Friday, July 2, 2010

Guided Tour of Binaural: Gods' Dice


Gods' Dice is not the first Pearl Jam song to deal explicitly with the relationship between God and man, but it’s worth looking at the differences between God’s Dice and the two previous songs addressing these themes—Sometimes and Faithful. In all cases the subject is overwhelmed by the gulf between the human and the divine, and each time the singer attempts to bridge that gap. Sometimes is both a celebration of agency in the guise of a prayer, and Faithful condemns God for his silence and finds a true god in love. Both of these are very typical, traditional responses for the band—completely keeping with the ‘find meaning in community and fight because the struggle itself has meaning’ philosophy that is at the core of their message. But that’s not what’s going on here.

Instead God’s Dice surrenders to our own insignificance (we’ll see this later). The opening lyrics recognize the singers basic powerlessness, which he comes back to again and again in each verse. The chorus makes clear how our lives are completely out of our own hands—someone else designating our opportunities, our desires, our expectations, and the singer resigns himself to it (resignate is not a word but that’s okay). There are moments where the singer seems to intimate that this kind of acceptance is a giving in—a form of surrender (especially in the second verse) but he can never seem to follow through on that (interesting that in the actual linear notes the lyric reads MY power rather than THIS power), especially when you get to the overwhelmed third verse before the bridge and the ‘why fight forget it/cannot spend it after I go’ declaration. Struggling against odds like this, a power this significant and totalizing, is just exhausting—as the final verse declares, this sort of life, this sort of struggle, is no life at all, and the song concludes with a celebration of submission.

The argument could be made that the band is simply being sarcastic here, that they’re presenting an argument that they’re dismissive of. The music could lend some credence to this. Certainly this is a fast paced, energetic, active celebration of passivity, and the double tracked vocals give the song a festive feel to it. But at the same time, there’s no real sarcasm here like we find in Breakerfall. And there is basically nothing in the songs that follow that give any indication that this is the case, as the rest of this record (with a handful of notable exceptions) is a story of passivity and loss of agency. If God’s Dice isn’t serious about this message then it really has no business on this record, and should have been replaced with a song like Sad. That’s not a comment on the quality of the song. Undone and Down may be the two best songs to come out of the Riot Act sessions, but they don’t belong on that record. Another possibility is that the song is documenting a breakdown, a person collapsing under the weight of their own insignificance, which would explain the frantic pace of the song. The vocals aren’t unhinged, but the music comes closer. It’s tightly controlled, but if you listen to it sideways you can see it falling apart, and then the double tracked vocals start to sound a little schizophrenic (and then there is the little laugh (more pronounced live) after the monkey driven/call this living lyric. I’m not sure which interpretation to believe.

So in the end, God’s Dice teaches us, it’s not a big deal to surrender to fate, to accept what you cannot control. Except, of course, that it is. Pearl Jam had spent the previous 9 years arguing that escape is never the safest path, that the struggle has meaning, that holding the candle makes a difference. And so there’s something unsatisfying about this conclusion, and the problem with the overall message and theme of Binaural. Or, alternately, God’s Dice is warning, documenting the consequences of embracing this position. The way to answer that is to figure out whether Binaural is a defeatist record or a cautionary tale. Maybe it’s both, but I’m inclined to believe that the band wasn’t sure which. I think they wanted it to be the later but were feeling the former, which was only reinforced by the existential and moral crisis posed by the Bush administration and documented in Riot Act. Either case complicates the peace of Yield, and this only gets more pronounced as we move deeper into the record.

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