Sunday, March 22, 2020

Gigaton: The TSIS Review

This is going to be a long review, but before I start, I want to share a post from McParadigm, maybe the most consistently insightful poster on Red Mosquito:
This is an album about surviving past the end. It’s an unexpectedly appropriate subject for this day and age, and Pearl Jam is a uniquely authentic musical voice for it. They are capable of capturing, without fetishistic assumption or romanticism, the real experience of survival. They know what it means to live with losses that you can’t outlive. They know it’s not always going to feel like it was worth it.

So save your predictions, and burn your assumptions. But the band also wants you to feel the natural jubilance of the phrase “there’s much to be done.” Its reaction to the bitter end isn’t trademark fury, but just the same I’m still alive, different day.

The inspirations were clearly (primarily) Trump and climate change, but the band’s empathetic fixation on surviving hardships (both physically and spiritually) make this the ideal album to carry into uncertain quarantine. It’s an album that wants you to feel less alone. First, do no harm. Then: buckle up.

Even the president, lazily disparaged, is then immediately sympathized with in terms the band cannot help but understand. “His best days gone, hard to admit,” and here the smugly-strutting song becomes a mother’s hug. “Angry punches, with nothing to hit.” It’s like a Riot Act song all grown up...still furious for all of the denied and powerless, but now able to find its own reflection in the failures of the powerful.

Pearl Jam used to make albums about surviving the moment. Then, for a while there, they sort of made albums about remembering what it was like to be surviving the moment. Now, they’re finally ready to talk about you do next. Which in its way is just another kind of promise to survive. Whoever said it’s all been said gave up on satisfaction.

I could very well end up humiliated by how much I like this. I’ll live with it. Because whether or not this is a great record, it hits me right now because I’m pretty scared but hoping, and a hope dies last.

He perfectly encapsulated my thoughts and experience of this album.  So if you have some time to kill and want to watch me say in 6,000 words what he just said in 350 you're in luck!  But if you have somewhere else to be he nailed it, and you don’t need to read any further.

Gigaton is not the album I was expecting, but it was exactly the one I needed right now.  More than any other Pearl Jam album this feels like a tonic.  A warm blanket, a mother’s hug. A lullaby.  A prayer.  Hope. 

This album was clearly inspired by climate change (a gigaton is a term of measurement used to measure loss of ice from the planet’s giant ice sheets), and the existential challenge of Donald Trump – a man who has confirmed our worst fears and fed our worst impulses. His continued, baffling levels of popularity (low for a president, but staggeringly high given what he represents) have held a mirror up to all of us, and it's hard to like what we see.  And the knowledge that millions of people embrace what he represents raises terrifying questions about who we are, and what ties, if any, still bind us.

That’s where Gigaton came from. But it is impossible not to experience this album through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though it was written and recorded months and years prior.   We are all experiencing this in different ways. Some of us are sick or have loved ones who are.  Some of us have lost jobs or know those who have. All of us are at risk.   At work I am being asked to help lead a coordinated response to an unprecedented set of circumstances. Our actions will impact the lives of thousands of people.   And I cannot help but stop and look around and wonder where the adults are who will take care of this problem for us.  This cannot possibly be my responsibility.  But I look around and I realize that I am the adult, and no one is coming.

I have to be strong and confident and certain every day.  For my family, for the people I work with, for the people I serve.  But the truth is I am terrified and I don’t know what to do. About the pandemic. About the environment. About any of it. All I can do is the best I can, and hope that it is enough.

Pearl Jam has been a part of my life for almost 30 years. And during that time I’ve always looked to their music to help me articulate and understand my own experiences – to put into words and music what I know to be true but cannot always express. And given what is at stake in the world I expected an album that raged and roared at the injustice and unfairness of our current moment.   But that’s not actually what I need right now.  I know how to be angry. I’ve been angry for years. I know how to articulate it.  And I don’t know where it’s gotten me. Or gotten any of us.     I don’t want the best parts of me diminished by this moment.

What I needed, more than anything, is a comforting and familiar voice to embrace me. To tell me that it’s okay to be scared, and it’s okay to have hope that things will be better.  Because without that hope they won’t be.

Gigaton understands this perfectly.  It rejects anger without diminishing the legitimacy of the feelings causing it.  It has the maturity and the confidence and the experience to reject the cynicism of the time and realize that only by embracing our better selves, together, can we chart a way forward.  It refuses to mire itself in anger or sadness, even though these would be easy choices to make.  This is Pearl Jam’s most humanist record, and it arrives at a time when what we need to do, more than anything is recognize the humanity in ourselves and others.

This is a remarkable record, a grown up and adult record in a way no Pearl Jam album really has been before. There has always been an uneasy quality to Pearl Jam’s work, and Gigaton is somewhat unique in the catalog for the comfort it has living in its own skin.  There is never a moment that feels self-satisfied or self-righteous, despite its confidence.  It has nothing it needs to prove, but it has a great deal to share.  It is a record that wants to collaborate, that understands that our best work is done when we are all working together, sharing our strengths and supporting our weaknesses. 

There is a lived-in quality to this record, but it isn’t weary.  It feels less like a survivor recounting their experiences as a form of therapy (which Pearl Jam albums often do), and more like someone offering to tell their story because others might derive some wisdom from  it.  I have often argued that Pearl Jam is at its best when it doesn’t have the answers, and the moments when they think they do can fall a little flat.  But here they get it right. And they get it right because they don’t offer answers, and accept that action doesn’t require them.  Its wisdom is in its empathy, its refusal to judge and condemn, and its faith in commitment to our better selves.  And so while this feels new, it is also in many ways an affirmation and confirmation of the ideas that have been running through the music for 30 years, subtext made text.

In many ways, this is a logical thematic extension of Lightning Bolt, Pearl Jam’s first middle aged album. Lightning Bolt dealt with a palpable fear of loss – what happens when you’ve found happiness and don’t know how to protect it?  What if you can’t?  That album understands how tentative and fragile and impermanent victory is.   Gigaton tries to answer what happens when it all falls apart, as it eventually will.  How do you pick yourself back up and go on?  How do you keep fighting after you thought you'd won?  Why keep fighting when it's worse than ever?

The answer is that you accept your own individual limits and imperfections, and you accept them because you don’t have to fight that fight alone.  And you embrace the chaos of the world around you, and learn to swim with it, rather than against it.  And as the tide carries you along you look for the safest harbor you can find, and you take shelter there for as long as you can – but never forever.  It doesn’t end, but the strength of the people alongside you can carry you through your own moments of weakness.  And in the end that may just be enough.

The sound and feel of the album embodies this idea.  It is defined, musically, by its spaciousness.  Every song is allowed to breath.  Every idea is willing to make room for someone else.  The songs are long (this is Pearl Jam’s longest album, with only two songs clocking in under 4 minutes), but they are loose and organic and conversational.  By not being in a rush to build to a point (something that the songs on Lightning Bolt, which had far grander aspirations, were consistently guilty of) space is left for the gradual unfolding of ideas and experiences.  The end result are songs with an impressive degree of emotional and thematic resonance that make this Pearl Jam’s most compassionate album.  The warmth and humanity that was present, but compressed out of many of the recent albums, is front and center in a way it’s maybe never been before.  New producer Josh Evans deserves all of our thanks for so effectively capturing the essence of the band.  This is the first Pearl Jam album that FEELS like a show. 

Everyone does strong work on this album.  Eddie trades in the scorching snarl and scratchy energy (that I loved although many found abrasive) of recent albums for a clarity and warmth that has been absent for quite some time.  There is little that is showy or performative, and his singing feels particularly authentic. Gigaton beautifully captures one of his principle strengths as a vocalist.   The lyrics are quite strong (one of his strongest outings), and there are more than a few times when the lyrics and performance meet to create genuinely staggering moments.

The rest of the band has brought their A game as well.  Jeff Ament in particular is an MVP of the album, but they all create songs rich in atmosphere and texture – this is a very tactile album.  Moments that might otherwise feel simple are adorned and colored in ways that create new layers and surprising moments to uncover with each listen. Every song has a moment for the highlight reel, and even some of the comparatively lesser tracks find a way to justify their inclusion on the album.  The album runs almost an hour, but there is no filler.

WHO EVER SAID: Gigaton begins with an ambient, hazy fade in. It is dream-like (and Gigaton returns to dreamscapes and memory throughout the album), with that nagging, pulsating feeling you get when you try to remember a dream experienced with perfect clarity.   A pause, and then the song rolls up its sleeves and kicks off the album proper, with a slightly dirty, muscular, growly riff that sounds like the distilled essence of badass rock and roll, with Eddie’s vocals matching the music.  It is indignant and righteous and familiar, but after admonishing  "You don’t’ get to speak with twice as much to say" the song sharply pivots to something significantly more loose, as Eddie’s upbeat vocal and the fuzzy guitars make it clear that this is a judgement free zone.   The song swirls around the chorus lyric "who ever said it’s all been said gave up on satisfaction", making it clear that the song plans to celebrate the possibilities present in a vast and complicated world.  It rejects the narcissism of certainty.

In a lot of ways 'Who Ever Said' is a companion piece to 'Mind Your Manners' (a personal favorite). Both argued that our possibilities are limited by our imagination, but 'Mind Your Manners' was angry, judgmental, and desperate where 'Who Ever Said' is gentle, forgiving, and patient (despite being a pretty raucous song). And while 'Mind Your Manners' rails against the people who stand in the way of a better world, in 'Who Ever Said' the singer is mostly interested in interrogating himself.   And the song transitions around the 2:30 mark to a stunning introspective sequence as the singer slowly realizes that the person most standing in his own way is himself, and his refusal to learn from and forgive his (and our) failures.  “All the answers will be found in the mistakes we have made”, Eddie offers in the first of what will be many mission statement moments sprinkled throughout the record.  Jeff’s bass work is particularly striking during this sequence, but Mike and Stone do a great job coloring around the central riff.  

The song is knocked off its feet by that insight and stumbles forward, trying to right itself with increased urgency, recognizing the magnitude of what’s at stake until it explodes back into back into the celebratory final chorus.

It’s a five minute song that manages to feel like three, and there is a stitched together quality to it, a refusal to follow a formula, that becomes a hallmark of much of the writing of the album. This is not an experimental album, but it gives each song a slightly surprising quality, as it becomes hard to anticipate where each song goes next.

SUPERBLOOD WOLFMOON: Like 'Who Ever Said', 'Superblood Wolfmoon' is a surprisingly inventive song hiding in a relatively straightforward pop/punk format.   It eschews the traditional verse chorus verse chorus bridge structure, using the chorus for the intro and bridge, and filling the rest of the song with verses that fall over each other in the frantic pacing of the song.   

Musically there is a brash edge to the playing that makes everything hit  harder, and supports a song that is really a series of epigrammatic insights with the punctuation that it needs.  Standout moments include both Mike’s 80s’ guitar god solo and the counter playing that creates an iron perimeter around it, caging the music in.  The bridge riff is a highlight I wish made a reappearance elsewhere in the song, and the swirling guitar that comes out from underneath the final verse to close out the song sounds incredible.  Eddie’s vocals gallop across the song, with the end of each section clearly denoted by some rising energy that skates close to anger without quite crossing over, or some excellent vocal layering

The song is a slight temper tantrum, as the singer works through the perceived unfairness of the world and the gradual realization that it is not going to give him the clarity and stability he feels he is entitled to no matter how badly he wants it.  But as with every song on Gigaton, the song sympathizes with those all too human frustrations stemming from the denial of an all too human need.  The realization that  "love notwithstanding we are each of us fucked" is hard to swallow and feels like the perfect encapsulation of our moment in history.   “I don’t know anything. I question everything. This life I love is going way too fast” is an overwhelming space to be in, and the breakneck pace of the song (with a fantastic final climax) matches the mood.  Why can’t the world just stand still and let me enjoy what I’ve worked so hard for?  But the song refuses to judge, in part because, despite it all, the singer is holding onto the insistence that things can get better. “I’ve been hoping, and a hope dies last”. There is an indefatigable spirit to 'Superblood Wolfmoon' that manages to be powerful without fetishizing its own power.  It’s an anti-statement of a statement in its way, subtle and easy to miss despite the surface superficiality of the song.

