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TSIS Review: Dark Matter

I just wanted to share my review of Dark Matter. It's perhaps a little long, but this is an incredible album. http://www.theskyiscrape.com/

Dark Matter

 

By Way of Introduction…

 

Dark Matter, Pearl Jam’s twelfth studio album, is an unqualified triumph, with moments that border on miraculous.  The songs are remarkably vital, and while everyone plays with a ferocity and conviction that hasn’t been seen in decades, the performances land as effortless. Absolutely everyone brings their A game, and Eddie’s vocals regularly soar into the harmonic range that is the alpha and omega of what I want in a singer.  Everything is delivered with absolute sincerity by a band that can unironically embrace the full sweep of emotions that make us human.

 

Dark Matter feels less like it was constructed and more like unfolds, improvisations owing only the loosest fidelity to a core structure. Frankly, it feels like a live album. Nothing fades out, songs feel out the moment, resolving in their own time. Half the time they hold for applause. Everything is immediately familiar, and while you can find sonic antecedents for almost anything in a catalog twelve albums and nearly two hundred songs deep, it is more that Dark Matter, on some cellular level, taps into the essence of Pearl Jam in a way we haven’t seen in over two decades. It’s not fan service, though. Nothing feels like a call back or retread. Instead, it all seems primed to remind listeners not just why they were fans, but why they still are fans. A promise long held in faith, and finally redeemed.

 

If I had to draw comparison to any prior record, Dark Matter occupies a similar space to Yield and Backspacer. But while Yield has undercurrents of self-consciousness and guilt, and Backspacer unnecessarily edits itself, Dark Matter embraces who and what it is for as long as each moment requires.  It is an incredibly open-hearted album that can hold two contradictory thoughts within itself at the same time. Every song owns its fear and embraces its joy.  Each composition grapples with its history and dreams of possibility. It understands the end is coming and the future is forever. It is why the initial experience of the album felt overwhelming, and why moments sneak up on you twenty listens in. More than any prior Pearl Jam album, Dark Matter embraces the totality of our lived experience.  

 

Coming from an aging band, with an aging fan base, part of Dark Matter’s power is how effectively bridges past and present.  I will never again have the experience I had when, at age 16, Ten utterly transformed my understanding of what music is and unlocked what it could be. As an adult with a fully formed identity, I cannot hear Vitalogy for the first time and invite it to shape who I am becoming. I cannot go back. I cannot relive it. But because my relationship with Pearl Jam will always be foundational, under the right conditions their music can connect me to those moments and situate me in a perfect fusion of past and present. I have had those transcendent moments in a live setting.  I’m not sure Pearl Jam has ever so fully captured them on an album.

 

Credit where credit is due, we must thank Andrew Watt for that.  Watt has identified Pearl Jam as one of his favorite bands, and he clearly understands the source of their power, perhaps even more than they do. As he described his process:

 

My mission statement became, I’m going to put these five amazing guys together in a small space where they can all see each other, and get them to play together and capture that energy of what happens on stage. Let’s go for full takes. Let’s go for solos that are a little too long. Let Matt Cameron have to turn the bar around in a weird fucking way and everyone’s holding on for dear life and then they land again….

 

In Pearl Jam, there was a time where each guy would bring in their demo and already have an idea for the drums. Matt would do what’s right for the song and expand on it a little bit. I didn’t want that to happen here. I wanted each of their instincts to be able to come out fresh and unaltered, and that’s what is on this record, which was written by every member of the band on every song. Every song started with a riff and then went through the filter of each guy together.

 

For years (decades) Pearl Jam has approached the process of making a record literally as homework – they would work on songs at home and come together as a group to record.  You can make some truly excellent music this way, as this is a band with five significant song writers. But it comes at a cost, as this is a band of five excellent musicians forced to throttle their instincts and slot their contributions into spaces left for them in someone else’s composition. Pearl Jam have next level chemistry with each other. It is half the foundation of their live experience. The rapturous connection they create with their audience is the other. And by creating conditions where they recorded with each other, and could feed off each other’s instincts and energy, in the presence of the infectious enthusiasm of a longtime fan delighted by what he heard, helped Pearl Jam understand and finally embrace their legacy in a studio environment.  Andrew Watt was not just a producer.  He was validation, and that validation freed the band to create the most organically Pearl Jam sounding record in decades, if not ever. This may not be Pearl Jam’s best collection of songs, or their most important. But thirty-three years into a remarkable journey, it manages to be the album that is the most authentically them.

 

One of the more interesting manifestations of this experience is found in the pop sensibilities encoded into the record in a way we’ve never heard before. Some this must be sourced to the fusion of Watt’s pop and rock producing background.  Pearl Jam has always paid homage to their heroes and worn those influences on their sleeve. They are incredibly conscious of and informed by music history.  It’s a fundamental part of their DNA.  And the list of Pearl Jam’s major influences is full of rock artists whose music has significant pop elements. Yet Pearl Jam has always stopped short of fully embracing this side of their music, despite their effortless facility. Watt gave them permission to own that potential within their sound, and Dark Matter allows Pearl Jam to lean into their heroes more overtly in ways that enhance, rather than overpower, their core musical identity.

 

There are other interesting consequences to Watt’s approach. The overall recording process lasted a little over three weeks (albeit over two sessions a year apart).  And Eddie was writing lyrics and recording vocals alongside the genesis and construction of the songs.  The lyrics are less ornate, less calculated, and rely on slight lyrical variations that expand and transform existing ideas. It gives Dark Matter a thematic tightness and consistency that makes it a concept album of source, albeit one without a narrative.

