Thursday, August 5, 2010

Guided Tour of Binaural: Insignificance

by stip


Insignificance is one of the crown jewels of Binaural. It’s a monster song, and it’s fitting that we find it in the middle of the record as it is, perhaps even more than Nothing As It Seems, the song that embodies the spirit of the Binaural, the way in which it and Riot Act represent a wrong turn, or the lowest point, of the character profile that has developed (and is perhaps still developing) over 9 records and almost 20 years of music.

Insignificance, as the title would indicate, is a song about the loss of agency—about realizing how little power we have, how much we are at the mercy of people and forces beyond our control. It’s perhaps the first moment in the band’s history where they openly addressed this (with the exception, perhaps, of Bugs—but it’s telling that there it was on an experimental track, and here it is on what is probably the flagship song of the record), and tried to come to grips with it. Even songs like Immortality or Indifference ask questions or pose provocative scenarios. They let the listener decide whether it all makes a difference, and you can certainly intimate from the surrounding songs on those records that it does. Binaural does not offer us much in the way of hope, but it doesn’t quite surrender either. Instead, in the darkest of spaces and in the most stressful of times it reasserts our fundamental humanity—it reminds us that we all want to live, that we all want to be heard, that we all want a voice—and that even if it is denied to us that denial is a crime and needs to be answered.

Musically Insignificance is quite possibly the most sophisticated piece of music Eddie ever wrote, although much of this is due to the song the rest of the band constructed around his skeleton. Insignificance sounds like its chorus. It’s not that loud a song, but it sounds like a war. The rolling, distorted guitars, the low end, the drums, the starts and stops—they all work to convey this sense of destruction and collapse, of bombs exploding, buildings collapsing, people dying. Even the quieter parts of the song (the bridge, for instance) have a feeling of impending doom—the guitar is nervous, the bass foreboding, the urgent build into the final chorus prophesying the end. It’s an impressive piece of work, and a great example of Pearl Jam really using the studio to perfection, as there’s never been a live version of this song that comes close to capturing the atmosphere. The energy perhaps, but not the atmosphere.

Although I’m not sure the live version necessarily captures the particular energy of the studio version either. The live versions of so many Pearl Jam songs mean something different then darker incarnations of those songs on the records. Alive becomes a question, not a celebration. Betterman becomes the promise of a better life and better days. Not For You becomes a song about inclusion. And it’s impossible to sing a song about your own insignificance with a room of 20000 people signing it with you.

Like the music, Eddie’s vocal performance on the record captures the essence of the song perfectly. For such a dynamic song Eddie’s voice is muted, even subdued. The natural move on a song like this is to swing for the fences, to be as aggressive as possible, to defy the lyrics with the performance. Instead Eddie can’t overcome the music. He sings underneath it. His plea for forgiveness can’t be heard over the dropping bombs, and it would almost be a lie if it was—that’s the sense of absurd tragedy that the song wants to capture. Even the most important moment in the song “It’s instilled to want to live” has a hard time registering over the musical firestorm that takes us into the last chorus.

Lyrically this is one of the best songs Eddie’s ever written, with a great mixture of mysterious, provocative images and the simple truths that the empathy and conviction in his voice manages to make profound. Just about every lyric in the song is worth looking at. I’ll leave it others to bring up some of the ones that I miss, but a few of my favorites
“the swallowed seeds of arrogance, breeding in the thoughts of ten thousand fools who fight irrelevance”
This is probably the most clever lyric in the song (perhaps even on the record). It sounds like an accusatory lyric, and the first instinct of the listener is to think that he’s taking a shot at the masters of war dooming the innocent subjects of the song, but instead it’s a lyric about the victims themselves, a celebration of the ‘arrogance’—the sense of self worth and basic human dignity that leads to people reasserting their humanity in impossible conditions and the way in which innocence given a voice bears witness and demands an accounting for the sins of war and the abstract euphemistic distance between those who order bombs to drop and the people they murder.
“Please forgive our hometown in our insignificance”
There’s two meanings here. Eddie is singing about he people dying—the innocent victims who pay the price for the actions of others, who have to die because others dreamed of war—but he’s also singing about himself, about the Americans who have others murder in their name, who have to take responsibility for what they cannot control. This song meant something very different to me the first day of the Iraq War, watching footage of ‘shock and awe’ on CNN when all I could say was ‘I’m sorry’, then it ever did before.

I also love the ‘play C3, let the song protest’ and the ‘I was alone and far away when I heard the band start playing’—for the recognition that even in these times of powerlessness we’re not truly alone—that there are others who have given voice to what we’re thinking, what we’re feeling, and that we are not alone in our witness.

Insignificance doesn’t have a happy ending. It doesn’t end with the joyful coda and promise of Grievance. Unlike most anti-war songs it doesn’t accuse, at least not directly, as the ability to accuse is the act of an agent, and this is a song about the loss of agency. Insignificance does remind us that if we’re powerless together it is better then being powerless alone, and it raises all the right moral questions, but it’s a chilling, dark reminder of the odds against us if we want to assert control over our lives, and hold those in power responsible for the damage they’ve done and reminds us that even if there is such a thing as a necessary war, there is no such thing as a just one.