Thursday, December 9, 2010

Guided Tour of Backspacer: Force of Nature

by stip

Force of Nature
Force of Nature is a necessary counterpoint to Speed of Sound. If Speed of Sound is a cautionary tale, a warning to slow down and make your peace with the world, Force of Nature is a celebration of a stubborn, unwavering faith that things can change, that if we hold fast to what we believe in we’ll be rewarded with a better world. In some respects these two songs are at odds with each other, but both perspectives are needed (an acceptance of the way things are and a faith that they will get better) for a healthy, meaningful existence. It is really on Backspacer where we finally get this fusion, and Force of Nature is probably the high point of the album precisely because this song embodies the weathered optimism that is always at the core of Pearl Jam’s best music. While I think Pearl Jam intended for The Fixer, Unthought Known, and Amongst the Waves to really be the core of the record it is actually Force of Nature (filtered through the context of the rest of the record) that best captures the emancipatory heart of the record.

Musically this is a deceptively simple song. The main riff is not overly complicated or particularly dramatic, but it is remarkably evocative. The entirety of Force of Nature sounds like a person standing on a widow’s walk or on a shoreline looking upon the horizon, battered and soaked by a storm, but unwilling to give in. You can hear the grim defiance and stubborn hope in the delivery and the music. This is the sound of refusal, of one person willing to stare down vast empty spaces without blinking, to lean into howling winds and perhaps bend, but never break. In this Force of Nature differs from songs like Insignificance or Deep. These are also stormy songs, but musically they focus on the destructive energy of the storm itself. These are songs that emphasis impact. This is a song about endurance, and endurance is not a particularly flashy emotion, and one that may be hard to appreciate until you get swept up into the song itself.

Musically part of me wants a bigger entrance than the song gets, something more explosive in the vein of Deep, but that might have made this song a little too dramatic, and there is an understated toughness to the main riff. It churns along, with the bass and drums pushing rather than propelling. They don’t give Force of Nature legs, but they give it a spine, while the main riff continues to doggedly put one foot in front of the other, and is clearly prepared to do so for as long as it takes. There’s almost something petulant about Mike’s primary counterpoint to the main riff, the sound of the put upon grimace we all have when we’re trapped in the rain and long to be dry, even though we know that it’ll be a long time before we are. It’s not an appealing part in itself, but it is a necessary component of the overall piece. The soundscape is less evocative without it.

Force of Nature is a headphones song. Most atmospheric songs are (and this is an atmospheric song, despite the conventional riff). There are a number of great flourishes throughout the mix that are buried a little deeper than I might preferred, but they’re striking when they fade in and out of your hearing, and it means that every time you hear the song you’re picking up something new (especially in the second verse). The brighter guitar parts pushing through the wind and rain right before the choruses are well done—rays of light peeking through a storm, moments of hope on a lonely vigil. They become more prominent with each chorus as the singer steels himself. Mike’s ‘leads’ in the bridge are great. They sound like flashes of lightning. The atmosphere in this song is terrific, especially because it is so subtle. And while some have called it cheesy, I think Mike’s outro is perfect, its bright chimes pushing through the murk, muted but no less diminished for it. It speaks of hope and optimism and new beginnings and the promises finally fulfilled. It’s simple, but so is the solo at the end of I am Mine, and both are powerful in their simplicity, managing to convey so much with so little.

This is a song about determination and defiance, but it’s also a song about faith, and it may be the finest song they’ve yet written about it. There is an anger to Faithful, and a certainty to it, that FoN lacks. The singer in Faithful has his anger to ground him, and his partner. He has what he needs, as long as he stays true to it (the love and the anger). It’s a love song, albeit a circuitous one. The singer in Force of Nature has nothing but promise. It celebrates refusing to give in when confronted by absence and uncertainty, of never wavering even when everything around you is hostile, when there are no guarantees of victory, when there are no small rewards or mile markers to let you know you’re on the right path. This is the essence of faith. It’s faith in love (and faith in each other) rather than a faith in God, but faith nevertheless. There are elements of Given To Fly to be found here too (which also, in its way, celebrates faith as refusal and defiance) but without the martyrdom. Both songs celebrate sacrifice, but Given to Fly transcends. Force of Nature endures, at least until Mikes outro lifts us out of the storm and carries us to our reward.