 

Although Dark Matter is deeply personal, it is not an album explicitly about Eddie family, or a particular loss (as fans I suspect we overdetermine the specter of Chris Cornell in Eddie’s writing). It is not about death or a direct exploration of his history and legacy as a musician, although all these experiences inform the album. They would have to. Even when Eddie writes about characters, he is almost always processing his own experiences, his own thoughts, his own values. Eddie’s lyrics have always been autobiographical fiction.

 

Instead, Dark Matter is an album about time, connection, and purpose.  It is about fearing the end when the work isn’t finished and too much is left unsaid and undone. It is about renewal, and continuity, found and nurtured through the legacy we leave in the people we have touched. These are not new themes, but Dark Matter manifests them in a more visceral way than the cerebral Gigaton, and with a broader field of vision than Backspacer and Lightning Bolt.

 

This focus on connection, on relationships, is manifested in much of Eddie’s post S/T writing, and the growing recognition that the greatest challenge facing us as individuals, as communities, and even as a species isn’t politics. It’s division. That understanding and embracing what binds us together is the necessary precondition of building anything better. It is seen in the declining specificity of Eddie’s political lyrics, and the increased emphasis on community and solidarity in his concert speeches.  Dark Matter frames its challenges as shared across all facets of human experience, rather than fixating on who is right or wrong, or whose experience of oppression gets priority.  It explores the dark matter of unseen and unsaid and undone things that define us and looks to strengthen what exists in the visible spaces in which we consciously live.

 

It is a record that understands the generative force of a question and the untapped power inherent in the possibility of an answer.  But it also understands the bounded fragility of those moments where we reach for those answers. Dark Matter understands that each of these moments holds within it an ending and beginning, and that we get to choose.  Our lives are a constant struggle to grasp that core truth. It’s an idea Pearl Jam’s music has instinctively grasped from the beginning, and tried to articulate, but never with this much clarity and purpose.

 

It is a remarkable record, full of life because it is haunted by death, made up of individual moments given coherence by the totality of the life that lived them.  Afraid of endings while embracing the beginnings that follow.  It is the start of a final chapter that has yet to be written and cannot be completed alone. It is an album that reaches for immortality and finds it in continuity.  It hopes and mourns and searches for meaning and significance, but, above all, it dreams of love.

 






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    Dark Matter

    Scared of Fear

    Scared of Fear begins with an ambient intro intentionally modeled after Master/Slave, and while it doesn’t reprise itself after Setting Sun, there is a near perfect transition from the end of the record back into the instrumental opening. It gives Dark Matter a sense of cyclical timelessness appropriate for its subject matter.

     

    And with the crack of a pool ball, we transition into the real start of the album, in what may well be the most random choice Pearl Jam has made since putting an avocado on the cover of S/T.

     

    Scared of Fear immediately recalls the sturdy, muscular meat and potatoes rock of Who Ever Said, with some rustier edges and straighter trajectory. It is immediately familiar without being repetitive, and everyone barrels forward with a dusty dexterity and infectious energy. It’s the kind of music that finds you bouncing along unawares.  Eddie slides right into a rugged pocket that wears his years as a strength. He sounds great, and his grasp of melody on Scared of Fear (and the whole record) is remarkable and effortless in a way that does not draw attention to itself and does not leave your head. 

     

    The straight-ahead groove of the music is juxtaposed with lyrics that are trying to get out in front of a problem they can sense but not fully define. They’re defensively reflective, interrogating the past in the hope of securing the future. There is a submissive, placating, long suffering feel to the questions. “In my weakness did I somehow get too loud?” It would almost be passive aggressive if not for the need. Dark Matter is a record about creating and strengthening connections, and the fear referenced in the title is the fear of being alone.

     

    This transitions each time into a killer two-part chorus that unpacks the ease with which we trap ourselves in self-destructive cycles of recrimination, anger and guilt, and it’s the first appearance of slight but transformative variations in lyrical construction that Eddie will use to great effect throughout the record. You can track the cyclical dynamic across the song.  “I think you’re hurting yourself just to hurt me, I think you’re hurting yourself cause you hurt me. I think you’re hurting yourself just to hurt me. I think you’re hurting yourself cause you hurt me.”  Despite the clear understanding of what’s happening, there’s a co-dependent fear of engaging with the behavior for fear of breaking the connection. “Your secret is well and safe with me.”  

     

    And there are consequences, chronicled in the chorus’s bitter litany.

     

    We used to laugh

    We used to sing

    We used to dance

    We used to crash

    We used to drink

    We had our own scene

    We were our own scene

    We used to believe

     

    The past tense is quietly devastating. This world is gone, a casualty of fear. And we are charged to save what’s left in the haunted and mournful bridge “Hear the voices calling…”

     

    The music ramps up (including one of Mike’s best solos) the emotional weight and stakes as Eddie raises Dark Matter’s most important question. “Is this what we’ve become? One last setting sun?”  Resolve starts to build “I’ll give but I can’t give up” but there is one final fear “I’ll live, not long enough.”

     

    As the song spirals out, it reprises that challenge and consequences laid out in the chorus, a reminder of what is at risk. Scared of Fear manages to feel hyper present for a song about loss and memory.  And it is virtually impossible not to read the song, at least partially, as a reflection on the self-destructive wreckage of the musical community of which Pearl Jam is now the one last setting sun. It’s especially poignant not just as lived history but given the pride of place Pearl Jam has always granted to music as a source of meaning and community. What obligations follow from being that final setting sun, and what will remain when it is gone?

     

      

    React/Respond

    React/Respond’s sneering energy responds to the guilt and fear of Scared of Fear. It fully embraces the punk/new wave fusion Pearl Jam had previously edged around to great effect. The music is full of thrashing energy and semi-mocking attitude, and while it is structured as exacerbated advice, it is directed internally and avoids feeling mean spirited. Musically, it leans into the feel of My Father’s Son while amping up the aggression and dialing back the self-loathing. The pre-chorus build is surprisingly atmospheric with its plinky guitar and Eddie’s beautiful haunting moan.  It’s a dexterous performance from everyone, including Eddie, who gets to channel the semi-rapping style he used ages ago in Bad Radio in service to a much much better song. And the ending is ferocious, including the most unhinged Eddie growl-scream since Do the Evolution.

