Thursday, November 11, 2010

Guided Tour of Backspacer: Amongst The Waves

by stip

Amongst the Waves

Amongst the Waves is one of the centerpiece tracks on Backspacer (I’d say alongside The Fixer and Unthought Known). This is not to say that these are the best songs on Backspacer (I certainly do not think so) but they make the most important statements on the record. They anchor the themes, in the same way that Corduroy and Given To Fly anchor Vitalogy and Yield. So it’s really important that they get these songs right. I think they’re successful (not perfect, but successful) on Unthought Known and The Fixer, but after a very promising start they come up a little short on Amongst the Waves—one of the few moments where I think Backspacer stumbles a bit.

I keep referencing Yield in this review, and that’s not surprising, since Backspacer reprises and develops more fully the potential and promise of Yield, promises that get cut off on the record itself and then come to a full stop on Binaural (I’m talking thematically here, not necessarily in terms of the quality of the songs themselves—I prefer Backspacer to those two records but that’s just a subjective preference). And so, with that preface, Amongst the Waves strikes me as the song (again thematically) that In Hiding wanted to be. Musically the songs sound somewhat similar to me (although In Hiding is structured better, with the crucial pre-chorus that Amongst the Waves needs—more on that below). Both are songs about personal salvation, with the crucial difference being that in In Hiding the singer can save himself only by retreating into himself, by admitting defeat. It’s a song about isolation, about being unable to deal with the world. It’s implied towards the end that through this retreat he is able to resurrect himself, but then the song goes right back into celebrating the fact that he’s in hiding. As we’ll see Amongst the Waves is also about salvation, but absent the moment of retreat. It may not be the better song (I like them about the same), but it’s more consistent with the core of who the band is and what it stands for. Amongst the Waves is the song Pearl Jam wanted In Hiding to be, and it celebrates the fact that they’re finally able to write it.

Amongst the Waves accomplishes a great deal during its verses. Musically it sets the scene perfectly. The gentle buzzing and quiet electricity of the melody, the bright coloration, the deep bass and gentle drumming all create the image of a man overlooking a dark lake at midnight with the slight wind rippling the water (I hear a lake more than an ocean, but I’m more drawn to lakes than oceans). It’s a perfect backdrop for peaceful reflection, for feeling grateful about the life you’ve fought for and the fact that you can share it (and the opportunity to share it may be instrumental in the creation). The music sounds like a living memory, like past and present coming together and lifting you up in the process.

Lyrically I’m a big fan of each verse, and each compliments the music well. In the first he’s clearly signing to someone else. It makes sense to assume it’s the person in Just Breathe, given the placement on the record and the same lyrical themes, the way in which love and commitment has finally granted him the peace (just you and me and nothing more) and stability he’s spent so long desperately trying to achieve (what used to be a house of cards has turned into a reservoir—a lyric that would be clunky if not so expertly delivered—as is the case on pretty much all of the record Eddie is masterful here). The quiet moonlit night overlooking the water is a gift, and he’s giving thanks for it. Having struggled so long for it he’s well aware of its valued. His is a peace earned through struggle and resistance and achieved ultimately through surrender, but by surrendering to someone else, not the world. Freedom and love are found through dictating the terms of your submission. This was the promise at the end of Faithful, the hope of Given to Fly, lost during In Hiding, finally achieved AND sustained.

In that sense the second verse is a flashback—rather than addressing his partner in the first verse he’s addressing himself, his past, his struggle, and while the flashback may make more sense for a reflective song, I wonder if having this verse come first—giving the song a narrative arc—would have made more sense, especially given some of the concerns I have with the bridge and chorus (more on that later). I like the loss of innocence in nameless violence described in the second verse. It’s possible there is a statement to be teased out of the television reference, but it does feel a little out of place. This isn’t Ghost, and this song is too internal to really make room for social critique (TV as hyper reality, TV as a filter to block out reality, etc—lots of things you can do here, but not necessary for the song). I like that he sticks with the blood metaphor (cut to later/bled yourself) and the way the verse conveys that sense of being the last man standing after a long and grueling struggle, having found the strength needed to endure and even triumph over constant struggle (this also makes me wonder if Force of Nature, which chronicles this struggle without a resolution, should switch places with Amongst the Waves).