Eddie’s vocals capture the feel of the song perfectly. Eddie doesn’t lift us up, but he’s not supposed to. The waves crash down on us here. They don’t’ carry us away. He needs to be a rock. His voice needs to convey refusal (which is like defiance, but weathered and beaten down—unable to lash out but still unwilling to give in). He sounds like he’s been through a war, and he has, but there are notes of pride here too, honoring the fact that even though he’s still a long long way from home he is able to hold his head up and this is no small victory. His performance here is subtle, but very effective—the way his voice slightly lifts up for the ‘somewhere there’s a siren singing’, the way he finds comfort and inspiration in his memories and his faith; or the way he trails off coming out of the chorus, like he’s steeling himself for what he knows is still to come (he does the same thing in the pre chorus, the way he carefully drags out each word). I love how he delivers the ‘makes me ache, makes me shake, is it so wrong for us to think that love can keep us safe’—the slightly exacerbated way he questions an indifferent universe and then answers his own question since something has to respond to the silence (the nature of faith is that you’ll never get an answer and so you need to provide it yourself). These are subtle moments, but this is a subtle song, and they’re no less powerful for being understated, and Eddie deserves credit for turning his new vocal limits into strengths, for allowing craft to substitute for power.

Lyrically this is some of Eddie’s finest work in a long time. The central phrase ‘force of nature’ evokes something wild uncontrollable and eternal—something impossible to stand against, and it’s this impossibility that makes his vigil so moving, his refusal to back down in the face of something he cannot possibly hope to master. In this particular case the force of nature is love, and his determination to stand by and not give up on someone deeply flawed and deeply wounded. The songs imagery speaks of waits and vigils, but he’s not waiting for someone to love him back (this isn’t I Got Shit), but for someone to save themselves (and to let him in so he can help). It’s going to be a difficult journey, and the Alice In Wonderland allusion is effective. There’s no romance here. No grand adventure, no dream someone is just going to wake up from. This is long, hard, thankless work, with no guarantee of a happy ending (again faith)—the ‘no way to save someone who won’t take the rope and just lets go’ lyric gets to the heart of the problem. Do you abandon this person? Do you give up on someone or something that has made it manifestly clear that they do not (maybe even cannot) be saved, or do you stand by them?

The chorus and the remaining verses make clear that you stand by them, even in the face of the impossible demands this places upon you (the storm and shipwreck imagery), but they’ll never make it back if you’re not there to light their way. Someone has to be the beacon. Someone has to make sure the light doesn’t go out. Someone has to have faith. The first chorus captures this beautifully, and is addressed to the person who is lost. When you’re ready to come back, I’ll be here to show you the way.

The second chorus is even better, and one of my favorite lyrical moments in the catalog. This is addressed to an internal audience. He’s signing for himself. The siren’s song drives the listener mad, and his faith is mad. It defies reason. It cannot be explained. But it doesn’t have to be—he just needs to hear it, to hold onto it. He doesn’t need to justify his resolve. He just needs to maintain it. There are moments of doubt, and the crashing bridge witnesses his crisis of faith as he cries out to a cold and indifferent world. “Is it so wrong to think that love can keep us safe?” It’s a more profound question that it first appears, since there’s a lot at stake. Love is more than caring for another person. It is more than how you feel about someone else, or even yourself. Love is safety. Love is shelter against a storm, love is the baseline that makes all futures possible. Without it we have nothing but ourselves trapped in a hostile, disenchanted universe. Should we give up on it, even when love is little more than faith in the possibility of love, and when leaving ourselves open leaves ourselves incredibly vulnerable? Love is risk, after all. The world doesn’t answer (the world never does), and so he has to answer himself

There’s a brief lull in the music and the storm starts up again, but we see him still standing there. He refuses to move. His faith endures, and the outro rewards us with a happy ending, although we don’t know whether the object of his love heals and returns to him, or if the faith is its own reward. It’s a better ending that way.

Other songs in this series: