Thursday, September 2, 2010

Guided Tour of Binaural: Rival

by stip


Rival is another example of the brilliant job so much of Binaural does in establishing atmosphere. From the first moments of the song with the growling dog there is a pervading, ominous sense that something has gone very wrong, that the world is not the way it should be. The music almost has a demonic carnival quality to it—celebratory if not for the sharp, discordant notes that drive the song (especially the bridge and outro). Eddie’s double tracked vocals (especially his higher/strained notes) add to the sense of insanity running through the song. The music also does an excellent job inverting a fairly standard Pearl Jam formula that we see in songs like Unthought Known—where we see piano noodling, the high notes bursting with intensity, and brief inspirational solos designed to carry us someplace new and help us transcend the forces that hold us back. This is what Pearl Jam does best, and so it’s particularly striking to see this demented fun house mirror reflection of that aspect of the band. This is probably the most menacing song in their catalog.

Lyrically I think this is the strongest of all the songs penned by someone other than Ed (and it is better than a few of Ed’s lyrics). Not every line here is a slam dunk—and the call back parts are noticeably weaker than the main lyric (and some, like the well hung part, make me cringe a little bit) but there are enough provocative moments here (in particular I like the imagery in ‘I’ve been harboring fleets in this reservoir’, the clever shot at moral self-righteousness and small town piety ‘how will the man who made chemicals difficult’ and the bridge lyrics ) Although this song is ostensibly about the Littleton, CO school shootings it’s no more about that then Whipping is about abortion. There’s nothing in the lyrics to make that apparent and you’d never guess it if not for the liner notes. Instead, like Whipping, we have a series of individual snapshots of a person’s mood—their rebellion against a diseased society, although in Whipping we have a call for action and an attempt at restoration. Despite the presence of lyrics like ‘we all’ve got scars they should have em to’ or ‘don’t mean to push but I’m being shoved’ there’s still a sense of angry optimism in that song, or failing that, at least solidarity. Rival is not a passive song (there are too many intimations of violence), and so in some respects it makes sense that it follows a number like Grievance, but there is no optimism here. There’s no hope. Instead it’s largely defined by the song’s nihilism, its loss of faith that any of the problems that affect us so deeply can actually be addressed. The singer has seen the sticks raised and brought down one time too many, and he is far more pessimistic about discovering within American culture and American character any serious desire to really try and address the things that matter. We’d much rather lie to each other than confront it (how’s our father supposed to be told?) This nation may be about to explode, but no one seems to care. We’re fiddling while America burns (hence the festive undertones to the music)with no real hope of us coming together to fix it. The plea at the end of Grievance has largely fallen on deaf ears. There’s no solidarity here. We’re all rivals to each other, and divided there is no way for us to move forward. Rival makes clear that Grievance, at least in terms of the album (not the overall arc of the band) is an outlier--a temporary resurgence of principles no longer dominant.