Pearl Jam's strength as artists has always been their ability to tap into the unspoken thoughts of a generation (generations, really). Usually this is manifested in the empathy that colors and defines their music. Pearl Jam's best work is usually reactive--responding to events, not controlling. But not always. Occasionally their most powerful songs not only clarify, but define a person, a moment, even an era. When they are on top of their game Pearl Jam's music moves beyond giving voice to the voiceless and taps into something that moves beyond the primal and elemental into the ontological--something that gives shape to a reality we can sense but cannot see. It is their gift to history and to humanity. It is why, thousands of years from now, a moment like the PJ20 Alpine festival will be up there with the day Al Gore invented the internet, Guttenberg invented the printing press, Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, or some random caveperson invented fire and/or the wheel. One of those moments where you can watch the arc of history change course.
Perhaps nowhere is this gift more on display than the truly sublime Rock Around Barack--the moment in their catalog that takes the defiance of Alive, the humanity of Betterman, the emancipation of Given to Fly, the grace of I Am Mine, the insight of Do the Evolution, the empathy of Insignificance, the wisdom of Amongst the Waves, and the literary grace of Inside Job--fusing them all into what may very well be not just the sum total of everything great about Pearl Jam, but something approximating the very platonic form of music itself. Lets break the song down.
There is of course the nod to history, given the striking (albeit ultimately superficial) links to the Bill Haley anthem 'Rock around the Clock', as if the band is acknowledging its communal debt to the path breaking artists that made Pearl Jam possible while simultaneously transcending it. it reminds the present of its obligation to the past that shaped it and the future they will shape in turn, a heady theme the band has dabbled with before, most notably in their spellbinding cover of Black Diamond.
The band is about as tight as they have ever been, with the dynamic, complex interplay between Stone and Mike making concrete just what was at stake in the 2008 election while the flawless work turned in by Jeff and Matt hypnotizes the listener, holding them still long enough for the guitars to open their minds--all of this is just a set up, a way to prime and prepare the listener for the transcendent solo Mike turns in around 40 seconds, that somehow manages, in the space of 20 seconds, to encompass both the brutal story of human history and the cathartic promise of justice and release. Move over Alive. This is MIke's defining moment.
Of course it wouldn't be Pearl Jam without Eddie, and I have to credit both his restraint and choices. By adopting some of the vocal inflections typically used by Stone (he does a pretty badass stone interpretation) he makes the song about something greater than himself--making himself a vehicle for the message rather than the message itself. Plus there is a truly touching 'thank you' in the choice of sounding like Stone--a recognition of the debt that not just Eddie, but really all of us, friend and yes, even foe, of the band owe to Stone's vision. None of this would be possible without him.
I'm not going to talk about the lyrics since I think I would just be repeating much of what I said earlier. Plus, the power and majesty of them is so profound that to write them down, to try and capture and confine them to a screen would both rob them of their spiritual force. I tried earlier and had to stop. It felt too much like rape. I will say this. I can say, without question and without hyperbole, that this song represents the pinnacle of the craft of song writing. This is the song that Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen--all the greats--dreamed, in those dark moments when they dared to imagine the impossible, that they might someday write. That Vedder achieved this without having to make some kind of Faustian bargain (that we know of), is as close as I've ever come to experiencing God as an immanent presence in our lives. I'm not embarrassed to say that I cried for probably close to two hours the first time I heard this. It was like knowing, really knowing, for the first time in your life, that everything was going to be okay.
All this will be self evident to anyone who hears the song. But it does beg the question, why has the band kept this song hidden. Why not share it with everyone? At this point I can only speculate, but I treat this song like a promise of things to come. The band knows we are not ready for more than just a taste, but we're being primed for it. The day is coming, but until then Rock Around Barack has to be kept hidden. It's a secret weapon, a reminder that justice sleeps, but not forever.