DANCE OF THE CLAIRVOYANTS: ' Dance of the Clairvoyants' is the high-water mark of Gigaton. It’s an utterly surprising song that is completely unlike anything else in the catalog – the clean, clipped, precise atmosphere of its first half, the use of keyboards instead of guitar for much of the song, Stone’s excellent rumbling bassline.  It feels fresh and inventive.  Matt’s perfectly calibrated drum machine imitation holds the song together, and Mike’s fierce but understated playing gives the song some critical bite.  The individual parts come together to create a soundscape that is among the most richly textured in the catalog that feels anxious and mysterious, and full of hidden truths if one can only figure out where to look.

But the star here is Eddie, who turns in an incredible vocal performance that starts out as an extremely credible David Byrne imitation (which is appropriate given the slightly paranoid feel of the music – like someone is watching you from beyond the veil) that turns into a showcase reminder of why he was arguably the greatest rock vocalist of the '90s.  It is gritty, forceful, empathic, confident, questing, pleading, and uncertain – sometimes all at once, and is probably his most compelling performance in decades.

While there are a few questionable lines here and there (inconsistency has been a watchword of his writing from the jump) there are some stunningly evocative turns of phrase that reinforce some of the central themes of the first two songs.  The sheer unknowable immensity of the world, the need to accept your own limitations in the face of it, and the power of love to carry you over and through it.  “Expecting perfection leaves a lot to endure. When the past is the present and the future’s no more. When every tomorrow is the same as before.”  It is half statement, half challenge.  A reality articulated but needing to be transcended.

There are some interesting gender dynamics in the song, as Eddie identifies the stubborn (and arguably destructive) insistence on fighting against your insignificance  as masculine, and the willingness to make peace with and transcend what you cannot control as feminine. The realization and recognition that only by fusing the two can we find a way forward is the hidden message of the song – to recognize that being unable to make everything right is not the same as failure. The key is to find something, anything, and make it as meaningful as you can while you still can.  It all comes together in the compulsively danceable rapturous finale of the song, as he surrenders to this epiphany amidst the swirling mess of everything he has to let go.  “Stand back when the spirit comes.”    

There is simply nothing like this in the Pearl Jam catalog, and Gigaton earns the price of admission from this song alone.

QUICK ESCAPE: If 'Dance of the Clairvoyants' is something I never thought I’d hear from Pearl Jam, 'Quick Escape' is something I never thought I’d hear again.  It is a ferocious song, hard hitting in that inexorable way only a mid-tempo song can be.   It’s late period Led Zeppelin meets Rage Against the Machine meets 'Deep'/'Alone' that stomps through its 5 minutes absolutely confident that it will flatten anything in its path.   But for a song this huge it is curiously unaggressive – pitched more as a warning than anything else.  Eddie’s cautionary cries are softened and humanized by the warm harmonizing underneath it.  Mike’s air raid siren solo and Jeff’s thundering bass (and the fantastic interplay between the two during the outro is an album highlight) are meant to draw attention to some impending apocalyptic moment, but aren’t the moment itself.

There is a dream-like quality to the song (though not a particularly relaxing dream) which is appropriate for the lyrics. Eddie is singing about a series of escapes from the present moment.  Trump is referenced (because how could he not be?) but whereas references to George Bush were personal, Trump himself is almost conceptualized as the personification of a particular noxious idea (which, in many ways, he is) – the basest, most self-destructive  tendencies within ourselves.   In the face of that, what else is there to do but run?  Eddie spends the song fleeing, only to end up on Mars (which works much better in the song than it does reading about it).  “And we think about the old days/Of green grass, sky and red wine/Should've known so fragile/And avoided this one-way flight.” There is the realization that this is all fantasy nonsense.  The Mars haven is an empty fiction, and by trying to outrun what was coming they lost their opportunity to change it.

'Quick Escap'e is not the call to arms you find in '7 Oclock' or 'River Cross', but it prefaces that moment.  And it does so with an energy and intensity that I had wanted to find on the album, but Gigaton limits it to this one song. And it turns out it is the perfect amount for the album I need, and that Gigaton is trying to be.  This is an album about making peace with yourself and with the world so you can change it, and there is only a limited window for an abrasive song like this in that process.  It slaps you out of complacency and into focus, but then it’s time to take a breath and get to work.