     

    Following Scared of Fear, React/Respond’s inner monologue argues the evils in our world stem from divisions, and divisions stem from self-doubt and self-hate and fear. These enervating, self-inflicted wounds metastasize into anger that we then instinctively inflict upon each other as a form of self-protection. React/Respond challenges us to channel our pain, our frustration, our rage that the world we have is not the one we need, into something positive. Something that shares and therefore builds upon our power, amplifying it into something transformative and self-sustaining. If we can “turn this anger into nuclear fission” then “the light gets brighter as it grows” and “the darkness it recedes.”

     

    This is not easy. It takes intentionality and will, the ability to respond instead of instinctively react. And it requires vulnerability, and probably a leap of faith, but the payoff justifies the risk. “Questions dissolve the more you believe.”   

     

    Wreckage

    Wreckage’s gently tumbling music creates a lovely autumnal backdrop for its bittersweet musings. It manages to feel simultaneously moving and standing still, like your life passing you by as you remain trapped in your regrets.  Wreckage is probably the least flashy song on Dark Matter, but it’s a welcome respite after the storm and stress of the first two songs. It has some of the darkest lyrics on the record, but everyone’s performance manifests an insistence to learn from our mistakes that both lighten the mood and remind us that failure is a precondition of deep and lasting growth.

     

    Wreckage is a song about life after loss, and the patterns in our lives that lead us there. There is a sense of inevitability that runs through Wreckage, as thoughts in darkened days spool out into darkened weeks. There is a palpable sense of longing for something we cannot get back, the understated beauty of the gliding melody masking some of the more quietly apocalyptic lyrics on Dark Matter – including arguably its best verse (outside of one titanic song).

     

    Combing through the wreckage, pouring through the sand

    Surrounded by the remnants, what we could and couldn’t have

    Raking through the ashes falling through my hands

    Charcoal on the faces in the burned up photographs

     

    Eddie also leans into water imagery as something destructive, uncontrollable, unknowable.

     

    How you are like the sun hiding somewhere beyond the rain

    Rivers overflowing, drowning all our yesterdays.

     

    And in the final naked regret before the first chorus (eight verses in):

     

    I’ve only ever wanted for it not to be this way, but you’re now like the water and the water will find its way.

     

    There is loss in the performance, and regret, but not grief. It would be easy to lean into that feeling, especially as the singer is shouldering the responsibility for loss, but Wreckage is focused on what comes next, holding out, holding on, and learning one of Dark Matter’s central lessons.

     

    This game of winner takes all and all means nothing left
    Spoils go the victor and the other left for dead.

     

    Within any argument there is a point at which the price of winning is so high, the damage so permanent, it is indistinguishable from losing. The word choice ‘wreckage’ is significant. This is a song of loss, but not absence.  Absence would be easier, cleaner. But not better. Absence is a break in continuity. Wreckage lingers. It remains. It occupies space.  You cannot passively forget. You must either put in the work to clear it away or incorporate it into what comes next. Dark Matter insists that there is opportunity in the mistakes we’ve made if we are brave enough to interrogate them. And as Wreckage builds to its climax it commits to that, “combing through the wreckage.”

     

    Dark Matter

    Dark Matter is a pulsing earthquake of a song, the music all shimmery tremors and seismic shocks. But for all its pounding drama and climactic destruction (featuring Mike’s most visceral solo on the album), it’s still exploring the same themes as the first three songs on the record, the costs of running from and refusing to take responsibility for our relationships.  The dark matter is the baggage (social, interpersonal, internal, political, structural) that stops us from seeing each other (“steal the light from your eyes”), from empathizing with each other (“drain the blood from our hearts).  We are left ‘eroding away’ and ‘pulling apart’, and Eddie’s voice is rich with a resigned, weary sadness – unable to stop it. Just bear witness.

     

     

    Dark Matter builds masterfully in its pre-chorus and Eddie’s voice takes on a pleading edge as he calls for us to see through the dark matter into the messy, interdependent consequences of our division and distance, a world in which no one wants to take responsibility (and accountability) for anyone else, and where we all suffer as a result.

     

    It’s strange these days when everyone else pays for someone else’s mistakes.

     

    Power is not equal.  Responsibility is not equal.  But we all own the consequences, and to a lesser extent, the cause.

     

    Won’t Tell

    Won’t Tell is the fullest expression of the pop sensibilities running through the record, a mischievously giddy song that evokes Fleetwood Mac and early 2000s era U2, both in attitude and in the chiming climactic guitars.  Beautiful and sly and seductive and bombastic and convinced of its own power in a way Pearl Jam is usually too self-conscious to own. There are moments that feel genuinely glorious, an emotional space they’ve never directly reached for but feels natural and familar.

     

    Although there is an immediacy to the music that feels tangible, it evokes an ethereal longing that reaches beyond what is in front of it – stretching out into dreams with the confidence that it can bring something back.  Some secret truth that makes the world understandable, that soothes the pain, that brings back what was taken or what we never had.  

     

    Won’t Tell embraces the purity of the desire you cannot name, cannot describe, and cannot hold for long but is still achingly real in the fleeting moments you can grasp it.

     

    As she smiled and played a minor chord

    In a key I never heard before

    One song and it was done.

     

    The song fades, but the need remains. And there is something beautiful about a dream that we can never realize. It’s a generative fire that burns safely, always. There will always be something perfect that waits for us, secret and safe and forever ours and ours alone.

     

    And the promise I still hold

    Won’t tell a soul.

     

     

    Upper Hand

    Upper Hand’s atmospheric, Where the Streets Have No Name opening build transitions seamlessly into the most stately and assured performance on the album, a composition that feels like Pink Floyd covered Yellow Ledbetter, before getting unapologetically swept away in a third act in a joyful climax that exists just to make that point that joyful things should exist and be answerable to nothing but the love that conjures them into being.

     

    Upper Hand ends begins with the perfectly delivered and devastatingly unadorned realization that “the distance to the end is closer now than it’s ever been.” And from there it grapples with the inevitability of that end.  That its timing will forever be beyond our control. Time belongs to the gods and endings are theirs to decide.  “Something that I never had was the upper hand.”

     

    Yet while Upper Hand is contemplative, it never surrenders to melancholy.  The end is coming, but what matters is if our life was lived well (“no room left on the pages”) and answerable only to ourselves (“though the book, it may never be read by anyone, by anyone but me”).  Eddie’s performance is confident, dignified, in control of and accepting of his fate.

     

    Almost, but not quite. There is a longing in Upper Hand – for connection, for others. And if we can find them, forge that connection, and if it endures the book gets read, and we don’t have to take those final steps alone.  As Upper Hand moves into its final sequence, it finds its people, and Eddie’s performance rises in tandem with Mike’s solo, into its reward.
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    Waiting for Stevie Part I: the Experience

    The first time I really heard Waiting for Stevie I cried. I was overwhelmed. It felt like a miracle, a religious experience that cannot possibly be explained unless you felt it too, and in that case no explanation is really needed.  But I’ll try.

     

    Ten is the album that made Pearl Jam famous. It is the sound of Eddie Vedder. The true Eddie Vedder. The one spawned a million imitators, none of whom could come within a thousand miles of capturing the magic that was so uniquely his. It was an album full of songs that shouted from mountaintops, that stretched out into space, that felt not only powerful, but infinite. They were less songs than they were commandments, a message from the Gods carved into stone that contained within them the secrets of the universe. That was how it felt to fall in love, truly in love, with Pearl Jam in that era. To open yourself up, let them in, and then seal yourself around them so that you might always carry them with you.

     

    And then, almost immediately, it was over, the band making a self-conscious choice to not write songs like that. Eddie making a self-conscious choice not to sound like that. Although there were some lingering echoes on Vs., by Vitalogy they were gone. Never to return. A new Pearl Jam was born. And it was the band I would spend the rest of my life with, that I would love with all my heart, that would go on to make the music that soundtracked the rest of my life. With every album their sound changed. And with every album Eddie changed. And I changed with them. There were albums and songs I adored. Some even more than Ten. There were albums and songs that were exactly what I needed at that moment. There were albums and songs that unfolded over time, or that would be set aside to be picked up later, when I was finally ready to receive them.  But there has always been a part of me that felt cheated. I didn’t need every album to be Ten. I didn’t WANT every album to be Ten. But THAT version of the band, I wasn’t done with them. I wasn’t ready to be done with them. But it didn’t matter. They were gone. And they were never coming back.

     

    I had read the early reviews of Dark Matter. I heard that Waiting for Stevie called to mind that 1992 Ten/Singles era of the band.  But that was thirty-two years ago. The people who made that music were not the same. I was not the same. That alchemy of place and time and openness and need and moment was gone.

     

    And so, I was not ready for this song. For what it meant. For where it took me.  It was the fulfillment of a desperate promise I never knew was made. It was the exhalation of a breath I had been holding for thirty years.  

     

    The huge riff. The thick base. The drum roll.  And then Eddie releases that glorious opening lyric, and his voice lifts off into those heights only he can command. And I am somewhere other than here. It’s not that it was unexpected. It’s that it was impossible. This was a song I would never hear. This was a song that could not exist. And somehow, somehow, now it does.

     

    Waiting for Stevie does not sound like it belongs to Ten. It belongs to Dark Matter. It is still very much of this moment. But it captures, it evokes, it embodies everything that I felt back then and have been unconsciously chasing ever since.  What Pearl Jam was.  What Pearl Jam could be. What Pearl Jam is.  Somehow in that moment, I was simultaneously the person I am at forty-seven, having lived a life I would not change, and sixteen once again, with an entire future in front of me, a world where anything and everything is still possible. I have never felt anything like it and must assume I never will again. But there are echoes of memory I will cherish every time they drift into focus.  It was indescribable. What I wrote here is not enough.  It was just a song. But somehow it was everything.

     

    You either experienced this or you did not. If you did not, you cannot understand. If you did, you know.

     

    Waiting For Stevie Part II:  the song

    Pearl Jam has many, many, many incredible songs. But there is a small cohort I think of as mission statements.  These are not necessarily their best songs (though I think they are).  These are the songs that, within the span of their runtime, encapsulate the entirety of what Pearl Jam is. Not their sound, but their purpose, their essence, their transformative potential. If someone asked you to explain Pearl Jam these are the songs you would pick.  Alive. Breath. Rearview Mirror. Corduroy. Given to Fly.  That’s really it. And now Waiting for Stevie. Twenty-six years after Given to Fly.  Should be impossible. But here we are.

     

    There is something of a frame story, but like Alive it’s important for what it evokes, rather than any narrative. It’s about a young girl, plagued by anxiety, self-doubt, uncertainty, who loses herself in music and in doing so finds herself. But really, it’s about legitimating your fears.  Sharing them. Understanding that even if you experience them alone, the experience of them is shared, and that you are not alone. You have value. You have worth. You have power and voice. And you will, in time, discover them. Just hold on.

     

    One of Eddie’s primary strengths, probably THE primary strength he has as a lyricist (and lyrics as the fusion of word and voice) is his ability to take simple declarative statements and invest them with the force of primal truths. They ring of prophecy, and at their best they feel powerful enough to reshape reality around them.  And Waiting for Stevie begins with what is both my favorite lyric on the album and its most important

     

    You can be loved by everyone, and not feel, not feel loved.

     

    This is not only a perfect encapsulation of the experience of adolescence, it’s NOT a feeling we outgrow. This stays with us, always. This kind of uncertainty is not an adolescent experience. It is a human one. It is then. It is now. It is eternal.

     

    The moment is followed with “you can be told by everyone, and not hear a word from above.”  The same doubt. The same imposter syndrome. The truths we are told that we cannot experience, that we cannot feel. And the powerlessness that follows. This is who we are. All of us.

     

    We look for fonts of meaning. To validate us. To empower us. To help us feel, for just those fleeting moments, like the people we wish we were. Could be. Are.  And in Waiting for Stevie, and Dark Matter, and Pearl Jam, we find this in their music.

     

    Swallowed up by the sound

    Cutting holes in the clouds

    Finds herself in the song

    Hears her own voice rising

     

    The imagery of music as something celestial, something that descends upon us, and in the process lifts us up.  “Finds herself in the song. Hears her own voice rising.”  It’s not just the empowerment in that moment. It’s the connection. It’s the ascendence she achieved for herself, through what she felt in the music, and the people who made it, and the ones who share her love of it. As each person lifts their own voice they carry others with them. It is a collective act of self-creation. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been to a Pearl Jam concert. You understand exactly what her experience is. It’s yours.

     

    Later,

     

    You can relate, but still can’t stop

    Or conquer the fear you are what you’re not.

     

    The self-defeating, cyclical fear that you are less than. That you are diminished. That best part of yourself is a lie, rather than the core of who you are.  And again, delivered with such iron clad conviction, soaring out into infinity, and sweeping up all of us along the way.  This is her song and story.  This is our song and story.

     

    Other lyrics explore similar dynamics.  The fear that you are less than your potential, your value, your worth. The need to love, to trust, to have something to give and to know that it will be received, and that it will matter. It’s Eddie’s most emotionally resonant lyric coupled with his most powerful performance in a long, long time.

     

    But everyone is incredible.  This only works because Jeff’s foundation is so stable, because Mike and Stone’s guitars are huge enough to carry the sentiment, because Matt has the strength to power it forward. Eddie’s voice can only soar because the band provides the lift.

     

    The song structure is unconventional. Almost entirely a hybrid bridge/chorus. There is a ghost of a bridge before Waiting for Stevie essentially resets for a second half that gets overtaken by a massive Mike McCready solo. It is a messy transition, and it takes a few seconds for the song to realign to what Mike is playing. But it works because it is so obviously swept up in that perfect moment. It is authentic. It is real. It poured out of him, not as an act of craft, but of necessity.  The emotional punctuation of an already overloaded emotional experience. And as this is happening Eddie’s mantra flows out and embeds itself underneath.

     

    You can be loved. You can be love.

     

    First, the assurance that you are not alone.  And second, that what you have to give is so much more than you know.

     

     

    Dark Matter feels like a live album, and Waiting for Stevie is a perfect distillation of what is transcendent about Pearl Jam’s live experience. It is the first time Pearl Jam has written a song that you could plausibly imagine replacing Alive to close in a set. It is everything. It is the first time you fist bumped during Alive’s solo. It is the first time you closed your eyes as Eddie sang the opening notes of Release. It is your first ‘it’s okay’ Daughter tag. Your first Betterman sing along. The first time you screamed ‘Hello’. The first time you heard Given to Fly accelerate. The first time you lost yourself in a Rearviewmirror jam. The first time you sang along during the climax of Black.  A lived experience. A shared experience. A perfect experience.

     

    The heart of Waiting for Stevie is the heart of Dark Matter, and the heart of Pearl Jam. The elemental reciprocity of love.


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    Interlude

    There is a beautiful interlude that follows Waiting for Stevie. A badly needed moment to take a breath as Eddie sings “Be mighty. Be humble. Be mighty humble.” A reflection on the power and privilege and responsibility of having a voice and having the opportunity to share it.

     

     

    Running

    Which follows immediately into the hyper kinetic Running, an absurd transition that absolutely should not work and absolutely does. In part because Running needs to lower the stakes after an unusually emotionally intense run of songs. Possibly for the first time, the late album cool down track is needed.

     

    But Running is a disposable delight. Jeff plays the hell out of it. The familiar punk chords are colored in by great drilling guitar fills. The melody is insanely catchy and surprisingly dexterous for a song like this.  The gang vocals are a blast. The bridge interjects some welcome drama, and there’s a completely reckless and chaotic outro.  Everyone is having a grand time, and the song knows exactly what it is.

     

    The lyrics punch a little above the weight class of the song.  They aren’t Eddie’s best, but the wordplay and flow are clever and fun, and the bridge interjects some weight.

     

    Living in the shadows, crossing my fingers

    A date with the gallows and a reprieve not looking lightly

     

    Some of the themes around frustration, uncertainty, the finality of endings, the fear that it will come before we’re ready recur throughout, ensuring that Running stays grounded and relevant in a thematically heavy album, despite its lightness.

     

    Something Special

    Something Special takes a moment to align to your expectations.  Other than Running, Dark Matter is a pretty serious record (as almost all Pearl Jam records are), and so Running probably must precede Something Special. It’s a country tinged, winning, relentlessly catchy ear worm of a song. The musicianship is lovely, and everyone completely commits to the song.  This is clearly an ‘Eddie family song’, but unlike predecessors like Just Breath, The End, or Future Days, this is a song the entire band composed and played. Everyone has a relevant contribution, and it lends the proceedings legitimacy, if not gravitas (which it does not want), they wouldn’t otherwise have.  It is genuinely fun to listen to if your understanding of what constitutes a Pearl Jam song isn’t too cramped (this is a song I would have hated in 1996 when Who You Are was a struggle and Mankind a bridge too far).

