Thursday, December 2, 2010

Guided Tour of Backspacer: Speed of Sound

by stip

Speed of Sound

I am not sure I’ve ever had as much trouble getting a handle on a Pearl Jam song as much as I do with Speed of Sound. The fact that the demo--so very different from the studio version-- was released first complicates things. People may prefer the Gone demo to the version on S/T (I prefer the S/T version myself, but I don’t enjoy either song all that much) but they are still basically the same song. The full band version fleshes out the logic of the demo—whether or not you like the final product it still makes sense. The full band version of speed of sound utterly transforms the mood and feel of the original.

Usually I talk about the music before the lyrics, as the music provides the background for the story the song tells, but I’m going to discuss the lyrics first. We need a clear sense of what Eddie was trying to do with Speed of Sound before we can figure out whether he was successful.

Lyrically this song is a gem—some of Eddie’s best writing in years (this song alongside Force of Nature is Eddie’s best 1-2 lyrical punch since Given to Fly -> Wishlist). It may help to think of Speed of Sound as an older, still unsettled but somehow more mature version of Off He Goes. Both songs are about trying to stay grounded in the middle of an oversized, overwrought life—the desire to hold onto the core of who you are against the howling pressures of the rest of the world. Off He Goes is not a song about fame. It’s autobiographical, but we all have to struggle to retain our integrity and our sense of self against what the world throws at us. We all fight the same war, even if our particular battles are different. But there’s a tentative quality to Off He Goes—not tentative in that he’s unsure of the outcome, but tentative as if he’s not necessarily comfortable raising the questions, or sure how to think about it. When I say that Off He Goes is immature I mean that it’s really a first attempt at coming to grips with how to survive in a world that really insists on making survival difficult, and it reflects the confusion, uncertainty, occasional overwroughtness and awkward hesitation that accompanies our first pass at these questions.

Speed of Sound approaches these same questions a decade later from an older, perhaps wiser, certainly more experienced and confident perspective (you can have confident uncertainty). Like Just Breathe, The End, and parts of Amongst the Waves and Force of Nature, it asks us to slow down and reflect. Much of Backspacer asks us to let go of the past and celebrate the moment of experience, something fairly unique in Pearl Jam’s catalog and the source of the album’s energy and abandon. But this is a Pearl Jam record, and Pearl Jam is far too self aware, too externally focused, to live in this moment forever. A song like Speed of Sound (and the others I mentioned) remind us that we will have to come down, and that if we want to hold onto part of the perfect immediacy of now we need to figure out how to make the present come to grips with the past and the future, to celebrate what we have now while recognizing how fragile, precious , and dependent that gift is. This is the story of Backspacer as a whole—no one song tries to capture that entire experience—and so Speed of Sound needs to be understood as playing a particular, concrete roll in the overall album arc. Inverting its name, it tries to slow us down. It warns us that if you only live right now you’ll lose sight of the things that made ‘now’ possible.

The song starts regretting how delicate and fragile the past is, how hard it is to find stability and permanency in a world that changes so fast and sweeps us up alongside it even as we change with it (moving at AND with the speed of sound—simultaneously subject and object). The chorus is hopeful and regretful at the same time. The singer keeps fixed in his mind his dream of distant light—of warmth, peace, illumination, belonging, and there’s no sense of surrender in the song (there is a certain sad sense of futility in Off He Goes—like we know how the story is going to end and so we might as well make our peace with it), but there IS a weariness to it. Not exhaustion, mind you—Backspacer is not Riot Act—but instead a grim awareness of just how long we sometimes have to float through dark empty spaces waiting for the sun.

The lyrics get a little urgent as he explores his inability to come to grips with his momentum. It’s an important verse: “Can I forgive what I cannot forget and live a lie. I could give it one more try.” There’s a sense in which his speed comes from his refusal to accept that the world he lives in is imperfect, and that it always will be. Acceptance is not the same thing as surrender (you can accept the way the world is while still trying to change it) but he cannot come to grips with that. It rings false. He feels guilty—like moments of serenity, calm, acceptance are unworthy of him—like he’s selling out a life long struggle. The problem is the hand wringing, the angst, the defiance, the anger fuel him but at the same time they push him further and further away from the peace he’s so desperate to find. The struggle for a perfect peace makes imperfect peace (all we’re probably capable of in an imperfect world) impossible.

