Thursday, September 16, 2010

Guided Tour of Binaural: Soon Forget

by stip

Soon Forget

First of all, it should be noted that Eddie Vedder has this remarkable ability to turn a ukulele, which I always associated with Hawaiian luaus and beach parties, into one of the saddest, loneliest instruments I’ve ever heard. It’s a pretty amazing achievement.

I’m not totally sure why Soon Forget is on Binaural, and this is the only song I think I’d say unequivocally should not be on the record. I don’t really like God’s Dice or Evacuation or Thin Air, and there are songs I would have put on over those numbers, but those songs make sense on the record nevertheless. Soon Forget is sandwiched between two intense, moving numbers and I’m not sure the listener really needs a break. It’s not like this is a breather between two 8 minute songs, and as you’re trying to build to your climax I don’t see why stopping is a good thing. This is not quite as bad as following Present Tense with Mankind, but it’s up there, and in some ways kind of insulting to the audience (we don’t think you can sustain this intensity for this long so we’re going to give you a little intermission).

But lets look at the song itself. This is actually the meanest song on Binaural (moreso than Breakerfall, whose occasionally viciousness is defensive), and one of the meaner songs in their catalog. There is essentially no sympathy or empathy for the subject of the song. Instead the singer is basically taunting him, getting off on his own poor choices and personal failings. The anti-materialist ‘it’s love, not money, that makes you happy’ message is fine, but the love people win in the end. There’s no threat here. The guy dies alone, unloved, unmourned, and the singer and his friends spend their time singing and dancing instead. There is a cautionary tale here for sure, but you don’t have to have the dismissive sarcasm for it to work, and it is kind of off putting.

This is especially the case given the fact that it follows Sleight of Hand, where you have another person who has made equally poor choices (the one main exception seeming to be that the character in Soon Forget was better at it. At least he sacrificed his soul and got some money for it. The character in Sleight of Hand had nothing) but we’re expected (and do) feel this heavy sadness and sense of tragedy for what’s lost in Sleight of Hand. There are moments (and not surprisingly, the best moments) in Soon Forget where we have some sense of this in the two main verses (the two that begin with Sorry is the fool…) where Eddie feels some sympathy for this characters poor choices and the emptiness he’s trying to hide. But its surrounded by two of the most awkward lyrics in the entire catalog (counts his money every morning/the only thing that keeps him horny and he’s lying dead clutching benjamins) and this dismissive celebration of his death (you’re gone fucker, and no one is gonna miss you. How do you like your money now?). There’s nothing wrong with that as an artistic choice per se, but Pearl Jam does not do sarcasm all that well, and they are particularly bad at humor (there are occasional exceptions). Pearl Jam’s strengths come from its sympathy, its integrity, its solidarity, and its empathy. Occasionally its anger, but this isn’t anger. It’s smugness, and smugness requires a cynical detachment that the band doesn’t do well. Earnest and cynical don’t mix.

So in the end the problem I have with Soon Forget is that it dismisses all the complex and intertwined emotions the record had just spent 11 songs developing, and right before its emotional climax. Maybe we’re not prisoners of these forces, circumstances, relationships, and emotions we can neither see nor control. Maybe some people are just assholes and deserve their tragedy. There’s a sense in which we’re starting over with Parting Ways. Maybe that’s what they intended, but that’s bad sequencing if that’s the case. It basically gives your arc a second ending without the time necessary to really tell a new story. Maybe it wants to impart in the listener a certain callousness for Parting Ways, but that would lead to a fairly superficial reading of parting ways.