     

    Eddie is singing to his daughters. A loving father’s affirmation of their worth and value. His pride. His love. His hopes and dreams and, nestled within them, his fears.  There is some clever wordplay, and every moment is dripping with sentiment. There is some cheesy dad energy to both the lyrics and delivery, but with intent. This song knows what it is, and Eddie knows exactly what he is doing.  And while it probably helps that I have daughters, I don’t have a direct one-to-one correlation with the subject matter of most Pearl Jam songs, something only necessary for the most literal minded. If you have pride and aspiration and concern and feel protective towards something in your life that is moving towards independence, you can find something to relate to here.

     

    And that’s the hidden strength of Something Special that may not reveal itself on early listens. This is quite a bittersweet song. It is about saying goodbye to your birds as they fly from your nest. It is trying to cram in every bit of parting advice they might ever need (whether or not they want to hear it) because you can no longer be sure you’ll be there to give it to them. Knowing the doubts and fears you faced (and still do), it’s about making sure they can see in themselves the strength that you find there. It’s more majestic when Eddie covers this territory in Waiting for Stevie, but it’s real and true here too.

     

    And there is the final lyric of the song.  “We’ve done all that we can do.” Eddie delivers the lyric with a sigh. And not of relief. Of finality. Whatever happens next is beyond his control. In a very real way, this is where he says goodbye. The care never ends. The fear never ends. The love never ends. But it’s for them to manage now. You can only hope you’ve done enough, knowing that life can be impossible in so many ways, and all you can do will never be enough.

     

    Got to Give

    Got to Give opens with another lovely interlude. Musically it is an organic transition out of Something Special, but it also serves to raise the stakes as we move towards the conclusion of Dark Matter.

     

    Got to Give is a ramshackle roots rock anthem.  It’s open-hearted and optimistic and probably Eddie’s best homage to Springsteen, successful because it doesn’t shy away from the pop sensibilities that soften Bruce’s excess.  Pearl Jam has a lot of ‘getting in a car and driving away songs’, and it’s a vibe that at this point doesn’t need a car. Got to Give finds itself in that lineage, driving a convertible.

     

    At this point Dark Matter is starting to tie its core themes together, and Got to Give can be understood at least partly as a prelude to the sublime Setting Sun.  It starts from a place of concern about the health and stability of a relationship, the conflict hiding behind the ‘cheap disguise’ of someone he cares deeply for. The frustration is there as well, and there are echoes of Scared of Fear.  Same fears, better communication, or at least more front facing optimism and grit.

     

    There is a bounce to both Scared of Fear and Got to Give, but Scared of Fear floated along on anxious energy, whereas Got to Give is running on both stubborn optimism and open acceptance that a life in process will always be messy. It commits to lean into, rather than fight this.

     

    And here I am just picking up the parts

    A broken engine busted lifted up on blocks

    Should have made the turn when the road got rough

    But who knew?

     

    There is a fighting spirit in the chorus sees Eddie embracing his 70s classic rock roots, the sincere and simple belief that if you sing with enough conviction, you move mountains.

     

    I will be the last one standing…bracing my heart until something gives

     

    Cracks emerge as we transition into the back half of the song –human limits to patience and a need to push through the bullshit so we can get to the point of what really matters. “That we are better. Together you and me.”

     

    It’s a familiar point but Got to Give sticks its emotional landing with a major key jam, and spirited outro from Eddie that sees him bouncing with confidence across his range, challenging his inner Daltry and nailing it. It’s a bracing moment in a winning song that helps pivot into Dark Matter’s incredible closing moments.

     

     

     

    Setting Sun

    Pearl Jam generally writes three types of album closers. Some are triumphant or defiant (think Release, All Those Yesterdays, Inside Job). Some are quiet and meditative (Indifference, Immortality, Around the Bend, Parting Ways, All or None. The End, Future Days, River Cross).  Some are anxious (see pretty much all the songs I just listed).  Setting Sun might be the first one to successfully straddle all three spaces.

     

    There are some remarkable tonal shifts in a song that feels familiar and new, like an improvisation on an old theme. There is a real island beach feel to the music, almost like Indifference and All Those Yesterdays were rewritten in a Hawaiian bungalow. Same existential concerns but coming from someone whose life has known real joy, only to see it all fall apart before the end. Before the work is done. Before the need is gone.  Or worse, broken and wrecked. The connection gone. The love gone.

     

    There’s a quiet commitment to keep moving forward. To keep searching. Grounded in fear of and need for connection– states of mind explored throughout the record. It’s an act of faith, with the conviction to will it into existence.

     

    Keep knocking the door

    Cause I know someone’s there

    I wait on the porch

    Hoping someday I’ll be let in.

     

    They say in the end

    Everything will be okay

    If it’s not okay

    Well then, it ain’t the end.

     

    It’s not a sentiment all that dissimilar from All or None, though it comes more from a place of hope than muscle memory. It’s explored more openly in the beautiful chorus that ties together themes and ideas that have been running through the record – the need for connections, the longing (the secret hidden in Won’t Tell), the desire to stretch the moments we have out forever.  And the recognition that forever comes to an end, one moment at a time, until we are once again alone.

     

    Had dreams to you I would belong

    Had the dream you would stay with me til Kingdom Come

    Turns out forever has come and gone

    Am I the only one hanging on?

     

    The second set of verses and chorus revisit the same themes, the lives shared and lost, and what it means to linger after the people you love are gone. There are small but significant lyrical changes, like the passive/descriptive ‘had the dream you would stay with me til Kingdom Come’ shifting to the more active, grasping ‘held the dream…’

     

    Eddie’s voice lifts the lyrics alongside the music, everyone in beautiful mourning over the too late realization that we failed (or cannot) to hold onto what he have, and the desolating cost of loss. As the music hits its sustained peak, he clings to his invocations:

     

    If you could see what I see now

    You’d find a way to stay somehow

     

    The impossible wish to linger on, if not with love than in love. If not in love, then with the possibility of love. For as long as we can. For as long as we need. But not, ultimately, forever. Lives change. Loves change. We change. Our lives and loves change us. And they will end. They must. And we must let them.  As the music reaches its crescendo and Dark Matter draws to a close, we are offered our last and final choice.  How will it end?

     

    “We could become one last setting sun.” Our light diminished. Our legacy darkness.


    Or we can find a way to live on. If not in ourselves then in the lives we’ve touched, the love we shared. The connections we made, and the people who receive our light.  “We could be the sun at the break of dawn.”

     

    And when understood that way, turns out there’s no choice to make after all. “Let us not fade…”

     

    Human connection is the dark matter between us. And what we fear is its power. It forges the chains that bind us to our past, our present, and our future. It anchors love. It conquers death. It pulls us through the wreckage of our world.

     

    We just need to see it. To have someone guide us through. Thirty-three years ago, that’s the promise Pearl Jam made to us. Thirty-three years later, miraculously, it’s the one they’ve kept. To keep shouting until we hear. To keep shouting until we believe. Until their voice isn’t needed because we have joined in.

     

    You are not alone.

     

    You are loved.

     

    Don’t give up.

     

     


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    SpunkieSpunkie I come from downtown. Posts: 5,725
    edited April 21
    EDITS may include:

    - Eddie's family needs an apostrophy

    - Post S/T abbreviation? Use full words first time, then bracket the abbreviations to use if they follow

    - Starting sentences with 'but' and 'and'

    - "Afraid of endings..." sentence fragment, use commas or ;

    - Song titles in quotes, album names italicized

    - Repetition: "It is a record"and "it is a remarkable record" as topic sentences

    - "React/Respond challenges us to channel our pain, our frustration, our rage that the world we have is not the one we need, into something positive."  Yeah, this sentence isn't quite right, too

    -"Waiting for Stevie begins with what is both my favorite lyric on the album and its most important" (needs a period)

    -"again…." - Ed uses a ,...; or use only three periods.

    -"Something that shares and therefore builds upon our power, amplifying it into something transformative and self-sustaining. If we can “turn this anger into nuclear fission” then “the light gets brighter as it grows” and “the darkness it recedes.”" The period goes on the outside of the bracket in this case.

    ", but Wreckage is" - forgot to (quotation) italicized this

    - the first paragraph in the "Dark Matter commentary has a sentence followed by two spaces which is old school, but not consistent. This error recurs

    -" Beautiful and sly and seductive and bombastic and convinced" - poetry, not prose

    Sentence fragment: "Not their sound, but their purpose, their essence, their transformative potential"

    "Just Breath (e)", needs an 'e'

     "true here too." (,too - needs a comma)

    "Same fears, better communication, or at least more front facing optimism and grit" (incomplete sentence)

     -Full names like Bruce Springsteen and Roger Daltry are required

    "Same existential concerns" - keep an eye on the sentence fragments. You can proofread starting at the end of your composition sentence by sentence. And watch for the sentences starting with And/But!

    Excellent content, knowledge, understanding, and vocabulary Dr. Z!
    Post edited by Spunkie on
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    edoconedocon Posts: 308
    A truly great examination of the record.  Thanks for this.
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    bootlegbootleg Posts: 550
    Great review.  You are truly a talented writer.   And I am right there with you on Waiting for Stevie.  I experienced it too and wouldn’t know how to explain it.  You did better than I ever could.
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    Incredible review Stip. Always enjoy your insight and writing. I have had such a visceral reaction to this album and I've been having a hard time trying to comprehend how it's made me feel. I never saw this coming but I feel incredibly grateful that it has. 
    " Things were different then, all is different now "

    Seattle 09-16-96, Vancouver 07-19-98, Seattle 11-05-00, Seattle 12-09-02, Vancouver 05-30-03, Vancouver 09-02-05, Gorge 07-23-06, Seattle 09-21-09, Seattle 09-22-09, Vancouver 09-25-09
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    May 30thMay 30th Posts: 1,671
    Great review. Listening again to the album. No words at times how good it is!! The boys killed it on this record. So glad I’m seeing them soon!
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    Johnny AbruzzoJohnny Abruzzo Philly Posts: 10,579
    Spunkie said:
    EDITS may include:

    - Eddie's family needs an apostrophy

    - Post S/T abbreviation? Use full words first time, then bracket the abbreviations to use if they follow

    - Starting sentences with 'but' and 'and'

    - "Afraid of endings..." sentence fragment, use commas or ;

    - Song titles in quotes, album names italicized

    - Repetition: "It is a record"and "it is a remarkable record" as topic sentences

    - "React/Respond challenges us to channel our pain, our frustration, our rage that the world we have is not the one we need, into something positive."  Yeah, this sentence isn't quite right, too

    -"Waiting for Stevie begins with what is both my favorite lyric on the album and its most important" (needs a period)

    -"again…." - Ed uses a ,...; or use only three periods.

    -"Something that shares and therefore builds upon our power, amplifying it into something transformative and self-sustaining. If we can “turn this anger into nuclear fission” then “the light gets brighter as it grows” and “the darkness it recedes.”" The period goes on the outside of the bracket in this case.

