Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Guided Tour of No Code: Smile

A lot of pearl jam’s music is about the balance between independence and interdependence--how much space do we need to make for other people in our lives, and how much do we need to surrender to them. When is love a shackle and when is it emancipatory? When we are forced to confront our own powerless in the larger world how much can we look to others to make up the difference? It is an important question, and pearl jam’s music has been asking it from the very beginning.

No Code spends a bit more time on the solitary inner journey than the shared outer one. Maybe this makes sense. Perhaps you need your own house in order before you can make space for guests. Having said that, Smile is one of the principle songs that comes back to this idea of self-worth being found with other people (Hail Hail and Around the Bend being the other two). And although it is a simple song, it is worth remembering that a simple presentation does not necessarily preclude complex ideas.

Just as there is a balance between head and heart in Hail Hail, Smile draws a balance between masculinity and femininity. The music is tough, muddy, crunchy, dusty, road weary (the harmonica was an inspired touch). It churns up the road it travels down. It swaggers. The piano gives it faint overtones of a grungy western bar

The vocals and the sentiment, on the other hand, are quite feminine. Eddie’s singing is gentle, and even the points where he screams the voice is still subdued, demure, almost like it’s not proper--a far cry from the ferocious abandon we’ll get on songs like Habit and Lukin. 

The lyrics are pretty simple. Intimate personal reminiscences and longing for what is gone for now, the kind of celebratory heartache that comes from requited love that you expect to return. Relief at being able to confidently proclaim out loud that you love someone and not have to keep it inside you.

A complete human being is not someone who lives solely within themselves. We are social animals. And Smile comes at this in two directions. One is the simple declaration that we need the people we love, and that we are diminished in their absence (which is why we long for them). The other is the more subtle masculine/feminine interplay between the music and the vocals/lyrical imagery (like the hearts and swirls). A complete person has masculine and feminine qualities, and the separation into two distinct ideals (a social construction) does us a disservice as a person (recall the ‘are you woman enough to be my man’ lyric in hail hail). We need to learn to be strong and submissive, to think and to feel, to be dependent and independent, to be hard and to nurture. Some of this we can find by binding ourselves to someone else who adds the missing pieces to our puzzle, but some of this (in the spirit of No Code) can also be understood internally--a matter of learning how to strike the right sort of balance within yourself. And although it doesn’t come at this in masculine/feminine terms, that balance (and the failure to achieve it) is at the heart of Off He Goes.

Off He Goes
Red Mosquito
Present Tense
I'm Open
Around the Bend

No Code 
Riot Act 
Pearl Jam