8.Riot Act, 2002 - Pearl Jam's darkest album emerged in the Autumn of 2002 as the strongest musical statement produced since George W. Bush took office nearly two years prior, and certainly the boldest protest against Bush since the events of September 11, 2001. The other troubling theme that formed the album's foundation was death, specifically due to the tragedy at the 2000 Roskilde Festival in Denmark, in which nine audience members were trampled to death during Pearl Jam's performance. Due to the heavy subjects at hand, the music resounds in a similarly heavy fashion, nearly every song carrying ponderous emotional and spiritual weight, both musically and lyrically. Even the album's artwork is dark, nearly every single page largely carrying the color black. The result is a downtrodden, mournful and anti-pop recording, a document of the time and clairvoyant vision of the political future.
The music on Riot Act has been described as having "folk, art rock and experimental" (wikipedia, allmusic.com) influences, but the music Pearl Jam has always and forever based its sound around is the broad realm of Classic Rock, i.e. nearly every rock derivative under the sun. Riot Act features no more folk, art rock, or experimental flourishes than Vitalogy, and carries just as much of the less discussed punk and hard rock influences as any other Pearl Jam album. While the forms utilized on this album cannot aptly be described as fitting within the "progressive rock" realm, the songwriting is always a personal progression for PJ with each album.
There is a variety of music on Riot Act, but each of the 15 songs is underscored by a somber, pained tone. It seems as though whenever the music brightened up, Eddie Vedder felt the need to bring it back down with black lyrics or highly restrained singing and whenever the lyrics and singing climbed to anything resembling an uplifting or hopeful state, the band automatically brought the musical themes crashing back down to a murky, dank hole.
While the Bush administration takes the lead role in tracks such as "Green Disease," "1/2 Full" and obviously "Bushleaguer," the centerpiece of the album is the sense of loss, resignation, and the rare, cautious hope found in "Thumbing My Way," "I Am Mine," "Can't Keep," "All Or None" and "Love Boat Captain." These songs, in my opinion, form the backbone of the album due to their lyrics being more direct and potent than any of the rest of the album’s tracks, as well as their compositions carrying the greatest weight. They deliver the classic Pearl Jam sound while somehow simultaneously lifting the band to new places and introducing new angles into our vision of what PJ truly is. “Can’t Keep” opens the album as a release of lost souls ("I don't live forever, you can't keep me here"), while "Thumbing My Way" ("I turned my back, now there's no turning back") and "All Or None" ("I'm starting to believe that this hopeless situation is what I'm trying to achieve") feature a lonely, lost traveler bearing the weight of the heart-broken world. “I Am Mine" and “Love Boat Captain” are the most optimistic songs on the album, directly addressing the Roskilde tragedy through a brighter lens, the former a declaration from Eddie to himself, his band and the fan base that, "there's no need to hide...we're safe tonight," the latter a sincere devotion to the power of the human spirit over the horrible disease of death: "Once you hold the hand of love, it's all surmountable." (Side note: "Love Boat Captain" is even more special for a couple of reasons - A) The introduction of Boom Gaspar, and B) the obvious, beautiful influence of John Lennon)
"You Are," one of Pearl Jam's most unique songs, is a Matt Cameron composition featuring lyrics by Cameron and Vedder and trippy processed guitars envisioned and played by Cameron. The lyrics, like "Love Boat Captain," tackle the concept of love and its healing and empowering abilities in lines such as, "Love is a tower of strength to me." Another Cameron song, "Cropduster," mirrors the effective choppy chord progression and drum loops of a Cameron Lost Dog, "In the Moonlight," but improves the style due to a more fully developed sound and song and Vedder's insightful lyrics regarding the arrogance of mankind in the 21st century. "Save You" is a full group collaboration that rocks the house every time. While the band plays a sped up version live, the studio outing is powerful in its own right. Vedder's lyrics tackle the subject of watching a loved one disintegrate, likely due to the use of drugs. There is nothing quite like the indignantly angry Eddie Vedder, determined to set right some things in the world that have just gone off the correct path.
Most of the rest of the album is scattershot and features some of Pearl Jam's weakest recordings to date, specifically in the form of "Ghost," "Get Right," and "Help Help." Let us just say that as a composer, Riot Act was not bassist Jeff Ament's finest moment. These three songs are not bad, per se; they just fail to live up to the rest of the brilliance of the rest of the album's tracks. The true realization of Pearl Jam's genius arrives when considering that these three songs still feature moments of awe, i.e. the chorus of "Ghost," the outro and guitar work in "Get Right" and the middle eight and outro of "Help Help." However, while b-sides "Down" and "Undone" certainly would not have fit the tone of the album with their shimmering, up-tempo pop/rock qualities, they easily stand as superior songs to the bottom rung of the L.P.
The only track left to mention is "Arc," Eddie Vedder's wordless, moaning chant. It features nine "arcs" for each of the nine victims of the Roskilde tragedy. A beautiful tribute from Vedder, the track often goes overlooked and under appreciated, even by the most devoted of Pearl Jam fans. Due to its significance, meaning and Vedder's incredible, layered vocals, it stands as a masterful achievement in Pearl Jam's career.
While Riot Act is dead last in my Pearl Jam album rankings, it still has a special spot of its own in my heart. After all, it was Riot Act that carried me through college, teaching me how ballsy this group is and demonstrating the band's depth. Vedder's lyrics proved to be unfortunately accurate in predicting the future, as most of them pre-dated the U.S.'s invasion of Iraq by at least a half a year, some of them longer. The Riot Act tour was when I got to see my first PJ show, and still ranks as one of my all-time favorite years of the band, both personally and professionally. By year's end, I had bought a huge stack of the tour's bootlegs, including the daring and lengthy State College, Mansfield and Madison Square Garden shows. While the band's instruments and Mr. Vedder's voice may have sounded tired and distressed on Riot Act, everyone was wide awake to play the songs live, instilling every track with new life and an inviting, vital force.