Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Dance of the Clairvoyants: The TSIS Review

Dance of the Clairvoyants is an unexpected, delightful, and extremely satisfying lead single that slide effortlessly into a gap I had no idea was even there.   As with any new Pearl Jam music, my experience is contextualized, and often measured against, my history with the band and its music – in conversation with and framed by what’s come before.  And Dance of the Clairvoyants arrived at a complicated time when I had largely forgotten about the band.  Or maybe it’s not that I forgot them as much as I just didn’t need them.   It has been seven years since Lightning Bolt, and since 2008 we’ve had just two albums and a handful of one-off tracks.  I’m a big fan of those two records – I think Backspacer is a near masterpiece and Lightning Bolt, despite its stale presentation, contains some very strong songwriting and thoughtful, mature meditations about legacy befitting a group of monstrously successful musicians circling 50.  But that’s all we had, and compared to the 7 albums, b-sides, and soundtracks they produced in their first twelve years, the pace of new music I was accustomed to, Pearl Jam felt stuck.  And so I moved past them.  I still knew every moment of every song , even the handful I didn’t really like, and of course I could produce a top 5, or ten, or twenty five, within seconds of being asked.  But it was an intellectual appreciation, a loyalty to the fondest of memories, rather than anything viscerally felt.

That’s not unusual or surprising. Any relationship ebbs and flows without new experiences to remind you why the old ones matter and, if you’re lucky, add to the foundation.  But Pearl Jam stopped producing new memories.  The tours were short and intermittent, and the music dried up.  I did really like their cover of Again Today (it may well be the Pearl Jam song I’ve listened to the most the past several years), but a cover is not really new music.  And Can’t Deny Me was a failure against almost every  possible measure.  It was a disappointing song that, by positioning itself as a response to, and a stand against, the viral toxicity of the Trump era, demanded more of itself than almost any song could give – let alone this one.  That the band seemed willing to hang their hat on it just made it easier to slip away.

And so Pearl Jam stayed where it was, and I moved on.  There wasn’t anger or even regret – just an unintentional drift. Even the announcement of a new album didn’t really move me.  I was aware I should be excited, and my biggest disappointment with Pearl Jam’s near recent output was more about its quantity than its quality.  I assumed I’m way more likely than not to enjoy whatever comes next, despite Can’t Deny Me.  Hell, World Wide Suicide, The Fixer, and Mind Your Manners are three of my favorite lead singles.  Three of my favorite Pearl Jam songs, probably. But still I had to force myself to stay up to midnight to listen, and I did so more out of a recognition that there may not be more first singles in my future.  I suppose I thought I should honor a memory.

That  was my headspace when I first heard Dance of the Clairvoyants.  I had listened to the two clips, and thought little of either – they primed me for something different, but I’ve always been of the mindset that neither difference nor familiarity are going to make or break a song.  Performative difference is irritating, and something familiar can still have something to teach you.  But Dance of the Clairvoyants was utterly surprising – something I have never heard Pearl Jam do (or even really attempt) before, but still captured that old familiar yearning, the striving authenticity, that has always been at the heart of their best music. And for a dormant fan it was exactly what I needed.  I had a similar reaction the first time I heard I Am Mine during the creeping terror of the early Bush years, where the songs craggy warmth and uplifting climax reminded me that I wasn’t alone and didn’t have to be afraid.  I had a similar experience with Worldwide Suicide – where Pearl Jam – the band I most needed to find a way to articulate the contemptuous tragedy that was the Bush years – found its fire and found its voice after what felt (at the time) like a long period of mute passivity.  It was a reminder that they could still be the band I needed them to be.

Dance of the Clairvoyants accomplished something similar.  It was a reminder that Pearl Jam still matters– that they can find something worth saying and say it in a way that makes me want to engage.  That they can still surprise me.  Dance was challenging without being uncomfortable, and Pearl Jam should always feel like an embrace.

