Thursday, November 4, 2010

Guided Tour of Backspacer: Just Breathe

by stip

Just Breathe

Yes yes yes, Just Breathe sounds like it was written for Into The Wild. That doesn’t matter. Musically it takes the ideas in Tuolumne (which was a very pretty little instrumental that I really wanted to see developed further) and turns it into a full fledged song. If not for the fact that Into The Wild really has no space for a love song in it this would have fit in there perfectly. But it fits in here too. Not counting a song like You this is really the first pure love song pearl jam ever wrote ( I went with an REM song when I got married just because Pearl Jam didn’t have anything I could use yet. If only I had waited 4 more years). This is probably not a song Pearl Jam could have written prior to Backspacer. There’s a sense of spiritual calm, certainty, and stability to it that reflects the peace of mind that comes from a long standing, healthy relationship—the realization that love is as much the small quiet moments as it is white hot fire, and that while it’s easy to miss those moments, when we stop and notice them they take our breath away.

Musically this song almost immediately relaxes me, transports me someplace quiet and secure, the gentle finger picking moving me along without actually taking me anywhere—it’s a pretty cool combination of movement and standing still—and the organ accents color this beautifully. The do a great job phasing in the rest of the band here—the bass comes in as Eddie turns to weightier thoughts, as he starts to reflect on the moment, rather than live in the moment itself. It gives his meditation here a bit of urgency without overpowering the song.

At least until the chorus. I’m not sure what to make of it. It might have been necessary to really have the chorus differentiate itself from the verses, and certainly there’s a pleading element to the vocals that requires the music to hit a little harder, but the transition here is a bit too jarring. It’s like going from sometimes into hail hail (well not that bad, but on the same scale) and it’s too much. I think my problem here may just be the volume. The strings are perhaps a little melodramatic, but its’ also a melodramatic moment and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with melodrama used sparingly.

The transition out of the first chorus (vocally and musically) is excellent, and the music reflects the weightier thoughts without really overdoing it. It’s much busier than the first verse, but the chorus does prepare us for this. The second chorus is still a little jarring but it’s not as bad as the first time, and the song swirls away underneath eddie’s vocalizations and final thoughts. It’s impressive how this song manages to sound so busy and so simple and delicate at the same time. R.E.M. could write a song like this in their sleep. It’s nice to see Pearl Jam take a stab at it and be so successful.

Eddie is surprisingly nasally on this song. He doesn’t sound like this on the rest of the album, so it’s clearly an artistic choice. I’m not sure why he made it. He’s going for delicate and vulnerable, but he’s done that better before (see Into the Wild, for instance), and they make the aw huh’s at the end of the line too prominent—those are meant as punctuation and they turn into statements. These are certainly not my favorite vocals of his, but again another accomplished vocal melody, the way the words just glide so effortlessly over the music, goes a long way towards cutting the impact of the vocal choice. Plus his voice is full of the nooks and crannies , the cracks and the warmth, so that the overall effect is still compelling.

Lyrically this one is going to rise and fall on the sincerity. If you believe him it’s compelling. As stand alone lyrics divorced from the performance they’re not bad, but they’re not great. Other than ‘I’m a lucky man to count on both hands the ones I love’ which I think is just a gorgeous lyric there’s nothing too memorable here. But the approach he’s taking to love is interesting. Like I mentioned earlier this is a mature love song—mature in that it’s speaking to a love that’s long past the initial stage of discovery where everything is white hot and exciting and new. It’s writing from the perspective of a love that, while cooling (as it inevitably will), has plugged all the cracks and settled in the foundations of these people’s lives—the way in which it becomes impossible to live without even as you cease noticing it all the time.

Just Breathe is a quiet moment of reflection—the singer is taking the time to remember, to consciously remind himself, just how fortunate he is to have the gifts he has, and how empty he would be without them. There’s a maturity to this song, a sense of peace, a willingness (a need even) to live in a moment outside of time which isn’t possible until we become comfortable enough with ourselves and the world around us to realize that there are times it is okay to just shut it out and exist for ourselves—that it is within these spaces we find the strength and purpose to fight again. The fact that this moment is shared is also significant. It speaks to the self confidence needed to leave oneself so vulnerable, so dependent on someone else. There are undercurrents of death in this song (every life must end, hold me ‘til I die) but I doubt very much either character is dying. Instead the references to dying and to departures are a reflection of how utterly dependent the main character is on the other person in his life, how lucky he is to have it, and a promise to himself to remember that this cannot last forever and so he must not take it for granted. It’s clear that the person he’s signing to is his rock, his refuge and certainty in a violent and uncertain world, and that this is the most precious thing she can be for him. And so the most romantic line in the whole piece may be the ‘stay with me, let’s just breathe.’ There may not be a purer expression of love than the desire for that person to just be there, to demand nothing more of them other than that they exist.

Other songs in this series: