You can’t be neutral on a moving train

Riot Act cover

Riot Act turned 14 earlier this month, along with its immediate predecessor Binaural a somewhat underrated album in the middle of the Pearl Jam pack.* Both albums were critically acclaimed on release, but over time their lustre has seemingly dimmed for many (though not for me; they remain strong personal favourites). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it’s the early albums, along with the more overtly straightforward rock contained in Yield, that continue to have find more favour generally, as evidenced by this Rolling Stone readers’ poll from July 2013.**

It can be posited, though, that Riot Act‘s principal strength is also the primary cause of its relative lack of wider regard. Well-crafted throughout, it reveals a band willing to stretch itself and broaden its sound, whilst capturing a warm organic vibe.*** Lyrically it was largely a challenge to the Bush administration at a time when outrage following the horrendous events of 11 September 2001 were inhibiting any sensible political debate, and the American government was largely given by its press and its people a free hand to behave as it wished, both in response to the real and perceived threat of Islamic terrorism and more generally in its pursuit of questionable, self-aggrandising foreign and domestic policies.**** Most obviously in the asperity of ‘Bu$hleaguer’, but throughout the recording generally, Pearl Jam laid down an important cultural marker (one for which they faced criticism from some sources when later touring the album in 2003). As Eddie Vedder said at the time, it reflected his state of mind at the time: ‘optimistic yet disillusioned, hopeful yet frustrated’.

Embed from Getty Images

Whilst the album rewards close attention and contains some truly excellent material – ‘Thumbing My Way’ and ‘I Am Mine’ would grace any album – as a consequence of its overall sound and approach, there’s no single song capable of immediately grabbing the attention of the more transient listener. Even the faster, angrier songs contain a restrained, elegiac quality.

However, during the sessions for Riot Act, the band had written just this sort of song, two of them in fact; they simply decided the songs just didn’t fit comfortably on the album. Lyrically, as political protest pieces, ‘Down’ and ‘Undone’ fit perfectly, the former including the pithy quote from social historian and activist Howard Zinn that titles this post and arguably sums up one of the central themes of the recording sessions. Musically, the touch in both is too light. Fortunately, neither wasn’t lost to posterity, both ending up the following year on the B-sides and rarities double-album Lost Dogs instead. ‘Down’ also made it in to the bonus material for the Live at the Garden DVD. (You might want to skip to about 1.10 in the below, unless you’re a massive fan of baseball and/or Mike McCready.)

You can find a live version of ‘Undone’ from 2008 on my PJ 2012 US tour posters post; in this election year, even more than in the last two, its lyrics feel especially pertinent.

The more eagle-eyed among you, or at least those most aware of the passage of time, will have spotted that it’s been a while since my last post. Six months and five days, to be precise. It was a busy summer, but I’ve had something of a writer’s block more recently, comprising a slew of draft posts that I can’t quite finalise, but which I hope to complete over the next couple of months…

* See, for example, this recent listing of PJ’s albums, which placed Binaural 8th and Riot Act 7th. I don’t particularly find this kind of rating of music a terribly constructive exercise, but the notes about each album merit perusal.
** Ahead of the release of Lightning Bolt (and so with Live on Ten Legs completing the set), this one had Riot Act at 9 and Binaural at 7. Some people!
*** Most obviously with the addition of Boom Gaspar on keyboards. It was also still only Matt Cameron’s second album with the band.
**** The album was also an attempt by the band – most clearly in ‘Love Boat Captain’ – to come to terms with the tragedy at Roskilde in 2000, when nine fans in the crowd lost their lives.


About Mark Anstee

guitarist, Radio Seattle View all posts by Mark Anstee

Share, if it makes you sleep, if it sets you free, if it helps you breathe…

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