The Talking Heads influence is front and center, to the point that Eddie is practically doing a David Byrne impression for the first minute or so. David Bowie influences are there as well, although slightly less pronounced.  Pearl Jam has always been a band that draws a clear line to its influences, and this isn’t something we’ve seen from them before. But its also not surprising.  They  feel like appropriate artists for pearl jam to lean into at this moment, or at least for this song – people who seemed smarter than the insanity and absurdity around them.  People who could laugh at the joke while the pushed back against the teller. People who could see past and through the madness.  And I don’t think Eddie or the band is trying to claim that mantle. They are using them as guides.  Dance of the Clairvoyants is a song about finding your way back to something long lost – and getting there by learning to let go of certainty and getting out of your own way. It embraces the confusion and imperfection in the world without surrendering to or resenting it. It is about learning to let go of the  anger and release the tension we carry with us. It takes on faith that the answer is there, just out of reach, but if we keep circling and reaching out we will inch ever closer to it.  We can’t grasp it yet, but if we open ourselves to the possibility, we will.   And these seem like appropriate musical touchstones for that kind of seeking.  This is easily one of their most spiritual songs.

Pearl Jam has always been at its best looking for the answers, rather than sharing them. Eddie’s strength as a writer and performer is in his empathy and humanity, not his received wisdom.  And I love that this song is searching.  It is all over the lyrics, which focus on embracing how much we don’t know and understand, realizes that there are patterns in the chaos that need to be felt, rather than understood. Given the madness of our historical moment surrendering our expectation and demand for control, but not for meaning, takes an act of faith and courage – of belief.  It is a song that forgives the world, and the people in it, their imperfections without abandoning the surety that it can be better.

This theme is explored on a number of levels, but in the absence of vetted lyrics, and the surrounding context of an album, I’m not going to do much more than hint at them.  There is a personal journey.   There is some political meta commentary about the gendered nature of our current moment and the complicated ways it informs our relationship with the world around us – fairly subtle and elegant despite the dick references.  It’s also not hard to read the song as reflection on the artistic process and Pearl Jam’s own internal struggle with it, if you’re looking for insight into band dynamics.

In some ways this is one of the things that Dance of the Clairvoyants has me most excited about.    One of the most insightful Pearl Jam reviews I ever read dealt with how, more than any other band the author could think of, Pearl Jam was chained to its own history – to the idea of what Pearl Jam HAS to be. And this was in 1998, writing about Yield.   That tendency had only metastasized in the intervening decades.   There are, I think, a number of interesting ideas and promising directions on their last three albums – but every one of them found a way to hold itself back – chained to the platonic idea of what a Pearl Jam song needed to be.  The edges were always sanded smooth, at the expense of its texture.  Songs that I don’t doubt for a second were authentic in their inspiration too often ended up feeling like reproductions – facsimiles of songs that were better because they had the chance to simply be. That was the source of their power musically, and it played to Eddie’s strengths as a singer.

The  creative process that formed Dance of the Clairvoyants gifted itself the confidence and freedom to follow an idea where it leads, rather than forcing it to where we think it should go.  The end result is defined by its journey.  It means the song is messy without being sloppy.  It creates complexity by layering simplicity.  There is order, and structure, and purpose, but it feels natural.  It is odd that a song that apes a drum machine, and features a synthesizer, and yet somehow feels organic.

I hope this process drove the entire record.  Because what is powerful here isn’t that the song is different.  It’s not a new set of musical influences.  It’s that it was free to be the song it wanted to be. And that freedom is what creates great music, whether you’re exploring new territory or drawing fresh water from old wells.  It’s what enabled Eddie to write a song that works for the aging voice of a former God, and remind us why we worshiped him then and should respect him now.  It shows that when you take four immensely talented musicians and just invite them to follow their instincts they can produce something special no matter how old they are or what album number this is.

What I really love about this song is that it promises that there are still mysteries out there.  That the surface, no matter how much we struggle with it, simply hides layers upon layers waiting for us to discover them.  That we haven’t yet exhausted our promise.  There is more waiting for us if we just believe.

Stand back when the spirit comes.