Saturday, October 3, 2020

Get It Back: The TSIS Review

B-sides and one-off tracks are one of the great joys in music.  It’s like being in a Secret Santa pool with some really good gift givers.  You might get a novelty, some shit, or a surprisingly great present you had no idea you needed.  A well-constructed album has a theme, a feel, and a flow.  There is (or should be) a deliberate intentionality behind the songs chosen for inclusion.  Bands can and do write songs that just don’t belong on a record.  That they don’t belong isn’t a comment on their quality or worth.  They could be a brief, fun aside, an interesting point that just happens to be a little too repetitive, or a compelling and insightful digression that you cannot pursue without derailing the larger conversation.  I love Undone, more than just about every other song on the Riot Act album. But its inclusion changes the story that album is telling.  It doesn’t belong, but it is absolutely worth hearing.   And the arrival of a b-side is always appreciated – a nice little snack when you are always hungry and the next meal isn’t coming any time soon.

And so while the recent run of non-album tracks we’ve received from Pearl Jam hasn’t always lit my world on fire, I’m always happy to get them.  Ole is in that glossy pop punk style that is maybe their creative space I like the least.  Can’t Deny Me was a rare near complete misfire.  But I adore their cover of Again Today – one of my most listened to Pearl Jam songs of the past ten years.  With this as background I was happy to shell out $20.20 for a new Pearl Jam song.  It’s for a good cause, and who knows how far away the next album meal is.  Besides, Gigaton is a late career masterpiece that I have more than gotten my money’s worth over.   I have no problem playing 20 bucks for a song at this point. 

I was slightly less excited when I learned that Get it Back was a pure Matt Cameron song – music and lyrics.  I love Matt as a drummer, but I’m not nearly as much a fan of his songwriting as I am of the other members of the band.  And this is, for better or worse, a Matt Cameron song.  Mid-tempo, slightly off-kilter cadence, a droning vocal melody that plateaus more than it rises and falls – locked into the rhythm of the song rather than surprising with its choices (the kind of vocal melody you might expect a drummer to write).  This is absolutely in some people’s wheelhouses, but it generally doesn’t speak to my sensibilities.  

Although the song was written in 2018, it feels like it belongs from the Riot Act or S/T era, filtered through Matt’s Wellwater Conspiracy work. There are shades of Otherside in its autumnal wistfulness, and its tempo - the floating cadence of the verses, and the subdued triumphal grasping of its chorus -remind me in places of Amongst the Waves. It makes me wonder if Matt wrote Let It Ride.  

The verses feature some pleasant, very mildly discordant but still sing songy guitar that doesn’t leave too much of an impression. I’ve listened to this about 10 times, and I still can’t remember it when the song is over.  The accents do remind me a bit of a slightly reedier and electric play on the lush and misty verses of Amongst the Waves.  The chorus transitions into some heavier grunge riffing, but the heaviness feels a bit perfunctory – there to draw a distinction between chorus and verse,  rather than serving its own purpose.

Ed’s performance isn’t helping to elevate the song, either.  He sounds fine, but singing at this pace highlights the elongated vowel affectation that has crept into his later work. The best songs in the last fifteen years find a way to either hide this or channel it through more dynamic and exciting vocal melodies or a wordier approach to the lyrics (consistently to great effect on Gigaton, where Ed is the star of almost every song). The droning approach adopted here does neither.  The lyrics are a bit generic – not worth drawing attention to in their own right, nor are they just there to give Eddie something to sing over a winning melody.  And the lack of dynamic range in his performance means Get It Back feels like it is standing still – there is no real meaningful transition between verse and chorus, which undercuts their power.   Amongst the Waves and Unthought Known both suffer from the same problem, though Amongst the Waves benefits from a much more engaging vocal melody and Unthought Known from a more committed performance.  

As a result the vocal performance and music are locked in with each other (the authorial voice is consistent), but not going anywhere in particular. More dynamic music might benefit from the grounding of a flatter lead vocal, and likewise stolid music might help keep a more engaged vocal honest, but I don’t think they are doing each other any favors here.

The lack of any tension or stakes in the song is compounded by a typical Matt Cameron lyric. The sentiment is a worthwhile one, and a bit tighter than you usually see in his writing. There is some real longing in the lyrics. It’s not hard to see this as a song about processing his grief around the death of Chris Cornell.   They are honest, and heartfelt, but lacking in any striking turns of phrase or insight (compared to say, Comes Then Goes, which has masterful writing).    It would be fine if the music or the performance captured the sadness and longing, but it is a song where every part seems to be holding back while it waits for another element to make the song’s major statement.

The emotional catharsis and comes in at the 2:35 mark through Mike’s extended raw and plaintive solo. It works, and would have been a strong button on a more engaged song, but it almost ends up feeling out of place given the amount of heavy lifting it is being asked to do. It is mourning a different tragedy.  The grief feels unearned here. And there is an unusually clunky fade at the end.

And so Get It Back is the quintessential b-side.  This song wouldn’t fit on Gigaton – it stands still and would feel especially constrained on an album that is spacious and full of movement.  But it’s still new Pearl Jam. Fans of Matt Cameron’s songwriting will almost certainly love it, and there are bound to be elements for any fan to take away, as there is almost any time musicians you love take the time to record together. For me it will be the climax (as was also the case for Ole – Mike McCready is apparently my marginal b-side savior). I’m glad it exists, but as its own moment in time.