Thursday, June 24, 2010

Guided Tour of Binaural: Breakerfall

I've been trying for some time to find ways that I can tap into the creative energies of Red Mosquito Forum members to improve The Sky I Scrape. When stip recently posted his intro to a song-by-song review of Binaural, I realized that this is where it starts.

We're going to start out of order because Binaural is the most recent Guided Tour posted in our forum, and it's currently the most active. I hope you enjoy this weekly series as we take you through Pearl Jam's nine (and future) studio albums song-by-song.

Keep Jammin',

by stip


It didn’t really occur to me to try and write up an overview of Binaural until Backspacer, in part because I didn’t really understand Binaural until Backspacer (not that you need the later to understand the former), and in part because it’s harder for me to give a record coherence and unity with 3 different lyricists. But I think I have a take on that record now, so we’ll see how this plays out. Unlike my write-ups for Ten and Vitalogy, I have a sense of how I think this is going to go, but I’m going to be exploring these ideas as I work through the songs, rather than lay out ideas that were already pretty well formed.

Anyway, I’m starting from the perspective that pearl jam’s records are in conversation with each other, and that each album is in important ways a further development of or response to the record that came before. This makes Binaural a reaction to yield, so it’s necessary to say a few things about Yield before we really begin. Yield was Pearl Jam’s ‘we’re at peace with ourselves’ record (and a response to the questing/searching nature of No Code). It’s reflected in the record’s title and in most of the songs. It’s a record about giving way, about refusing to fight—either accepting the way things are now or refusing to engage them any further. The problem is that Pearl Jam has always been a band that swam against, rather than yielded to, the current. Theirs was the stubborn refusal to give in, to fight even when there was no chance of victory (see Vitalogy). The best song on Yield (Given To Fly) captures that spirit. The rest of them really don’t. You have the hopelessness of Do The Evolution (why fight what you can never change), the escapism of All Those Yesterdays, In Hiding, MFC, No Way. This isn’t who Pearl Jam is. Lyrically Yield is an outlier of an album. Rather than the victory lap they so desperately wanted it to be (and parts of Yield strike me like the band is trying to convince itself of something that deep down it knows isn’t true), the moment where they make their peace with the world around them, Yield is instead a seductive lie. Escape is never the safest path and deep down they know it. Their peace was a false peace, and it’s not surprising that they couldn’t maintain it for very long.

And so it seems inevitable that a record like Binaural would follow Yield. Whereas Yield is (on the surface anyway) warm and inviting Binaural is its polar opposite—cold and isolating. Where Yield embraces Binaural refuses. Yield is expansive. Binaural is claustrophobic. Yield is animated by a (false, I think) sense of completion and fulfillment. Binaural is a record haunted by ghosts it cannot name or see. There’s definitely something wrong here, and they cannot put their finger on it. They cannot name and so cannot confront the problem. Some of it is social/political and some of it may be personal (how long after Binaural came out did Eddie’s marriage start falling apart?), but it’s there. There is no peace, and it may still be a crime to escape. In fact, it may be that the escapism of Yield has helped to embed the problems that Binaural tries to confront. But the murky sound and texture of Binaural captures the spirit of the record perfectly. There is no definitive sense of what the problem is. It lacks the sharper focus of a record like Vitalogy or S/T. In the end Binaural can only flail in the dark. It’s a dispiriting, disempowering record, and lays the groundwork for the complete emotional collapse and destruction of agency that marks Riot Act. These two records constitute the low point of Pearl Jam’s catalog. The bottom drops out on Riot Act, but we can see the foundations buckling under strain on Binaural


So let me begin by reiterating that Binaural is a mood more than a narrative—I described it earlier as haunted and I don’t think I can come up with a better word. It charts a decline into powerlessness that really finds its fullest expression in Riot Act (All or None, while not as good as song, is Parting Ways with a larger reach). The songs on Binaural are about a loss of agency, and at times the frustration that comes with it.

That’s the spirit that is animating Breakerfall, I think. This is a surprisingly judgmental song, on a fairly judgmental album, and a real change of pace for a band whose dominant emotional space has always been sympathy and empathy. Breakerfall is accusatory, and is frustrated with, rather than sympathetic to, its main character. The song comes rolling out of the gate with a really strong, playful build, which in some ways doesn’t quite fit in with the seriousness of the subject matter. He’s describing someone on the verge of emotional collapse, possibly even contemplating suicide, and the band is surprisingly cavalier about it.

Again, the song is playful, almost mocking at times. The lyric that begins the song should trigger concern (a girl on a ledge with nowhere to turn), even though the music doesn’t send us that cue, but it very quickly blames her (the love that she had was just wood that she burned), and while it again raises potential causes for alarm (her life is on fire, equating her with prey—a word that has two meanings but it’s clear from the song that she lacks the agency to be the hunter—she’s the victim here) it is again immediately dismissive (it’s no one’s concern—she did it to herself). It gets even more judgmental in the second verse—with the fun ‘it’ like she lost her invitation to the party on earth and she’s standing outside hating everyone in here’ (who doesn’t know someone this applies to), and the disease (a strong word with all sorts of insidious implications) doll (which implies a certain immaturity) pairing. Maybe I’m missing it, but I can’t think of another time Pearl jam was this utterly unsympathetic to a song’s main character (that wasn’t political) like they are here. The chorus carries this over—from the dismissive repeat of the word fall at the end of the first verse to the taunting outro. The double tracked vocals add to this as well. There’s a bit of a sneer in the lower vocals.

Remember, it’s not just Eddie here. At no point is the rollicking, fun loving music of Breakerfall giving us the emotional cues we’d need to feel bad for this person. The subject matter would normally demand music that was much more serious, that treated this situation with delicate gravity. Breakerfall could easily be the song playing at the party on earth, and insists on shoving back in her face the fact that the music is not for her. Mike is practically laughing at her in his outro solo. If you don’t quite see this, try imagining swapping the lyrics to Breakerfall with the lyrics to Nothing As It Seems, or Light Years, or Parting Ways. They both become very different songs attatched to Breakerfall’s music, and none of them really work as well as they should, since it now lacks sympathy or empathy.

Even though they’re very similar musically a song like Gonna See My Friend works better because the target is Eddie, and because Gonna See My Friend feels a lot freer than breakerfall (every song on Binaural is glossed with that sense of claustrophobic foreboding). While not similar musically, the attitude is similar to a song like Brain of J, which is full of a kind of political contempt that we’re used to, but Pearl Jam would have almost always had a great deal of sympathy for the subject of Breakerfall in the past. They don’t here. Instead Breakerfall is a song looking for a target. It wants to lash out. It’s possible that this is just a mean spirited song, but I don’t think that’s right. So what’s going on? I think at its core the problem is that Breakerfall is performed by a wounded band looking to fight back, and since they don’t know who to blame they’re blindly flailing at whatever target is close by. That confusion will take center stage in the next run of songs.


Gods Dice
Light Years
Nothing As It Seems
Thin Air
Of The Girl
Sleight of Hand
Soon Forget
Parting Ways

The B-Sides and Outtakes

No Code 
Riot Act 
Pearl Jam