|(A Guided Tour of Riot Act)|
People have argued on Red Mosquito that Thumbing My Way is a hopeful song, and I emphatically disagree. In fact, I think the only song in PJ’s catalogue that might be more depressing is All or None. Other than possibly Ghost, it is the first hopelessly lost song on the record, and the fact that it follows I am Mine adds to the effect. That moment of clarity and inspiration at the end of I Am Mine, the high point of the record, is immediately beaten back down, signaling that the narrator of the record has tried his best, and that his best just isn’t good enough. Thumbing My Way is a song about enduring in a dark, empty, lonely world while being almost entirely devoid of faith that things will get better. This is not a political song, but it fits in with theme of succumbing to a totalizing desolation that runs through Riot Act (political, social, and personal).
Pearl Jam has written plenty of songs about struggling with a sense of personal loneliness and insignificance, but there is has always been a vibrancy to Eddie’s voice, a softness or even lushness to the music, a sense of depth that hints at the possibilities of things getting better. Almost all of that is absent here. The music is start and unadorned, and when the extra guitars chime in at the start of the second verse they sound almost distorted or corrupted, as if they are meant to chime, to herald new possibilities, but find themselves highjacked by a lack of faith and conviction (compare this to Elderly Woman, where they play a similar musical role but sound very very different). Vocally Eddie plays this one perfectly for what the song needs. He sounds more defeated here than almost anywhere on Riot Act (except for possibly All or None). Even the moments where he’s supposed to break away (I let go of the rope thinking that’s what held me back) he sounds defeated. This isn’t laziness as there is a lot of subtlety and nuance in the way he delivers the lyrics. He just sounds beaten, and it’s a deliberate effect. It doesn’t make the song enjoyable to listen to, but such a lonely song shouldn’t be enjoyable. The place where he is writing from could make for a compelling artistic statement, but not easy listening. There is no joy, no anger, no transcendence, no confrontation, not even any healing. No moment to draw the listener in
Lyrically this may be the best written song on Riot Act. The central image, despite the slightly awkward phrasing (I’m not a huge fan of the line ‘thumbing my way’) is very powerful, and with the music paints a picture of a solitary, insignificant man walking alone along a vast empty stretch of highway, shivering in the winter, keeping his thumb outstretched hoping for a ride, but not expecting one, doubting he deserves one (this is part of the song’s darkness—the narrator doesn’t think he is worth loving, worth saving), or even caring if he gets it. He endures because he doesn’t know what else to do, but he has no destination, and without any place to go, no hope for the future. It’s telling that he’s trying to thumb his way back to heaven. He can’t go home, and so at best he can hope for some form of imaginary salvation that he has no faith in ever reaching
As the narrator walks his lonely road he’s left with nothing but his thoughts of how his life went wrong, wondering what he could have done to salvage the relationship that destroyed him—at some times he’s reluctant to blame himself (there’s no wrong or right but I’m sure there’s good and bad—he knows the outcome is unacceptable even if he’s reluctant to assign responsibility) but at other points he knows that he fucked up, perhaps irrevocably (the rusted signs set of lyrics speaks to the singer having fallen victim to some kind of destructive temptation). The rope lyrics bring us back to themes from Love Boat Captain (and PJ’s catalogue in general)—that true independence and true freedom is found in love and solidarity with others. The mistake that was made seems to have been mistaking the obligations that come with love and with relationships as something standing in the way of his independence and happiness, instead of its foundations. It is hard to find optimism in a song with lyrics like “I let go of a rope thinking that’s what held me back, and in time I’ve realized it’s now wrapped around my neck”.
The moment of light that people sometimes pick up on in the song is the ‘no matter how cold the winter there’s a springtime ahead’ lyric. It’s a bit of a cliché, but powerful sentiments usually are, and whenever we’re lost we need to hope that things are going to be better. But as Eddie makes clear in the song, he doesn’t believe it. Rather than face the future he hangs his head down, shuffles his feet and counts his steps towards…nowhere. There’s no destination, just a future of walking alone, punctuated by meaningless rides that can’t take him anywhere since he has nowhere to go. And though he beings the final verse repeating that sentiment he immediately negates it “I smile, but who am I kidding.” He’s in such a dark place he draws no power, no hope, from that sentiment. He recognizes it as empty words devoid of any real promise.
Marx wrote that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” It is what we turn to when we have lost faith in the possibilities of this world. And so it is fitting that the final image of the song is the singer extending his finger, trying to find his way (and here hitchhiking is not an image of freedom or independence, but a mark of his powerlessness—a recognition that his happiness is dependent on other people, that we can’t reach that destination without them to give us a ride) to an imaginary salvation, since there is nothing left for him here. And so Thumbing My Way is ultimately meant to be a cautionary tale, a warning to cherish the love that we have, because without it we’re lost.
OTHER SONGS IN THIS SERIES:
Love Boat Captain
I Am Mine
Thumbing My Way
All Or None
OTHER GUIDED TOUR SERIES: