|(A Guided Tour of Riot Act)|
You Are is one of the potentially redemptive moments on Riot Act, and the last one to appear on the record. Riot Act is in large measure a record about a lost, or failing, faith—faith in love, faith in each other, and faith in ourselves. The final third of the record consists of songs groping in the dark with nothing to hold onto, which suggests that the earlier attempts at preserving a weakened faith (Save You, Love Boat Captain, I am Mine) had failed. It’s worth looking at You Are in that light.
You Are is one of the more muscular songs in PJ’s catalogue, with a grinding, solid strength to it. It’s a plow truck in the middle of a terrible winter storm, headlights giving off a hazy shine in the dark and cluttered night, enduring where others cannot go. It belongs in Pearl Jam’s collection of ‘car’ songs, but this is the first one that really emphasizes solidity rather than speed. Musically it’s strong song, probably the finest thing Matt’s written during his tenure with Pearl Jam.
Lyrically it is hit or miss. There are some terrific lines here (the opening sequence “this broken wheel is coming undone/and the road’s exploded” is one of my favorite set of lyrics to start any of their songs) alongside some clichés whose truth does not negate their triteness (Love is a tower). The music gives some of these lyrics a pass because it is so atmospheric—Love may be a tower, but it is one that is perilously difficult to reach, and you can just as easily imagine You Are being an ad for the Marines with that one brave solider risking his life scaling the perilous cliff face, with jagged rocks and crashing waves below him ensuring his death should he falter—and the music does convey that sense of risk. You Are is a song about uncertain certainty. Love is the rock in the subject’s life, and within it the promise of security and salvation—but there is no guarantee that the love will endure, and without it, we’re lost. The vocals are key here. There is a confidence in the written lyrics that is utterly lacking in the delivery itself. Eddie lacks confidence, sounds worn down by a constant struggle that he is no longer really sure he can win. He’s exhausted (listen for the muted deep breath before the first ‘love is a tower’ lyric) but still enduring. The outcome is unknown—the song can play out both ways, which means we need to look for the resolution in the rest of the record, the way Riot Act itself plays out, and in the context of the album itself the answer is not encouraging.
I remember reading somewhere that this song was originally called Undone. Presumably they changed it from Undone to You Are after Undone was written, but the original title is suggestive. Undone as a title doesn’t negate the central importance of love as sanctuary in an otherwise uncertain existence, but it does seem to indicate that that this sanctuary is lost to the subject, which plays nicely into the larger themes present in the record.
OTHER SONGS IN THIS SERIES:
Love Boat Captain
I Am Mine
Thumbing My Way
All Or None
OTHER GUIDED TOUR SERIES: