Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Guided Tour of Vs.: Elderly Woman


(A Guided Tour: Vs.)
Elderly Woman is the first mature song to appear in Pearl Jam’s catalog, at least if maturity reflects the ability to critically reflect from a great distance, and to soften the temptation for judgment with the wisdom that comes from experience. Prior to this Pearl Jam’s music was exceedingly immediate and frequently judgmental (which, when you feel like judging, is very satisfying). Eddie’s songs about other people were at least in some ways songs about himself, the working out of demons through characters. In Small Town we have something different.

The beginning of the song is startling, if only because there is, for the first time in the catalog, no prelude. There is no build. We jump right into the story. Perhaps life was the prelude. Perhaps a slow build requires time that a wasted life can no longer furnish. For a gentle acoustic song there is a strange subtle urgency to it. There is something about the music that sounds like it may burst without realizing it. This is a song about lifetimes, and that is a lot for one song to contain. The whole band deserves credit for the effect—the richness of the acoustic canvas, the subtle ways Mike colors it in—each fill reflecting a wasted opportunity or a dream revived only to fade away again-- crowding the song without drawing attention away from the story, the depth provide by jeff’s bass, the effectively understated drums from Dave, the texture provided by the keys, a novelty at this point in their career, but one they wisely avoid drawing attention to. There is a confidence to the music, as if it has already proven everything it could possibly need to prove, and so simply needs to do what the song requires without ego or aspiration.

But the real star of this piece is Eddie. Pearl Jam’s music is always written to act as a platform for his vocals, but this is one of the only times (at this point) where the band really gets out of the way to leave him in the spotlight all by himself. The evocative title sets the scene (and unlike Rats, doesn’t spoil the surprise). We have an older woman, beaten down by life, by roads not traveled, chances not taken, dreams deferred. This is a song about standing still while the rest of the world passed you by, and a chance at redemption. But rather than judge or self-identify, as he does everywhere else on the record , here he stands apart while offering sympathy and forgiveness—refusing to condemn someone for not being able to overcome what so many of us cannot. Part of the process of maturation is learning not to resent people for their inability to transcend who we are, and that happens here.

Like RVM, this is a song about vision—learning to see (or see again) what has long been hidden, and hopefully finding the courage to act on it. But RVM reflects only on its past, and even there it reflects only on its pain. It does not think about its future, as the song climaxes in the triumphal moment of release, of sight restored. It exults in the possibilities of a new future without taking the time to think about what they are. Elderly Woman is about a similar experience, reflecting on a life of static drift rather than pain, but again fixated on the moment of realization. The details are a little fuzzy, but that doesn’t matter since the song is about the experience, not the setting. In the 18 years I’ve been listening to this song I’ve imagined it as the woman spotting an old photograph of herself, confronting an old acquaintance, seeing echoes of who she was in someone younger, even hallucinations—looking into a polished countertop and seeing a youthful reflection or having herself literally confronted by the ghost of who she was—the same conceit I hate so much in Off He Goes. The power of the song comes in part from the fact that this choice doesn’t really matter. It’s a secondary detail that the listener can fill in whatever way is most moving to them.

Where RVM is an epiphany, a singular moment where everything becomes clear, Elderly Woman is hazy and uncertain. There is no thunderbolt, no eureka moment of inspiration and clarity. The song starts out trapped in gauzy recollections. The hesitantly phrased ‘I seem to recognize your face/haunting, familiar, yet I can’t seem to place it. Cannot find a candle of thought to light your name ‘--a wonderful lyric, with its intimations of light and heat, awareness and passion. It’s the experience of having a name on the tip of your tongue and being unable to access it—something that gets even more frustrating the longer it lasts, and as she quickly realizes, this has been lingering just below the surface for a lifetime. The song slides into a kind of wistful regret ‘lifetimes are catching up with me, all these changes taking place, I wish I’d see the place, but no one’s ever taken me.’ These hurts are too old to kindle immediate pain, but in some ways they’re all the sadder for it, for their passivity and sense of loss that encompasses a lifetime. That passivity is important—the feeling that this person has been a victim for her whole life, someone the world acted upon, instead of her acting upon it. She waited for someone to show her what’s there, rather than go seek it out herself, and no one ever came.

The gentle decay of the chorus ‘hearts and thoughts they fade…fade away’ punctuate this. Like the rest of the song its delivery is effectively understated, more melancholy than it is angry or bitter or even sad—emotions too immediate for the song and the subject. Elderly Woman is not a crime in progress, nor are we exploring its aftermath. Eddie is filtering ages through his voice, visiting long abandoned ruins, disturbing their forgotten slumber with unwanted intrusion. If we cannot reawaken it, better perhaps to let it lie.

The second verse speaks to an increasingly determined desire to recapture what was lost, if only it could be sustained. Recognizing a face can be done at a distance, or it can be filtered through a picture or a memory. Breath is something close, something intimate, something right in front of you. There is a gradual reawakening, as what was forgotten is slowly remembered ‘memories like fingerprints are slowly raising’. There’s a gasping moment of shame, as if she could only see what she’s become by holding herself up to the mirror of past aspirations, coupled with self-pity and self-awareness that she’s at least partly authored her present condition (although she still casts herself as a victim). ‘Me you wouldn’t recall, for I’m not my former. It’s hard when you’re stuck up on the shelf. I changed by not changing at all, small town predicts my fate, perhaps that’s what no one wants to see.’

There is a moment when we think she might escape the gravity of her past and start over. ‘I just want to scream ‘Hello!’ My god it’s been so long, never dreamed you’d return. But now here you are, and here I am.’ It is certainly the emotional climax of the song, both lyrically and in terms of the delivery. The question is does she recapture what she lost, or is this just temporary? I’m inclined to think she loses the moment. She holds herself back, like she always has. She just wants to scream. She doesn’t do it. But probably more than anything how you read the song turns on whether or not you think she is alone with her memories or literally confronted by someone from her past. I think she’s alone, and that’s the key. Memories aren’t enough. There needs to be someone on this journey with you. We can rarely overcome the inertia of our habits, our small town, our passivity, our fear (see Dissident) on our own. Engaging the world around you, engaging your dreams, requires someone there with you—someone to draw on for strength when you stumble and someone to share the feast of your triumphs. Instead the song closes with the fading out repetition of the chorus, as the hearts and thoughts fade away once again. What was awoken could not be sustained, because it was alone.

Glorified G
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town