Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Guided Tour of Riot Act: Can't Keep

Riot Act, to me, is Pearl Jam's response to 9-11 and the world created in its wake. I think the band was blindsided not only by the enormity of the event but the reactionary blindness that followed it. They wanted to respond musically and politically, but in important ways they found themselves unable to. Eddie was able to sing with confidence in the records that preceded (and followed) Riot Act because there was a sense in which he knew that he was singing for the experiences of other people. Perhaps he didn't want to be a spokesperson for his generation but that wasn't a crazy label to give him. Even after the band's popularity and cultural importance was scaled back there was still an assertiveness to the band and to the music—a sense that if they say something they know people will listen and understand.

I think that changed with the rightward, reactionary tilt to the country after 9-11. I think for the first time the band found themselves fully alienated and alone, not only failing to recognize their world or their country, but even many of the people who made it up. Animating all of the bands previous music was this really powerful sense that no matter what life throws at you, we're all in this together. That sense, if not lost in Riot Act, is heavily muted. They are alone, and powerless. The shock of 9-11 sundered, at least for a time, the ephemeral bonds that connect us to each other and make solidarity possible. The band found itself in opposition not just to power, but in many cases from the victims that they had once tried to speak for.

The cover art is perhaps the clearest statement of this. You have two crowned skeletons (Bush and Cheney?) standing over the smoldering remains of their kingdom, and there is nothing left but ashes and bones. There is nothing to hold on to--no point from which we can begin to rebuild. The title of Riot Act sounded like a call to arms, but we don't find the call anywhere in the album. Instead of outrage and engagement we find defeat and reflection. It is an assertive title for an introspective album that asks whether or not solidarity and progress is even possible anymore. Indifference has that triumphant line where Eddie declares "I will scream my lungs out until it fills this room" knowing that the struggle itself has meaning. Riot Act marks the first time in the bands history where they begin to doubt. The anger and confrontation that animates S/T is not possible until the band first surveys the wreckage and find out if their old principles still hold water when the old convictions and the old certainties are ground into dust.


It is telling that the album begins with a farewell. Starting with the vaguely marching (but not martial) drum part Can’t Keep is a moment of taking stock and then moving on. It is wistful, rather than forceful, and the music conveys that effectively. It isn’t a strident song—there is hope, but it is cautious, with a very delicate certainty that crests at the end of each verse without ever actually getting too aggressive. It is almost like the song is trying to convince itself.

In that respect it is the perfect opener for Riot Act. The lyrics convey a desire to say goodbye, to brush off the baggage of the past and move on to something better. There are some fond recollections of what will be left behind (it’s been wonderful at night), and a desire for no hard feelings, but the place he’s leaving behind is stifling him, and while it may have been home once, there is no longer any attachment, nor room for growth. He can live forever, but only if he manages to get out. The politics here are subtle, but in the context of the record they become clearer. Eddie is singing to his country, saying farewell to a people and a place that he no longer recognizes. Rather than let him drag it down he’s going to have to move past it. There is no confrontation, no attempt at reconciliation. There’s no fight. Instead he washes his hands of it, and turns inward.

This is important, and separates Can’t Keep from other road songs like MFC and RVM. There is a clear sense of forward momentum in those numbers—an urgent desire to get somewhere, anywhere, other than here. The percussion in Can’t Keep tries to move us forward, but we get lost instead in the swirling haze. There is no real clarity here—the promise of the lyrics is belied by the music. When everything has turned against you, when there are no safe harbors, you have no choice but to retreat into yourself. And so in the end Can’t Keep becomes about an internal battle for maintain a certain kind of moral purity and sense of self in a world that has called all the old values, all the old certainties, into question. He wants to say goodbye, but he has no place to go.

Can't Keep 
Save You 
Love Boat Captain 
 I Am Mine 
Thumbing My Way 
You Are 
Get Right 
Green Disease 
Help Help 
1/2 Full 
All Or None   
B-Sides & Outtakes

Riot Act