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Pearl Jam – No Code

November 9, 2007

Apple, outlet, Dennis Rodman’s eye, pool ball, rotting teeth, zipper. The cover of No Code confounds and confuses, as does the album in it’s entirety. This album was released during a time when no one seemed to be able to quite figure out the point or overall goal of Pearl Jam in rock music. Jumping from mainstream rock anthems to hard rock, grunge, acoustic balladry, blues, classic rock revival, experimental junk rock, and back again within the span of one album, let alone their entire career, made Pearl Jam a hard band to pin in any area, and upon first listens, some songs or albums may appeal to some listeners and not others. Pearl Jam are a band that writes and plays whatever they feel like, exploring a wide range of issues, while still maintaining artistic integrity and an excellent sense of pure rock and roll. No Code is arguably Pearl Jam’s most diverse, jumpy, and spontaneous album to date, and probably the most prone to being misunderstood. What the hell is Pearl Jam trying to say with this set of thirteen seemingly unrelated songs? What the hell are Pearl Jam all about anyway?

My experience with Pearl Jam has stretched through my entire lifetime, since I was very young and my mother played the records and I heard them on the radio, to my childhood when she stuck with the band when the media did not, to my early high school years when I rediscovered the band and countless songs and hooks that colored my childhood, to now when I am progressively rounding up all the stray material and learning why exactly I enjoy them. When I popped No Code into my stereo years ago, probably six years after it was actually released, I recognized some of the songs and did not recognize others. This scramble of familiarity made things all the more confusing, yet kept me that much more interested and willing to stick with the album.

I began asking myself questions, because that is exactly what adolescents do. They ask themselves questions that they can’t answer, mostly because they are too lazy and don’t want to work hard enough to find the answers. Why do I like this album? Why does the album juxtapose (well, maybe I didn’t know words THAT big) hard rockers awkwardly next to quiet ballads? Why does Who You Are, the song that sounds like it SHOULD be the opener, come third in the line? Who is Jerome Turner? Why does Eddie narrate the lyrics to I’m Open? Is Lukin even a word? Why did this album only come with nine Polaroids with song lyrics on them, not even coving all the songs? And what is with all this cover art, indecipherable phantasmagoria?

It took me several years of occasional listening to unwrap No Code and get to the point where I enjoyed it fully. The songs that stood out on first listen were Hail Hail and Off He Goes, simply because I recognized them. Experiences like the ones I had with these songs were the reason that I started to get so interested in music in the first place. The nostalgia, rushes of memories, and sense of vague familiarity were what made many albums in my mothers collection feel like buried treasure. Although I gravitated to those songs in particular, there were several more that struck me as outwardly fantastic, such as the other single Who You Are. The aforementioned song is nothing short of a masterpiece for Pearl Jam and an accurate representation of No Code. It swirls into view with a pounding beat and is dotted with many tidbits of foreign instrument, such as steel drums and sitars. The sitar is used again to it’s full potential by the time the song has revealed it’s winning hook and cemented it’s place in the listeners ears. That paired with a wonderful guitar solo makes it one of the finest songs on the album.

This excellence is not lonely. It’s easy for me to say that every song on this album is really great, but from a commercial standpoint, Pearl Jam knew how to put their best foot forward with No Code by producing three singles which would become radio staples. Hail Hail, Who You Are, and Off He Goes are all fantastic songs in their own right, and all coming from three completely different directions. Hail Hail is one hell of a riff rocker, Who You Are is an eclectic anthem, and Off He Goes is a gentle acoustic ballad that rivals Daughter in sheer quality. These songs would be enough to reel in the casual listener, which would then be hit hard with all the other great things Pearl Jam has to say here. Every song is finely tuned and unique; Sometimes is a reflective prayer, In My Tree is a driving explosion of glorious sound, Habit is as angry and rhythmic as the preceding album Vitalogy’s Spin The Black Circle, and I’m Open is poetry recited over gentle ambient chords and soft beats. This album has about as much continuity and order to it as a fleeting stage one dream.

