Thursday, July 15, 2010

Guided Tour of Binaural: Light Years

by stip

As much as I am a booster of the Light Years demo, Light Years fits Binaural better then I think Puzzles and Games would have, and the things that I think detract from Light Years musically help it fit in on Binaural (which is why judging an album is different than judging the collection of songs that make it up (I’ll put something up about the Binaural b-sides and what not after we’ve worked through the record and say more then).

Pearl Jam has dealt with death before this, probably most movingly on Long Road. The music there is simple and beautiful, and even the dramatic swells are peaceful. The song invites us to accept and make our peace with the one thing we cannot change, and it ends (for me) with an image of two people holding hands facing a setting sun, understanding and okay with what is inevitably going to come. Light Years is not that song. We know that primarily from the music. If this was a song about coming to terms with death it would sound very different. There’s something off kilter and discordant, hesitant and resistant, about the music, even as it picks up urgency throughout the song. Eddie’s voice is even a little petulant, like a child (or someone small) railing against what he acknowledges is the basic unfairness of loss. Fitting for this record, the song is cold and isolating rather than warm and inviting, dominated by unfairness and regret rather than a calm, peaceful acceptance.

Lyrically Eddie begins the song shaken—all the things he can do and has done, all the facets of life he has mastered, none of these things are of any use to him in the face of death, they cannot undo the enormity of that kind of permanent loss. The second verse is equally personal, tinged with the regret and guilt that always confronts us with the death of someone we cared about. Did I spend all the time I could with them? Did I get everything out of that relationship I could have? Did I give everything to that person I could have? The answer is always no. It has to be. But knowing the truth of that and feeling the truth of it are two very different things, and where Long Road makes its peace with that tension, the subject of Light Years is (appropriately enough for Binaural) trapped by their guilt, haunted by the time not spent and opportunities lost (he’ll return to these themes a decade later on The End). In Light Years we’re left wondering whether we’ll spend forever in the dark now that we’re deprived of the departed’s light. It’s rare that we fully appreciate how much someone illuminates our life until we have to see things without them.

There are moments of promise in Light Years, just like there was the fleeting hope in Evacuation that worry could be strength with a plan. There’s the plea to make sure you live life now, to make every moment count with the ones that you love, but its advice being given too late, delivered with a plaintive sadness that comes from knowing you’ve missed your chance. It’s followed by the bridge that has its soaring notes and high moments, but the whole thing remains somewhat strangely discordant, almost like it’s too late for this person. Light Years becomes a cautionary tale in the end, the music promising to take us places the singer can’t go (the music elevates Eddie here, rather than Eddie elevating the music or both climbing together) and offering the possibility of salvation and redemption in its warning. One light is extinguished, but not all lights need go out.

As an aside the Light Years/your light made us stars connection is pretty clever (the last time the implications of a title were explored like that in a song was on Tremor Christ). Light years are the distance between stars, the amount of time it takes for light to travel between them. Although we can measure it, it’s a speed, and therefore a distance, that is completely beyond anything we’re capable of. Something that is light years away might as well not even exist, for all practical purposes. At the same time, we discover who we are, what shines best and brightest in us, through our relationships and connections to other people (echoes of Faithful)—we need them discover ourselves. Our own light comes from them. The question becomes whether that light can still illuminate us when the distances between us become impossibly vast.