Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Guided Tour of Vs.: Indifference

(A Guided Tour: Vs.)


I said earlier that it is significant that Leash ends with a full stop rather than a fadeout. A full stop implies the end of a thought. One idea is finished and we are ready to move on to the next one. A fade out implies either a lack of resolution or a permanent horizon—that whatever issues are raids and themes are addressed are likely to continue playing themselves out with no end in sight. Leash represents a celebratory moment, but it ends. This isn’t surprising. The revelations in Leash, Small Town, and Rearview Mirror, their attempts at resolving the anger and sense of being under siege that permeates the rest of the record are too great to be reconciled by the realization that we are in part the authors of our own fate, and that we can’t find peace alone. Knowing where to look, and how to look, does not guarantee that you’ll find any answers, and the world has no lack of obstacles to throw in your way.

Indifference is Vs.’ sleepless night, when the rage is spent, when the promise of redemption that seemed so real starts to fade in the late, lonely, quiet hours, when both the world and ourselves are still enough to ask whether or not anything we do matters, whether the struggle has meaning, and how much difference does it make? As always, the music sets the scene, and I’m not sure Pearl Jam has ever reproduced a quiet, meditative atmosphere this gripping. The gentle rain of cymbals against the keys transports the listener into the space where we cannot hide from ourselves, the veil is lifted and are forced to confront the reality of the world. The song spends its time taking in what it finds, a slow and careful study that is reluctant to draw any conclusions. Jeff’s bass slowly carries us across a world without illusions, with the guitar accents acting as flashes of light that reveal what we find without judging what we see. The song moves the listener while keeping them in one place—questing across the landscape o f the mind without leaving his room. Eddie’s vocals match the pace and mood. Where a song like Release rails against uncertainty, and All or None surrenders the need and privilege of asking questions, here Eddie probes. There are moments of rising urgency and careful retreat, but what really characterizes the performance here is how careful it is, almost like Eddie is unwilling to touch anything for fear of breaking the spell. Even as he gathers confidence he quickly pulls it back, as if he’s afraid to commit to anything. The world is too complex to claim any kind of certainty, and given what he’s gone through on the record, he’s seen too much to pretend that there is clarity. Indifference explores a graying world, but one simultaneously cold and warm, near and distant, barren and lush. What you end up seeing really depends on how you answer the song’s question.

It is to Indifference’s credit that it lets the listener try and answer it for themselves. It simply poses the question—and that, alongside a series of striking images, is what makes this one of Eddie’s most effective set of lyrics.

I will light the match this morning, so I won't be alone
Watch as she lies silent, for soon light will be gone
Oh I will stand arms outstretched, pretend I'm free to roam
Oh I will make my way, through, one more day in...hell

You can almost hear in the opening notes the sound of the match striking, the quick burst of light and then the shadowy illumination of a lone match keeping away the darkness. There is someone next to him, a source of comfort, but tenuous and uncertain—he needs to see her to know that she’s there, and worries how fragile human connections are, preserved by something as fleeting as match light, and likely as not to disappear when the light is gone. But he turns his thoughts away from her and contemplates the illusion of freedom, arms outstretched into a welcoming world with no limits and no boundaries—but when the light goes out, when he’s on his own, the promise is revealed for the lie that it is, and what seemed like a boundless horizon becomes a cage, a prison, a personal hell made all the more damning for the seductive illusion of freedom. The one more day in…hell lyric is perhaps a little too over the top, but the rest of the images are powerful and the music perfect so that it doesn’t matter.

I will hold the candle, till it burns up my arm
I'll keep takin' punches, until their will grows tired
Oh I will stare the sun down, until my eyes go blind
I won't change direction, and I won't change my mind
I'll swallow poison, until I grow immune
I will scream my lungs out till it fills this room

Here the singer sounds more assertive. He may be in hell, we may all be damned, the world may conspire against us, but that’s no reason to give up or give in. The rest of the song is a litany of stubborn defiance and refusal. To hold onto the light no matter the pain, to exhaust the world through force of will, to grasp the truth no matter the cost (the sun is a traditional metaphor for that), to demand that the world listens. Defiance feeds defiance and there is a sad beauty in the martyrdom. But he seems to pull back a bit when he again asks himself whether it is all worth it. Whereas Release reaches its climax in its chorus, Indifference calls everything that came before into question. Is the struggle worth it? Is the sacrifice worth it? Is he strong enough to pay the cost? And as always, does the struggle itself have meaning?

There’s no easy answer here (you could easily argue that the next 7 albums go back and forth on the question), and the song is more powerful for not giving one. The listener needs to answer it for itself. Vs. documents both what is at stake and what lies in the way. The instinct to lash out against uncertainty is natural, and seductive, and easy, but it isn’t satisfying. It is a response, not a solution. But the album also points to a way forward. The fight does make a difference, or better, it can. There is a sort of narcissism and cowardice in refusing to act without certainty of success or reward. Life is struggle, and struggle involves risk. What matters is how you look at the mixed, gray world in front of you. Are you able to find the warmth, light, and life amidst the cold, dark, desolation? Vs. argues that there is more to life than injustice, that the struggle has meaning, but we cannot struggle alone. We can’t find or maintain the light by ourselves. The truth of this is gets revealed in the live experience as much as anywhere, when thousands cry out ‘I will scream my lungs out until it fills this room’ and you know that, at least as long as we can keep singing, it does make a difference.

Glorified G
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town