Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Guided Tour of Vs.: Leash

Leash is a far more important track (that doesn’t necessarily make it a good track, mind you) on Vs. than we often give it credit for. Leash, moreso than Indifference, represents the culmination of the journey taken, the growth experienced on both Ten and Vs.. From the start Vs. is an album under siege, a sheep penned in and painfully throwing itself against the fence that confines it. Though it may not understand why it is trapped, who built the fence, what gave its captor the right to do it, or how to escape, it senses that its anger is just—somehow more righteous for the fact that its questions go unanswered. But the final quarter of the record, excepting the misplaced Rats, makes great strides both in trying to understand and escape. Rearview Mirror affirms that the subject has been a victim, and that he deserves better. Small Town confirms that they may have been victimizing themselves, that the harm we can do to ourselves through our own static lives, through fearing our dreams, is every bit as real, every bit as damning. But the judgment is softened with the sympathetic realization that we deserve more, even if we haven’t allowed ourselves to experience it. The key insight in Small Town, however, is the recognition that really living, true emancipation, is not something that can be done alone. Perhaps we can start the journey alone, as the subject does in RVM. But it can’t end that way.

That is the message of Leash, easily the most ecstatic, exuberant sounding song in the main catalog. I love how the song creeps up on the listener, starling them out of the reverie of Small Town (and in a lot of ways more artfully done that the quiet LOUD quiet LOUD approach of No Code). It’s not surprising that the first thing we hear from Eddie sounds like a startled yelp. There’s fear, but there is also catharsis, joy, and relief—like walking through a haunted house with good friends and knowing that everything you experience (the laughter and the fright) is both more intense and somehow more pure because you’re together. Little moments like this punctuate the song (like Eddie’s high pitched squeak and playful growl going into the second verse). Eddie sings like his heart is going to burst, but these are complicated screams that seem to exist in both past and present, with elements of the ragged survivor that becomes much more prominent in later songs. They release long held tension, but they celebrate the fact that he CAN scream, and that there is an audience listening that understands, that wants to scream too. The fact that it’s being done together is what matters. It’s not surprising that the Leash chorus/outro has some of the most prominent backing vocals in any Pearl Jam song.

Musically Leash sounds like a party, which makes sense that it’s largely what it is. Hearing the song live really reinforces this. Of all the early songs in the catalog this is one of the few whose meaning and feeling hasn’t changed over the last 20 years. The music is loud, crowded, grinds along, filled with playful moments (especially the transitions between verses (see the 54-60 second and 1:19-1:22 for instance) and notes that are chiming and happy for all their grit (listen to the music in the ‘drop the leash’ outro). There’s also an expansive recklessness to Leash, a looseness that isn’t present many other places on these early records. Ten and Vs. are tightly wound, coiled records. Leash feels free and sloppy, unguarded in a way that was really new for them at this point. The last lyric Eddie sings is ‘get out of my fucking face’ but he speaks it almost casually, like he knows he’s said it and more importantly , knows that others have heard, agreed, and above all else understood, so there’s no reason to scream anymore. Perhaps there isn’t even anything left to say, but that doesn’t mean we want the feeling to go away and Leash ends with the most triumphant solo this side of Alive to let us revel in this moment a little while longer. The song comes to a full stop, rather than a fade, which is significant, but we’ll get to that with Indifference.

Lyrically Leash is a mixed bag. There is an innocence to it that I find charming and appropriate for this song, but it’s easy to imagine why, especially on the surface, a lyric like ‘drop the leash, get out of my fucking face’ or ‘drop the leash, we are young’ can sound immature—especially since Ten, Vs, and Vitalogy normally handle the theme of alienation with much more subtlety and grace (compare ‘drop the leash, we are young’ to the magnificent ‘all that’s sacred comes from youth, dedications naive and true’). But the context matters (this is also why I think the lyrics for The Fixer work fine), and it would be a mistake to expect Leash to sound like Not For You. For all its energy Leash is not an angry or reflective song. It is immediate and celebratory, and even though Eddie is screaming these words, he’s not screaming them in anger. You certainly can’t call this self-parody. Eddie thinks the message is important, especially the ‘delight in our youth’ lyric. But the over the top ham fisted chorus, the black and white nature of the chorus, speaks to the purity of youth and the freedom that comes from certainty and simplicity. Leash wants us to hold onto that even as the world grows more complicated and we are forced to adapt. Even as life shackles us, even as we find ourselves bound and our movements limited, we need to hold onto what it felt like to be free, since this is what will help us navigate this much more complicated world. It is what will enable us to adapt how we live rather than change who we are, to forgive the world its imperfections without abandoning our principles, to live in the world rather than outside it, which may be the only way to resolve the adversarial alienation running through Vs.

That’s not to say there aren’t bad lyrics here. The second verse is unnecessarily vague ’Young lover I stand/It was their idea, I proved to be a man/Take my fucking hand/It was their idea, I proved to be a man’ could be about anything and is so seems to be about nothing. The liner notes seem to indicate that this is about getting someone pregnant, but that makes no sense in the context of the rest of the song. And as I said above ‘delight in our youth’ and ‘drop the leash we are young get out of my fucking face’ is perhaps excusable given the context, but that doesn’t make them well written. But Leash also features some of my favorite moments in the early catalog appearing in Leash. The bridge ‘Will myself to find a home, a home within myself, we will find a way, we will find our place’ is well done, and encapsulates both the themes of the song, the record, and the band itself. We author our own salvation (will myself to find a home, we will find a way), that what we’re really looking for is peace, some kind of stable ground where we can make a life for ourselves and discover who we are (a home within myself, we will find our place) but at the same time it’s a We that is doing this. If the only person occupying that space within yourself is yourself it’ll never be a home. It’ll be a prison. There is no peace without love. If there is one consistent message running throughout Pearl Jam’s music that’s it. The promise of Leash, the promise if of the music, is that if we search we will find it, and that we do not have to search alone. And while ‘drop the leash, we are young’ might be a bit cringeworthy, I am more than willing to forgive a song that gives us the magnificent ‘I am lost, I am no guide, but I’m by your side. I am right by your side.’ There are other songs that define the band: Alive, Rearview Mirror, Corduroy, Given to Fly, I Am Mine—but there are no other lyrics that better capture who they are, and why the music is so important.

Glorified G
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town