    ", but Wreckage is" - forgot to (quotation) italicized this

    - the first paragraph in the "Dark Matter commentary has a sentence followed by two spaces which is old school, but not consistent. This error recurs

    - 2000s - 2000's, 70s/70's

    -" Beautiful and sly and seductive and bombastic and convinced" - poetry, not prose

    Sentence fragment: "Not their sound, but their purpose, their essence, their transformative potential"

    "Just Breath (e)", needs an 'e'

     "true here too." (,too - needs a comma)

    "Same fears, better communication, or at least more front facing optimism and grit" (incomplete sentence)

     -Full names like Bruce Springsteen and Roger Daltry are required

    "Same existential concerns" - keep an eye on the sentence fragments. You can proofread starting at the end of your composition sentence by sentence. And watch for the sentences starting with And/But!

    Excellent content, knowledge, understanding, and vocabulary Dr. Z!
    1990s 2000s

    This is the correct plural method for decades. 
    Spectrum 10/27/09; New Orleans JazzFest 5/1/10; Made in America 9/2/12; WF Center 10/21/13; WF Center 10/22/13;
    Baltimore Arena 10/27/13; WF Center 4/28/16; WF Center 4/29/16; Fenway Park 8/7/16; Fenway Park 9/2/18;
    Asbury Park 9/18/21; Camden 9/14/22; Las Vegas 5/16/24

    Tres Mtns - TLA 3/23/11; EV - Tower Theatre 6/25/11; Temple of the Dog - Tower Theatre 11/5/16
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    SpunkieSpunkie I come from downtown. Posts: 5,725
    Oh, thank you! Initially I had a question mark by that and was too lazy to look it up!
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    i do need to adapt that review so your comments are helpful :)
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    Johnny AbruzzoJohnny Abruzzo Philly Posts: 10,579
    i do need to adapt that review so your comments are helpful :)
    Loved the review! I agree Waiting for Stevie is an iconic PJ Song. 
    Spectrum 10/27/09; New Orleans JazzFest 5/1/10; Made in America 9/2/12; WF Center 10/21/13; WF Center 10/22/13;
    Baltimore Arena 10/27/13; WF Center 4/28/16; WF Center 4/29/16; Fenway Park 8/7/16; Fenway Park 9/2/18;
    Asbury Park 9/18/21; Camden 9/14/22; Las Vegas 5/16/24

    Tres Mtns - TLA 3/23/11; EV - Tower Theatre 6/25/11; Temple of the Dog - Tower Theatre 11/5/16
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    SpunkieSpunkie I come from downtown. Posts: 5,725
    i do need to adapt that review so your comments are helpful :)
    Great. I'm glad I had an English teacher that took the time to mark up my pages in red with most of that stuff!
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    gonzogonzo Posts: 561
    Fantastic review. You elucidated emotions that I often try to put into words when speaking of Pearl Jam. Thank you!
    peace,
    gonzo
    4/10/94, 9/28/96, 9/29/96, 4/30/03, 7/8/03, 7/9/03, 10/01/04, 9/15/05, 9/30/05, 10/01/05, 5/4/06, 6/1/06, 6/3/06, 6/19/08, 6/22/08, 6/24/08, 6/25/08, 6/27/08, 8/23/09, 8/24/09, 10/27/09, 10/28/09, 10/31/09, 5/17/10, 5/18/10, 5/20/10, 5/21/10, 9/3/11, 9/4/11, 10/15/13, 10/18/13, 10/19/13, 10/25/13, 9/26/15, 4/28/16, 4/29/16, 5/1/16, 5/2/16, 8/5/16, 8/7/16, 4/7/17, 8/8/18, 8/10/18
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    VINNY GOOMBAVINNY GOOMBA Posts: 1,803
    Stip, you couldn't have said it better.  Especially about Waiting For Stevie.  That one GOT ME too.  Several listens later it still makes me well up.  Setting Sun a bit too.  I have to say, this Pearl Jam album makes me feel more on the sentimentality scale than any of their other work.  Usually the feeling I am most overcome by on any PJ song or album is simply "FUCK YEAH!".  This one is different.  Truly some of their finest work.
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    thanks :)  this is entirely self serving but if you read through that and thought 'this is fine, but what if it was the whole catalog' I have a book coming out this July that is exactly that (Amazon says October but that's incorrect). "I Am No Guide - Pearl Jam Song By Song"  It was going to come out in April but we pushed it back to include Dark Matter





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    rahjiimrahjiim Posts: 132
    thanks :)  this is entirely self serving but if you read through that and thought 'this is fine, but what if it was the whole catalog' I have a book coming out this July that is exactly that (Amazon says October but that's incorrect). "I Am No Guide - Pearl Jam Song By Song"  It was going to come out in April but we pushed it back to include Dark Matter





    Will there be a kindle version? 
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    WMA1975WMA1975 Salish Sea Posts: 1
    Oh. Someone knows exactly what I felt when i listened to Waiting for Stevie for the first time and increasingly every time since. Thanks for having the words I could not. 
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    cincybearcatcincybearcat Posts: 16,132
    thanks :)  this is entirely self serving but if you read through that and thought 'this is fine, but what if it was the whole catalog' I have a book coming out this July that is exactly that (Amazon says October but that's incorrect). "I Am No Guide - Pearl Jam Song By Song"  It was going to come out in April but we pushed it back to include Dark Matter





    Haven't read through all of this yet as it is a lot.  But I love your dedication to this and really appreciate you posting it.  I'll check out the link.
    hippiemom = goodness
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    rahjiim said:
    thanks :)  this is entirely self serving but if you read through that and thought 'this is fine, but what if it was the whole catalog' I have a book coming out this July that is exactly that (Amazon says October but that's incorrect). "I Am No Guide - Pearl Jam Song By Song"  It was going to come out in April but we pushed it back to include Dark Matter





    Will there be a kindle version? 
    i think so.  this seems like a thing i should know
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