Friday, July 23, 2010

Guided Tour of Binaural: Nothing As It Seems

by stip

Nothing As It Seems

Nothing As It Seems was, in some ways, an excellent choice for the Binaural single, since it encapsulates the essence of the record. I don’t think it’s the best song, but it cuts right to the heart of the record more than any other number on here.

Musically it is stark, cold, lonely, and expansive (as opposed to its sister song All or None, which feels much more narrow and cramped then NAIS). It’s a song that is looking everywhere for answer, for meaning, and finds it nowhere. Stone and Jeff create a bleak, isolated landscape (especially Jeff’s mournful bass) and Mike spends the song railing against it with no conclusion, no moment of catharsis, just a frustrated search for something. There’s not even a sense of there being a journey, just an ever present now. NAIS is also an exhausting song. For a piece that has almost 5 minutes of prominent guitar soloing and feels as open as it does there is surprisingly little movement. The song feels like it is running in place, and sustains itself only because it fears (or doesn’t know how) to stop. There’s a period during the bridge when the music finally changes and you think, even if just for a moment, that there’s something there—catharsis, confrontation, something , but it isn’t quite clear what it is, and the song descends back into the void, neither sustaining itself nor collapsing under its own weight. It’s a pretty impressive soundscape.

Eddie plays this one just right vocally. He sounds distant, removed, not exhausted per se (this isn’t Riot Act) but worn down and strangely empty. This isn’t a song about losing faith (in yourself, in others, in the world). It’s a song about how we go on without it, hoping we’re going to find something but increasingly doubting that we will.

Lyrically it’s a mixed bag. The meaning of the song is clear, but the lyrics are constructed in a way that they aren’t really telling a story. Instead they draw attention to each line, each its own snapshot of the same moment in time (Wishlist and The Fixer are written that way too). It’s just that some are better then others (I particularly like the ‘a scratching voice all alone is nothing like your baritone, but there are some other pretty decent ones in here). They’re all pretty clear though. They describe someone alienated from his life, from himself, from his own ability to even communicate precisely what’s bothering him. All he knows is that everything is not okay, that everything that is supposed to mean something means nothing, everything that is supposed to be rewarding feels empty. There’s a distance between his own life and his experience of it. The lyrics have the same spacey feeling of the music and the artwork—cold, vast, dark, and distant. Even lowering his own expectations seems hollow, his fantasies uncompelling diversions. He hasn’t given up—there’s still that part of him that wants more, demands more, understandings that he in some way is being robbed or cheated of something—but it’s getting increasingly hard for him to care.

This is the darkest moment in the first half of the record, and the next few songs move into a different space, but you definitely hear Pearl Jam laying the groundwork for Sleight of Hand and Parting Ways and the slide into Riot Act.