ALRIGHT:  Alright is that breath.  It is a beautifully atmospheric song that feels like the heat lightning you’d get from an ethereal storm on a warm summer night.  Illuminating, centering, oddly calming in its quiet grandeur and understated drama. It feels like a spiritual successor to the more interesting moments on Binaural, one that managed to pull itself out from under the crushing claustrophobia of that album to end up someplace healthy.

Jeff wrote the lyrics to this one, and the lyrics focus on finding peace within yourself, to carve out a space to breath within the swirling madness of the times. It is an anchoring sentiment within the record, beautifully delivered, and one that segues perfectly into Seven O’clock.  Eddie gives a gorgeous performance – warm, humane, understanding, comforting.  And the music sustains a curious electric edge throughout.  Enough to raise goosebumps and snap the world into focus, but not enough to shock.   When Eddie sings “It’s alright to shut it down, disappear in thin air” the song conveys enough magic and mystery to make you believe it might be possible.  It is a showcase for Jeff’s off-kilter sensibilities, flawlessly executed.

SEVEN O'CLOCK: A thematic successor to 'Amongst the Waves', if Bruce Springsteen wrote a song for Yield it would be 'Seven O’clock'. The centerpiece  of the record, and one of Gigaton's ‘mission statement’ songs, 'Seven O’clock' lays out exactly what is at stake, for all of us.   Expansive and grounded, inspiring and practical, 'Seven O’clock' understands that the power of a dream is found in the real world footprints it leaves. With a thematic callback to 'Quick Escape' it reminds us that “all the lies we could have had” are an unhelpful distraction – something to distance ourselves from.  

In some ways 'Seven O’clock' is a spiritual inversion of 'Sleight of Hand'.  'Sleight of Hand' is a deeply claustrophobic song despite its expansive feel – someone adrift in the void with no way out, and no hope of anything better. Freedom is found in dreams because life is a prison.  'Seven O’clock' emphatically rejects that perspective in the first verse of the song.  The singer wakes with a perfect recollection of a beautiful dream of a better world, and with the will to carry it forward.

“Moved on from my despondency and left it in the bed.  Do I leave it there still sleeping, or still kill - it better yet? For this is not time for depression or self-indulgent hesitance. This fucked up situation calls for all hands on deck. ”

The verses of the song move along from there with a winning, gentle, sturdy confidence as they assess the mess we’ve made of the world.  It is the most humanist song on Pearl Jam’s most humanist album.  It doesn’t flinch from the worst of us and loves us despite and maybe because of, our failures – since they are what make us human.  The singer takes responsibility for his own thoughtless and unintentional inhumanity, and it is hard not to read an environmental message into lyrics like:

 “Caught the butterfly, broke its wing, then put it on display.  While stripped of all its beauty once it could not fly high away. Still alive like a passerby overdosed on gamma rays, another God’s creation destined to be thrown away.” 

He also addresses larger systemic problems, embodied again in the personage of Donald Trump. But even here there is sympathy and understanding, if not empathy – understanding resistance to needed change as the  clutching fear of losing one’s place in the world and the inability to come to grips with the fact that the world leaves all of us behind.  That could be any of us, without someone to help us make our peace with our own impermanence and inspire us to leave something behind for those that follow.

The song moves from dream to the reality of the verses back to the Army Reserve inspired dreamscape of the choruses.  The music grapples with the juxtaposition between dream and reality as the singer draws comfort and inspiration to steel himself for the ugliness of our reality and to find the will to change it.   'Seven O’clock' ends up with the charge “Much to be done.” It less a call to arms than it is a call to roll up your sleeves and get to work.   Impossibly daunting, perhaps, but our dreams show us the way, and the work is not ours to do alone.

