Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Guided Tour of Riot Act: Love Boat Captain


The early songs of Riot Act are all governed by the same basic tension—they each contain the same affirmation of life and agency that animates Pearl Jam’s best music, but it sounds like Eddie has lost his faith in the truth of that affirmation. He’s not signing to convince the listener. Instead he’s mulling it over himself, uncertain about whether or not it is still true. In a post bush, post 9-11, post Rosklide, post divorce world how much control over our lives and ourselves, despite our best intentions and best efforts, do we really have?

LBC confronts this question directly. Is this all insurmountable? It is easy to drown in our suffering and misery without someone to guide us through it, without some kind of love to hold on to. Love in fact, is all you need (a weak line but then again I don’t like the Beatles), the most powerful source of meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. And, as usual, this doesn’t have to be romantic love. The love that comes from friendship and solidarity can be just as vital here. And LBC is an offer of love and friendship from the band to its fans (this comes across effectively live, in part because the burdens of real life disappear during the shared experience of the music). Perspective matters here. It is easy to lose hope when you are trapped in a dark place, and it is important that we look to others to remind us of the existence of light and love—especially those who have experienced it and come through it. Eddie has the people he leans on, and in the bridge he both thanks them and offers to be that person to the listener—finally confident enough that he is prepared to play the role in others lives that his musical heroes played in his own.

At least this is the hope of the song. The opening organ gives what should be an inspirational song a funeral base, and while the music does rise above those darker beginnings, the vocals never quite match it, and the song ends in the same quiet place it began, with Eddie trying to convince himself that love is enough. Eddie has made his grand declaration, but somehow the words never quite leave the ground. The sentiment is there, and he knows that intellectually it is true, but he doesn’t quite believe it anymore, or can’t quite make himself believe it. And so once again, the declaration of war, the call to arms asserted by the title, is overwhelmed by experience, a tension that will reappear again and again throughout the rest of the album—in fact, it is the dominant theme of the record, and is the reason why Undone and Down, despite being some of the best songs to come out of these sessions, ultimately can’t be on Riot Act (more on this later).

Can't Keep
Save You
Love Boat Captain
I Am Mine
Thumbing My Way
You Are
Get Right
Green Disease
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