And yet somehow it works. No Code ends with Around The Bend, a deceptively simple lullaby of tropical style. This ending is deceptive, but ultimately satisfying and beautiful. The listener naturally expects some kind of stylistic answer or solution within that last song, and this might be yet another unsatisfying venture on the first listen. But like the whole album, it opens up with a little time. This is the brilliant code that is communicated through the album perfectly, that is, there is no code. The second you start to pin down a pattern or style in Pearl Jam, they will undoubtedly change or surprise you. The only way to fully appreciate No Code, and Pearl Jam, is to take several steps backward and look at the full picture. Pearl Jam are an excellent band that make whatever music they want to, with whatever message they feel. The entire notion that Pearl Jam cast away their fan base by becoming more experimental is a sad misconception. Pearl Jam never attempted to alienate anyone. It is not their fault that they have a strong desire to push their creative boundaries, and it is not their fault that their true fans were revealed in the process. In any case, No Code is the keystone to Pearl Jam’s discography, and the picture of excellence by which the rest of their albums should be judged, even their earlier, more revered works such as Ten. It might not make any sense at first, but that makes it all the more fun. No Code is a puzzle which can be solved in a number of ways, all yielding the same solution, a transcendent masterpiece.

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4 comments

  1. Ten
    Released: 1991-08-27

    ——————————————————————————–

    Once
    Even Flow
    Alive
    Why Go
    Black
    Jeremy
    Oceans
    Porch
    Garden
    Deep
    Release

    Released August 27, 1991 – Epic 47857
    Length: 53:25

    Dave Krusen – Drums
    Jeff Ament – Basses
    Eddie Vedder – Vocals
    Mike McCready – Lead Guitars
    Stone Gossard – Guitars

    Additional Players: Rick Parashar – Piano, Organ, Percussion
    Walter Gray – Cello
    Tim Palmer – Fire Extinguisher, Pepper Shaker

    Produced by: Pearl Jam and Rick Parashar
    Recorded at: London Bridge Studios, Seattle, March/April ’91
    Mixed by: Tim Palmer
    Additional Engineering by: Dave Hillis, Don Gilmore, Adrian Moore
    Mixed at: Ridge Farm Studios, Dorking, England, June ’91
    Mastered by: Bob Ludwig
    Sony Music A&R: Chris Longst, Rogue Gallart, Ron Donnaruma
    Sony Music Distribution 1991

    vs.
    Released: 1993-10-19

    ——————————————————————————–

    Go
    Animal
    Daughter
    Glorified G
    Dissident
    W.M.A.
    Blood
    Rearviewmirror
    Rats
    Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town
    Leash
    Indifference

    Released October 19, 1993 – Epic 53136
    Length: 46:17

    Dave Abbruzzese – Drums
    Jeff Ament – Basses
    Stone Gossard – Guitars
    Mike McCready – Lead Guitars
    Eddie Vedder – Vocals

    Produced by: Brendan O’Brien and Pearl Jam
    Assisting: Nick DiDia, Kevin Scott, Adam Kasper
    Created at: Potatohead, Seattle, Washington The Site in Nicasio, California

    Sony Music A&R: Chris Longst, Rogue Gallart, Ron Donnaruma
    Sony Music Distribution 1993


  2. Sorry honey, gonna have to try a little harder than that.


  3. I think you really hit the nail on the head with a lot of the stuff you said there. Pearl Jam are a band that do what they want to do, how they want to do it, when they want to do it. No Code is arguably Pearl Jam’s most interesting record, if it doesn’t jump out to too many as a favourite.

    Personally for me it’s synonymous with a certain point in my life a few years back. I’d had it a little while but it hadn’t quite clicked into place yet. I went through a couple of problems in my life and suddenly it all made sense. Whenever I listen to it now it always takes me back to that point. Who could’ve thought that what could look to be a halfhearted gap album on the surface was such a powerful masterpiece underneath?

    Two other highlights you didn’t mention are “Red Mosquito” and “Present Tense.” Though the whole album shines from beginning to end.


  4. I’d say No Code was their peak. After that, I liked some songs off of Yield and loved a lot of Binaural, but they haven’t yet come back to the sheer excellence of the writing on this record. It covers a lot of emotions and sounds, and they showed they weren’t just a ‘grunge’ band, rather a rock staple for the years to come. Plus, Present Tense is especially meaningful to me.



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