The gravity of his situation, the way in which he feels trapped, the way in which he finds himself imprisoned by the same principles and commitments that are able to set him free, catches up with him in the final, confused verses. He hears a voice and reaches out to it, the promise of stability, fulfillment and security in an uncertain world, but he doesn’t know if what he’s trying to grab onto is real or not, whether he’s worthy of it or not, and in his own uncertainty, his reluctance to accept (not surrender, accept—again this is a key difference) he misses his window. He finds himself alone, isolated, moving too fast to commit to the rest of the world around him.

In the end Speed of Sound is a cautionary tale, and probably the darkest moment on the record. Speed of Sound warns us of what will happen if we cannot dial back our war against the world, if we cannot realize that we should change the things we can change and make our peace with what we cannot—even as we work to change the context that makes the possible impossible. We have to learn to accept that there are limits to what we are capable of (the wisdom of the old) even as we refuse to surrender the passion of youth that makes all things possible. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Utopia cannot be the enemy of happiness. Ours is an imperfect world, a dark world, but not lacking in moments of light that are all the brighter for the surrounding darkness. To that end, Force of Nature probably has to follow Speed of Sound, since it affirms what Speed of Sound can only say through negation.

It’s a heady song, and captures in important ways the intellectual journey the band has been on for the last 17 years. It requires the previous records to give it context, but when that context is there Speed of Sound says a great deal. So let’s see how this vision translated.

The Demo:

Eddie sounds great here, his voice delicate, floating along on the ups and downs of the vocal melody. Although there is no water imagery here, the performance paints the picture of a man carried out to see by a tide he’s too tired to resist, but not so defeated that he cannot look backwards with longing towards where he came from. This is one of the most wistful songs Eddie’s ever written and it showcases the weathered quaver in his voice that he uses to replace the power he’s lost over the year. His Bruce Springsteen influence is on display here—not in the lyrics, but in the delivery and the melody. I can easily see this song appearing on Nebraska or Devils and Dust. The double tracked vocals, especially towards the end, give the song a sense of urgency during the climax, the high part sounding running away while the lower register keeps him grounded—straining for the shore even as he makes his peace with the tides that carry him away. There is a starkness to the music that is simultaneously cold and warm, stark and full—as if you’re floating through an empty space but you have old memories to keep you from freezing and fill the void (I hear space alongside water). The plaintive, straining guitar notes that punctuate the song give the song a mature sadness that comes from reflecting on the failures of a life lived. Most of Eddie’s demos that we’ve heard (think Man of the Hour, Small Town, Gone) feel, to a greater or lesser extent, incomplete. The Speed of Sound demo, on the other hand, is complete the way it is—in fact there’s a very real risk that weighing it down with more music will destroy the sense of starkness, distance, and cold warmth that the song depends on.

Full Band:

And oh man, do they add more music. I wonder if Speed of Sound was sacrificed so that The End might live. I said earlier that this song reminds of Springsteen’s Nebraska, which was a record of demos that Springsteen decided to release. He definitely brought this one in for the E-Street Band. The music is actually pretty interesting. The problem is that, even moreso than the Supersonic solo, it is really poorly matched up with the song they added it to. For people who want more experimental Pearl Jam, this IS experimental pearl jam. There’s an alt-country feel to this one that they rarely play with, guitar tones they don’t use, and I actually like how it sounds. It’s spacey, pretty, rich, and has a hidden sing-songy quality to it that they manage to keep hidden without ruining the appeal. But it doesn’t match up to the song. I don’t know whether it’s faster than the demo, but it feels faster, and way too crowded. This is a song that demands quiet spaces for reflection, and here Eddie (who sounds good here, even though this song showcases him less than almost any other song on Backspacer) is struggling to think over the noise and the clatter. It makes some sense as an approximation for the subdued and reluctant alienation in the lyrics—the purpose behind the speed of sound lyric is not to necessarily convey speed (as a fast song might) but a lack of focus—unable to get perspective because everything around you is out of focus, a blur. The music pulls that off, although it’s probably too pretty for the subject matter. But still, had I not heard the demo I suppose I’d be satisfied with this. It would be imperfect, the same way that Unthought Known and Amongst the Waves are imperfect, but the song would make sense. However, the original presentation of Speed of Sound, reflections in a void rather than straining against a pleasant sensory overload, is so much more powerful that I cannot help but feel disappointed.

Speed of Sound ends the dip in Backspacer. You have a four song stretch of good ideas, vital to the arc of the record but imperfectly (or in some cases poorly) realized. It’s this block that keeps Backspacer out of the top tier of Pearl Jam records, but the album rallies magnificently for the final stretch of songs and the strongest finish to a Pearl Jam record since Vitalogy, and arguably of any of their albums.

Other songs in this series: