Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Guided Tour of No Code: Who You Are

Who You Are is messy, uncertain, sloppy, playful, but committed, and in that respect is a pretty strong first single for No Code, a record about those first messy, uncertain, sloppy, playful, and committed attempts to not just pose questions but find answers. It is also a song that embraces its flaws and imperfections, and so closes out that early run of songs approaching the same theme from different angles (which I think is probably the most interesting part of the record, if not necessarily my favorite collection of songs).

Musically this is a song that seems to struggle to find itself, has some success, and then loses itself again without every actually slowing down. This used to annoy me when I was looking for Pearl Jam to offer something tighter and more definitive (which I suppose I still am), but this song, more than anything on No Code, has grown on me over the years as I’ve come to place less of an emphasis in my own life on answers and more on the process of finding them and the messy context in which that happens.

Regardless, Who You Are is closer to Sometimes than Hail Hail in that the music echoes the journey of the song rather than standing in contrast to it. We start with the sound of a song mid swing, but all its component parts coming from different places, looking to see where and how they fit in with each other. They finally come together in a vaguely eastern, vaguely spiritual backdrop, but disrupted by the slightly jarring main riff--sort of like someone has some unformed idea of what enlightenment looks like, but is too full of nervous energy to sit still and give it structure. Although it is subtle it is Jeff’s heartbeat bass and the handclaps that form the heart of the music for me, which create the feel of a journey people are taking together even though this, like sometimes, is a song for the self. The multi tracked vocals sound like a proliferation of voices coalescing into one. And during the climax and outro the song disintegrates back into its component parts without ever losing the memory of what it briefly was.

So what about the message behind that music? Who You Are, like Sometimes and Hail Hail, is a song about accepting limitations, but Who You Are is the most inward looking of the three. Sometimes asks you to come to grips with a world you can’t change--your own powerlessness. Hail Hail is about finding meaning in ties that bind us to other people. Who You Are is simply about loving yourself for yourself. There are times the sentiment is a bit awkward. This is not Eddie’s finest lyrical hour, and is one of the more clumsy songs on the record. But it is also important to judge a song by its context, and since Who You Are celebrates our flaws, this hardly needs a Leonard Cohen level of profundity in order to work. It just needs a self-aware sincerity that can laugh at itself. 

I won’t dwell too long on the stuff that doesn’t work. I can’t decide if the hamfisted opening lyrics are intentionally crafted that way or not. But there is some nice stuff in here once you get past that. Most of the lyrics are about travel and movement (take me for a ride, driving winds, off the track in the mud, stop lights, etc) and while I like the distant soaring urgency in the ‘take me for a ride/just a little time before we leave’ lines the most the trampled moss image works best--calling to mind a solitary journey dark quiet places along paths well traveled, which is in part the point. When you are following where others have been it is not a journey you need to take alone, and the song tries to pull the subject out of itself--as if halfway through the journey a guide shows up to take you the rest of the way. The ‘can’t defend fucked up man’ lyric is nothing special, but the idea is important. You can’t defend them, but the point of the song is that you don’t have to. You just have to accept them. 

There is a lightness and humor to this song that I would have liked to see them run with a bit more, as No Code occasionally starts to stumble under its own weight (I think Backspacer will strike a better balance, although many will obviously think it tips too far in the other direction), in particular the ‘that’s the moss in the aforementioned verse’ bit of stage direction narration towards the end of the second verse. I probably hated that 15 years ago when i was still committed to the idea that serious ideas could only be addressed in all caps. 

In the end Who You Are reminds us that we’re making it all up as we go along, but we’re not making it up alone, and if you accept that you may not always know your lines, or execute them well, or that they may not even be appropriate for the story you’re telling--if you understand all that you’ll enjoy the ride a whole lot more.

Who You Are
In My Tree
Off He Goes
Red Mosquito
Present Tense
I'm Open
Around the Bend

No Code 
Riot Act 
Pearl Jam