he necessarily understands, or even knows what to do with. In some respects it is comparable to waking up outside of the Matrix. But, as was also the case in Unemployable, real freedom is impossible when you can’t even find the bars of your cage. Once you do, it at least becomes possible to ‘be what I could be' (a nice play on the Army’s ‘Be all that you can be' motto from years ago). The American dream, the promise of American life, will not be realized until we figure out how to overcome the nightmare it was perverted into. That's what needs to be left behind. The belief that the United States, as currently constituted, embodies the best and only real chance anyone has for freedom is drilled into our heads every moment of every day. Outside of our system there is only failure and stagnation. We're not encouraged to dream beyond ourselves. Outside there is nothing. But this nothing is where we will have to begin to rebuild, to reclaim for ourselves a life worth living.

Wasted Reprise

I'm of two minds on the placement of this song. On the one hand, I think it summarizes the lessons learned in Gone really well, but since Army Reserve and Comeback represent some backsliding I also would have liked to see it right before Inside Job.

I think the reprise was a great idea. It is a nice reminder of the primary lesson the record wants the listener to take away, and the presentation itself is beautiful. It’s nice to see Eddie channel his inner Tom Waits. I think there is a different subject singing the reprise, which is another reason why it's done differently than on Life Wasted. Life Wasted was an exhortation by someone who had freed themselves for others to do the same. There was a sense of confidence lacking in the reprise. The subject of the reprise is more cautious and tentative. She realizes what she need to do, but the hard part is still ahead of her. It's a quiet attempt to bolster a resolve which will be sorely tested in the next two songs.

Army Reserve

Army Reserve is a little tricky. If Damien Echols is to be believed, he wrote the chorus of this song about imagining his execution. Eddie obviously liked the lyrics, but strictly speaking this isn’t a song about execution by the electric chair. It is a song about death, however; the death of a soldier and the family he left behind.

I look at Army Reserve as the middle chapter of a trilogy that starts with Last Solider and ends with World Wide Suicide. Last Soldier features a reservist getting called up to war, an eventuality he never took seriously when he enlisted. WWS was discussed above. Army Reserve is about the final moments of the solider.

Eddie often does his best writing from a female perspective, and the writing here is no exception. The song begins checking in on the soldier's wife. She isn’t doing well, and Eddie's vocal performance matches the sad desperation (the resignation comes later) of the song perfectly. Her husband’s absence, her constant fear of his death, and the stress it places on her family, is taking its toll. The ground around her is increasingly less stable, and it's only a matter of time before it gives way entirely. It's a terrifying prospect. The possibility of losing her husband to war, of having to raise their children and go through life without him, alone, completely uproots her. There is no stability, no base from where she can regroup and begin again. No home—just an endless fall. You can see the effects of this dread in the increased worry lines and sunken eyes from a lack of sleep. The verse ends with a powerful image of her kneeling before her bed, hands folded in prayer, begging for sleep that will not come. If she can’t sleep how will she dream? If she can’t dream how can she imagine a world without her husband. She's trapped.

I read the chorus three ways. There is the Damien Echols electric chair interpretation, but I think Eddie wants the lyrics to do something different. I think both the wife and husband, civilian, and soldier, share these lines. From the standpoint of the wife there is the acknowledgment that he may die and will just have to accept the inevitable with grim determination to weather the storm that is about to wash over her. But I think these lines are primarily meant for the husband, who is about to die—perhaps shot, perhaps lost in an explosion. In those final split seconds he accepts the inevitable and thinks of his wife and children, sending them a final goodbye message.

With the next verse we return back to the life at home, and the toll it's taking on the family. The children miss their father. They resent that he is gone and fear he isn’t coming back. His absence can’t be ignored, and it comes to dominate life within the home. It's more a mausoleum than a sanctuary now, a shrine to a man everyone fears will never return. She has to reassure them, but as we saw in the first verse, she hardly believes it herself, and the kids can tell. The next lines are some of my favorites from the record, and a terrific attack on Bush and the tragic contingency of the war. She's trying to justify her husband’s sacrifice by saying that he is fighting and dying for them and their freedom—the standard line from the administration. But she knows that this is bullshit. This was a war that had nothing to do with security and freedom and everything to do with oil, water, power, arrogance and choice. Her husband was not taken away for any noble purpose. He was just a tool of war stripped of his humanity, his choices made ‘from some other place by someone I don’t know and he don’t know me’ (Last Soldier). He's dying for nothing, and no matter how much she tells herself otherwise she knows deep down the lack of meaning in the sacrifice, a realization she’ll finally come to grips with in WWS. It's a much more effective critique of Bush and the war than a piece like Bushleaguer as it exposes the tragic human side and lets the listener draw the necessary conclusion instead of hammering them over the head with it.

And the song returns to the chorus. Again, this can be from the standpoint of the wife or husband, but the message is the same. Death is coming. The wife begs her husband to survive—she fears she can’t be saved (think back to WWS–what can be saved and who will be left to hold her) unless he comes back to her. He can’t die in peace unless he knows she will have the strength and resolve to move on with her life. They both beg their children to rebuild lives that are about to be shattered. Even if the couple cannot ultimately escape a life wasted, they can hope to take comfort in the promise of a better world that children have always embodied—if they have the strength and courage to move on.