It’s the chorus where Amongst the Waves loses me. Lyrically it’s fine. Waves and water are Eddie’s go to lyrical inspiration, and it’s been done before, but I have no problem with the usage here. I’ve never surfed, but the sense of release and freedom and possibility and salvation found in that moment is clearly conveyed. The “gotta say it now, better loud than too late” lyric is interesting to, especially the way he unexpectedly juxtaposes loud with late—the recognition that life is not only about seizing the necessary moments, but doing so with a full bodied and totalizing commitment, holding nothing back, surrendering to that moment.

Convey this asks more of the music and the delivery than the song gives. The chorus doesn’t provide the exclamation mark it needs to. The delivery sounds more like a pre chorus—like Eddie’s ramping up for a pay off that never actually happens. In Hiding is a good parallel to draw here—you can’t go from the verses to the ‘I’m in hiding’ chorus without the pre chorus, but the pre chorus itself would not have been sufficient without the release. Maybe if they repeated or developed further the ‘gotta say it now’ part of the song (like they do at the end of the song) that would have helped. But even there Eddie needs to push more. His brilliant performance in Hard Sun makes moments like this fall flat. He can clearly still hit those notes and he’s not. At his best no one soars quite like Eddie, and this song needs to soar here (this kills Love Boat Captain as well). It rides its waves, but it doesn’t rise above them. The music doesn’t pick up the slack here either—it carries Eddie along but doesn’t lift him up. I like the atmosphere in the music, stormy and purifying at the same time, but it’s not enough. It’s possible that too stark a difference between chorus and verse would have sounded out of place, but if that’s the case the song really needs that transitional pre chorus that it lacks. Given to Fly has it. In Hiding has it. Amongst the Waves needs it. There’s a little more energy for the second and even for the third and final chorus—more is at stake each time, but it’s never enough. Even the final chorus has a certain sameness to it—a song about surviving, triumph, and salvation needs to ascend in its final moments, and Amongst the Waves doesn’t.

Backspacer is a record largely devoid of Mike solos, which for me are almost always a highlight of any song that features one. It’s nice to hear one on Amongst the Waves, and it’s pretty good (not great, but pretty good) as far as solos go, but it feels out of place. Some of this is the way the song is structured. It’s a flashback solo—it’s the musical accompaniment for the actual events that Eddie remembers in the second verse, but with a chorus between the two of them it’s easy to forget why it’s happening. Sandwiched between the two choruses it lacks context. A few bridge lyrics to transition into it would have helped. Stronger choruses (musically and vocally) might have helped the solo seem less out of place by providing the struggle with more of a payoff than Mikes gives the solo itself. Someone who can write such cathartic pieces like Alive and I Am Mine (or even the outro of Force of Nature, which pulls off what Amongst the Waves fails to fully do) can do better here. It’s a shame that after the vocals and music compliment each other so well on the verses they each fail to come through for the other when they need it.

And so in the end Amongst the Waves fails to sustain the incredible energy and first rate run of songs that precedes it. The momentum falters here. Unthought Known picks it back up but now we’re starting over, and the record never quite fully recovers since there isn’t enough time to rebuild the lost momentum. Tracklisting could have helped here. You don’t necessarily want to have all your fast songs and then all your slow songs but moving Amongst the Waves to later in the record (which is more reflective and less immediate than the first half enables you to go from Just Breathe to Unthought Known, which is a better musical transition and fits in better with the immediacy of the first half of the record (Just Breathe makes a bit more sense later but you usually don’t want to stick all your slow songs next to each other). Amongst the Waves would be better served following Force of Nature towards the end. There are other songs I’d move around (it’s always fun to play the retracking game) but this is the placement I have the most trouble with.

This is a pretty unsatisfying way to end this review, but I suppose it’s appropriate given that Amongst the Waves ends up being something of an unsatisfying song.

Other songs in this series: