Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Guided Tour of No Code: Around the Bend

[A Guided Tour of No Code]

Although songs like In My Tree, Present Tense, and Sometimes may feel like they are the core of the album--the key moments with the take away insights, I think it is probably Hail Hail, Smile, and Around the Bend where we learn the most important lessons, and where our ability to make peace with imperfection while striving for something better is showcased best. As is almost always the case with Pearl Jam’s music, salvation is found through other people, leraning to open yourself up to them, accepting their imperfections, and letting them heal you. They make us whole. Oddly enough, for a band that doesn’t write too many love songs, almost every Pearl Jam song is, at base, a love song--a celebration of or longing for it.

Around the Bend is no different, and offers the clearest insight into what gets let in during I’m Open. If I’m Open looks for a way for an adult to recapture the magic the world strips away from us, Around the Bend tells us we can most easily rediscover it within family, within the people we love enough to make ourselves open to, vulnerable--the people who come to mean more to us then we mean to ourselves. Forgiving yourself for your transgressions, the peace you can make with yourself, doesn’t make the world magic for you, but it lets you find magic in other people, and perhaps see the magic in yourself reflected in them.

This was a song that took me a long time to come around to--probably not until I had a child. I have an appreciation for the gentle peacefulness, the longing for it, the awareness of its fragility, the way the music captures the way time freezes a particular moment and keeps you there even though the rest of the world is still moving past. How each day lasts forever and passes so quickly. Most of the time you’re aware only of the grind, but the moments where you can live in the stillness are magical, and the music captures that. It captures the aspirational warmth, the desire to keep everything perfect for the person in front of you--the need to make the world a better place, for all its flaws, because there is someone in your life who deserves better. 

Eddie’s vocals linger on each word, in no hurry to move on, grateful for the chance to be here. It’s an understated performance, but more realistic for it. These are quiet feelings and honest enough to not require much dressing up. In a lot of ways this is one of the more genuine sounding song in the catalog---which is only amplified by the heart on sleeve earnestness of I’m Open and the dismissiveness of Mankind. 

It is also worth noting that the other songs about relationships with others (Smile, Hail hail) are loud, the tenderness in them roughed up a bit by the music. Around the Bend, with the focus on parent and child, is much softer, more intimate, because the parent/child relationship in many ways obliterates (for the parent) the distinction between self and other. And because they are unified the music lacks the opposition present in the other songs. 

I do not have much to add regarding the lyrics that I didn’t say above. There are few memorable lines here, but together they describe the experience of watching your child (or anyone you care deeply for) sleep, thankful for the moments you have, praying that the world becomes worthy of them, and vowing that no matter what, you make yourself worthy of them too.

And that’s what the album is about. If we learn to forgive ourselves we can start to become the person our loved ones deserve. If we make our peace with the world we can make the most of the time we have with them. There may not be a grand unifying theory of everything--there may not be one answer to everything that is wrong with the world, and ourselves, But there is this, and it is enough.

As a postscript, I think No Code was one of the more ambitious albums they had done to date. Making peace is a lot harder than making war. There is a lot on here that is tentative, and the album has always felt disjointed to me--perhaps the pieces all fit together, but there isn’t a particularly satisfying rhyme or reason to how they are arranged. Still, that may also be what gives the album its heart and its charm, and it may be what so many fans find compelling about it. These are the first tentative steps down a new road, the first stabs at finding safe passage through difficult spaces, and beginnings are imperfect. We stumble. We double back. But the important thing is that the journey has begun.

Around the Bend

No Code 
Riot Act 
Pearl Jam