NEVER DESTINATION: There is a tight thematic arc that runs through Gigaton, except for 'Never Destination' and 'Take the Long Way'.  'Never Destination' is the now standard mid album ‘breather’ track, though compared to some of its counterpart songs on recent records ('Big Wave', 'Supersonic', 'Let the Records Play') it manages to feel loose without being disposable.   There is a classic '80s rock purity (with a nice Mike solo) to the song – you could very easily imagine soundtracking a montage with its infectious energy. It’s not the ‘faux fun’ of 'Supersonic' (and is coming from a different musical place regardless).  Pearl Jam has written similar songs, but this is probably their most successful iteration.

The energy creates an interesting tension with Eddie’s rapid fire lyrics, which speak to the exhaustion of our times, “never destination, just more denial” and the singer’s fervent wish that they could just ignore the whole thing, knowing full well that they can’t. And the song is capped off with a ‘Daughter’ style tag that may be the best part of the song.   One of the more interesting and notable elements of Gigaton is its willingness to indulge in these detours, and they frequently lead to satisfying little moments like this.

TAKE THE LONG WAY: It’s hard not to wonder if Matt Cameron’s 'Attrition' adjacent contribution to Gigaton was originally written for Soundgarden.  It has the spikey, angular energy you would expect from that description, and features a pretty cool riff with hints of danger, catchy chorus that works on its own, but does feel slightly out of place on the album.  There is a precision and intentionality here that is absent elsewhere on what is a loose and imprecise record.   This does feature a pretty interesting solo from Mike, and there is a compelling dramatic sweep to what feels like it would be the bridge but turns out (somewhat unsatisfyingly) to be the end.   But in fairness, I am not a huge Soundgarden fan, and this is Pearl Jam providing an extraordinarily faithful performance in the Soundgarden style.

Stone’s solo writing contribution may well be the emotional heart of the album.  It has a similar cadence to 'Parachutes', but in a much more sing-songy and innocent, almost childlike form.  If this song had a video someone would be pushing a child on a swing set, and it would be delightful.  This is an impossibly winning song. The music is whimsical in a way Pearl Jam never quite successfully pulled off before, and Eddie has maybe never been this inviting.    It  feels like a hug from your mom. In a time of social distancing Buckle Up is exactly the song you would send to a loved one you were thinking of.

The music and performance is in slight tension with the lyrics which, near as I can tell, are about confronting the mortality of a parent and realizing that they cannot take care of you any longer – the roles are reversed.  The evocative chorus, “Firstly do no harm, then put your seatbelt on. Buckle up”, cycles between the mundane and profound memories, lessons, and influences that make up their legacy.  This is Pearl Jam as comfort food – a warm fuzzy bridge that connects us when we cannot be together. I have older parents, fortunately healthy, but when their inevitable decline this is the song I'll be drawn to.

COMES THEN GOES: 6 minutes of Eddie and an acoustic guitar.  That may have been a dicey proposition. Eddie’s solo acoustic work (much of which I am a big fan of) tends to work best in smaller bites, given the generally repetitive patterns he plays, and that he is not an expansive storyteller. But 'Comes Then Goes' is a triumph.  The music is unadorned but beautifully captured. It feels like he is playing right next to you, with a rich, enveloping fullness.    Eddie turns in an excellent vocal performance, with a melancholy sadness that accepts, rather than wallows, in its pain.  It is not the slightest bit melodramatic, as opposed to recent songs (that I enjoy) like 'Just Breathe', 'The End', and 'Future Days' – and its lived in authenticity gives it extra power.

Comes then Goes seems to be grappling with the death of Chris Cornell, with each verse building towards a concluding lyrical couplet that almost never fails to hit hard:

“Like images of angels in the snow,our courage melts away, it comes then goes.”
“Divisions came and troubles multiplied. Incisions made by scalpel blades of time.”
“Thought you found a game where you could win. It’s all vivisection in the end.”
“Evidence in the echoes of your mind leads to me to believe we missed the signs.”
“The Queen of Collections took your time. Sadness comes ‘cause some of it was mine.”

And like so much of Gigaton, the song is not here to judge. It wants to explore and understand. It recognizes that people drift apart, that they miss signs, that they fail, that they cause each other pain.   It doesn’t make excuses or apologies, doesn’t ask for forgiveness, and doesn’t expect it.  Instead it just wants to name pain and loss and imperfection as inextricably bound up in the reality of being human, and share that human experience.  It makes the sadness in the song both inescapable and cathartic in its inevitability.  A common experience that has and will unite us all.