Come Back

I said earlier that Last Solider, Army Reserve, and WWS form a trilogy, and that's certainly true, but given its placement on the record Come Back feels related. It's larger than the story of a family torn apart by war, but certainly applicable. In some respects this is the easiest song to figure out on the record. It is a song about living with loss, or better, the way that loss stops us from living. In the narrative of the record this song seems to be about the death of the soldier, but it obviously can apply to much more.

Where Army Reserve had a frantic energy, there is a sad resignation to Come Back. For the first three minutes the song it feels like it belongs on Riot Act, alongside other subdued songs of loss and paralysis like Thumbing My Way and All or None. It lacks the energy and fire that animates the rest of Avocado. The singer is lonely and weary. She's tired of hoping for something she knows she’ll never get (his return) but doesn’t know how to do anything else. The image of a home has been prominent throughout the record, and Come Back begins in the same home, but now it is in even worse shape than the locked doors and unmade beds of Life Wasted. Instead you have the woman standing in the darkness, rain pouring through the hole in a roof that is supposed to protect her, to keep her dry and safe. She's waiting for a light that isn’t there, and that may never be there, since it's a light that comes from a shared life. That life is gone. She's alone.

Nevertheless, she still talks to the person she lost. Rather than move on she stays trapped in her memories, planning out the conversation she’d have if he would ever return; what she’ll say to him when they are reunited in death and are able to resume the life together that was unjustly cut short. Until that time she’ll be here, wishing out her days, but failing to live them. Similar to I Got Shit, all she has left are her dreams and memories. She can’t wait to sleep so she can at least be with him in her dreams (for as long as she can still hold onto her memories). She indulges in fantasies that he's returned. It may be a sad comfort, but it is no life.

What's worse, it prevents her from moving on. She insists on leaving her door open, but it's not open so she can get out of this failing home and create a new one. It's open so he can return to her. She's staying right where she is, and as the song builds to its powerful conclusion she stands there crying in the rain, pleading for him to come back. She’ll be here. She doesn’t know how to leave…

Inside Job

In some of the Avocado tracklisting conversations that we've had on Red Mosquito it was sometimes suggested that Inside Job should open, rather than close the record. I think Inside Job has to close. There needs to be that moment of light and hope after Army Reserve and Come Back. And Inside Job concludes the record as a whole. It represents the redemption of the different characters from the record. The man who lost his job in Unemployable and Gone, the woman who lost her husband to the war, and anyone who has lost their faith in themselves, which seems to be where Mike was coming from when he wrote it.

Avocado offers some potential ways out before reaching Inside Job. Severed Hand and Gone are both about escape, but escape isn’t the answer. It may be necessary to grant the space and time necessary to regroup, but as has always been the case for Pearl Jam, what matters less than escape is confrontation and the ability to love each other and ourselves. As Life Wasted made clear, the battle to love ultimately has to be fought inside. Life Wasted was an intervention. The Reprise was the person steeling themselves for the journey they had to take. Inside Job is that journey.

It begins with its marvelous slow build. Even though the music is quiet, there is a tension within it, a silent, internal grappling with demons, of coming to grips with loss and failure, the fear of vulnerability, and figuring out a way to overcome it. There are some quiet gasps in the music, like the subject is trying to work up the determination and ability to speak, and it takes a few minutes before he does.

The first step is to realize that underneath a false smile is a torrent of emotions—hope, anger, pride, and shame—which he's never bothered to confront. Instead of embracing them he's locked the door. But he realizes that he can’t do that any longer. There must be an open door for him to walk out of. Walking out isn’t easy. It takes the courage to confront and those demons, and faith that outside the darkened door we’ll light. And while people can try and help us, in the end it's an inside job. We have to do it ourselves.

He comes to accept that love is more powerful than fear and death, but it is also a much more frightening feeling. It leaves us vulnerable to loss and hurt. When we invest ourselves in others we're dependent on them, and he used to run from that dependency. But he's finally begun to accept that a life running away from love, from the human light that creates it, is not a life worth living. He's spent so long running from a life of love he's not sure if he can return to it, but he has the hope that he will. He's willing to accept the risk. This time he's ready to take the leap. He can see the light in the dark distance. It's faint, but it is there to guide him. He picks himself and rises to his knees to confront himself, to fix his broken soul. He's been here before, but as he rises and the music quickens we just know that this time will be different. This time there is strength. This time he’ll make it.

He's out the door, and there is rain, but it's not the cold, dark rain of Come Back. These aren’t tears of loss and suffering. This rain is cleansing. It washes away the darkness, but not the past, and when the darkness leaves the light is clearer. He is able to love. He is able to use the light he finds in others to guide himself, and he's able to offer light and guidance in return. He is able to love and to be loved, and that is always where we have to begin. There may never be a world without war, without death, without fear and hardship, but any attempt to resist it has to begin with the brute fact that we need to love one another; we have to be willing to open ourselves up to others and accept that connection to each other, even if it makes us vulnerable. Without it we have no open doors and we have no sanctuary. A life worth living comes from sharing our hearts and desires. And the song ends with him running in the rain; away from the darkness of a life wasted towards the light of love. The outro begins. The rain lifts and instead of the darkened ruins of a broken home we find ourselves standing in a peaceful field of boundless possibilities, the darkness illuminated by the light of the stars we've finally allowed ourselves to see.


Thanks for reading and indulging me :)

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