RETROGRADE:  'Retrograde' is a curious song, an odd hybridization of the subdued busy energy of 'Speed of Sound' and the performative nature of 'Sirens'. It is aiming for a lushness that it is not always successful in hitting, but it is an appealing formula that does grow on you over time. 

In some ways 'Retrograde' serves as a cliff notes for the album thus far, as the 'Never Destination' – 'Take the Long Way' – 'Buckle Up' – 'Comes Then Goes' stretch does not directly address the central themes of the first half of the album.  As Eddie reminds us throughout the song, “The more mistakes, the more resolve. It’s gonna take much more than ordinary love to lift this up.”  Environmental themes and images are more prominent here than any other moment on the album, and they color and give shape to the call for action.

Where 'Retrograde' really comes into its own is in the final two minutes.    Eddie sings “Hear the sound in the distance now.  Could be thunder or a crowd.” It’s a simple lyric that nicely encapsulates the theme of transformation running through the record, making it feel natural, almost inevitable.  And at this point the song really opens up into something cleansing and triumphant – the music swells as Eddie's voice comes in from far away, soaring and majestic in a way that absolutely convinces you a better world is possible if you can just hold onto that moment, lingering just long enough to feel real.   It would be a fantastic closing moment for Gigaton, if not for what follows.

RIVER CROSS: This is a hard song to write about.  It has moved me to tears on at least 5 occasions, and I’ve only been listening to this album for three days.   It is hard to say how much of that is the song and how much is the moment. But I guess it doesn’t matter.  Why it speaks to me is less important then the fact that it does, with an immediacy and a break-taking reality I've seldom experienced from a song.

It’s a simple song, richly adorned.  Eddie plays a pump organ, Jeff’s playing creeps around it, Matt’s drumming gives it a quiet grandeur, and the whole song feels rich and warm and comforting and tangible.  It crawls over and envelopes you.     This is Eddie’s most raw and plaintive performance on the album - the most naked.  It’s maybe the first song on the album that allows him to wear his miles. The honesty creates the alchemy that transforms sentimentality into truth.

There are parallels elsewhere in the catalog. It is somewhat akin to a more communal 'Long Road'.  'Better Days' is similar though this is vastly superior.  In some ways it is closest to 'Indifference', and serves as an answer. If Eddie sat alone in darkness in 1993 wondering whether or not any of this matters, it is not hard to imagine Eddie circa 2019 playing him this song to explain that yes, it does.

'River Cross' is maybe the closest Pearl Jam has ever come to writing a prayer, and maybe that’s what I need right now.  I am an atheist, but I have faith in people. Despite being let down time and time again, I still believe that we can be better than we are.  We cannot give up on ourselves.  And that’s the message of 'River Cross'.

The river in the metaphor serves as a barrier, and the song confronts the stark and awful reality that the other side – the dreams we have, the life we want for ourselves, for our children and for the world – is drifting further and further away.  The struggle is harder. The challenges greater. The world scarier. The river is rising, widening. 

“Drifting in the undertow, can’t spot a figure on dry land.
And afterthoughts of safety, when in truth, none to be had.”

It names the powerlessness we all feel.  “Living beneath a lion’s paw, knowing nothing can be tamed”.    And later, “Folded over, forced in a choke hold, outnumbered and held down”.

But at the end of it all, there is still the refusal to give up on the world.  We still have everything we need. We just need to embrace.  The way communities have ralied around each other in the face of COVID-19, of any of the increasingly frequent tragedies that plague us is evidence of this.

“And all this talk of rapture, look around at the promise now.
Here and now.”

We are the promise he is singing of.  And for every act of horror the world inflicts on us, or we inflict on each other, it is offset by acts of kindness and impossible love.  And they always have been.  And as long as we don’t lose sight of that we can make it.  Absent any other touchstone we still have each other.

Eddie could give this song a soaring conclusion like 'Retrograde' but instead we get the chanting.  And that’s because it’s not about him, in the end.  It’s about us.  The only way across is together.

And there is still time.