Pearl Jam - Binaural

FROM THE VAULT: Pearl Jam – Binaural ca. 2000

Pearl Jam - Binaural

No one could really know what Pearl Jam would come up with next with the releases following their 1994 album, Vitalogy. Binaural, released in 2000, follows Pearl Jam’s tradition of attempting to explore new grounds with their music. Binaural was the first album to include the drummer, Matt Cameron, who at the time was a former member of Pearl Jam’s grunge contemporary, Soundgarden. The departure of Jack Irons inevitably lead to a change in the band’s music. However, albeit an amazing drummer, Jack Irons departure did not leave Pearl Jam in the dust. Matt Cameron brought a new ingredient, making Pearl Jam more focused and stronger than before. Cameron ultimately added a new back bone to the band without any sacrifice. At this point, Pearl Jam was ahead and matured from their grunge years during the early 1990s. Maintaining what makes Pearl Jam unique, they continued their string of experimentation with the introduction to binaural recording, which attempts to use 3-D stereo sound in order to place the listener in the same room as the performers of the music. Binaural recording is used for the intent of listening to it with headphones, rather than stereo speakers, hence the use of the technique, “Dummy head recording”. Pearl Jam also integrated sounds of psychedelic and post-punk sounds into this album. In addition to Pearl Jam’s progression to new grounds, bassist, Jeff Ament, and guitarist, Stone Gossard, contribute their own lyrics to the album, making it the second album that singer, Eddie Vedder, gives lyrics rights to other band members since their previous album released in 1998, Yield. Along with the new experimental sound to the instrumentation, the lyrics featured in Binaural are darker and focus on social criticisms. Lyricist and singer, Eddie Vedder explained that the album is about the importance of freedom in humanity and how people should be comfortable with their own existence. Risking the loss of fans, Pearl Jam wanted their audience to listen with new ears without any expectations.

The album kicks off with the classic rock influenced tune, “Breakerfall”. This song’s beginning guitar riff is reminiscent of The Who song, “I Can See For Miles”, from their 1967 album, The Who Sell Out. “Breakerfall” takes the listener into the ambiance of where Pearl Jam wants them to be. The next track, “God’s Dice”, keeps the upbeat introduction to the album. The lyrics were written by Jeff Ament, which convey themes of judging people that have a certain belief, whether it is God or something else. “Evacuation” hard rock riff leads up to the powerful chorus of the title. Vedder describes this song as being about “change”. The next track, “Light Years”, is the most melodic track on the album, which is perfect to listen to when driving and thinking about great people who were your friends and have suddenly disappeared, as Vedder had probably done while writing the lyrics. The next song that most evidently uses binaural recording is “Nothing As It Seems”, which is similar to the style of Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd used the same recording technique to give atmosphere to their music. “Nothing As It Seems” was Jeff Ament writing about the rural area of Northern Montana, where Ament spent his childhood. “Thin Air”, written by Stone Gossard, lightens the mood with a country tinged sound. Eddie Vedder describes the theme behind “Insignificance” as being about the futility of struggle within politics. Another track written by Gossard, “Of The Girl”, has a soft and elusive sound to it. The soft pounding of drums and use of acoustic guitar works incredibly well with the distant background of the electric guitar riffs, which adds a special layer to the song.  The next track, “Grievance” follows up with the albums use of experimentation. Vedder talks about the problems with technology in the track, especially how the internet has control over who people are and what they do. Another strange song written by Gossard, “Rival”, is a reflection on the 1999 massacre of Columbine High School. The song sounds like a song that would be played in a bar with someone tapping on atonal piano chords. Nevertheless, Rival is a great song and is reminiscent of “Red Mosquito” from Pearl Jam’s No Code, released in 1996. Another atmospheric track is “Sleight Of Hand”, which begins to bring the album to a slow beat turn. Vedder, experiencing a writer’s block, wrote “Soon Forget”. This is the first time Vedder picks up the ukulele, which captured his interest at the time. “Soon Forget” is highly similar to the Who song, “Blue, Red and Grey” from their 1975 album, The Who by Numbers. Vedder also wrote this song as a tribute to Pete Townshend, the guitarist of the Who, who wrote “Blue, Red and Grey” with a ukulele. As usual, Pearl Jam brings a closure to Binaural with the pleasant track, “Parting Ways”. Eddie Vedder experienced a writer’s block during the recording of Binaural. This is where the hidden track, “Writer’s Block”, is inspired from, which is heard during the last seconds of “Parting Ways”. “Writer’s Block” is a track that only has the sound of someone typing on a typewriter, which is a clever way for Vedder to express his writer’s block.

One of the main interesting characteristics of the album’s art used as the cover and is used throughout the lyric booklet. Pearl Jam got permission from NASA to use photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The album cover features a photo of the Hourglass Nebula. In the linear notes, there are also photos of the Helix Nebula and the Eagle Nebula. Jeff Ament stated that the reason why he chose to use the photos was to illustrate how miniscule the band and their music are in the “big scheme of things”. I believe the photos of the nebulae truly illuminate the whole atmosphere of the album of how exploration within space and exploration within the band and their music coincide with one another. The album’s title is in reference to the use of binaural recording. Because “binaural” literally means relating and listening with two ears, Pearl Jam thought that the word was very apt to the album’s themes and technical approaches.

Throughout the years, Pearl Jam changed their music gradually, but remained true to themselves and what they believe is important. They have endured many obstacles and challenges that were before them. One of these challenges was the tragedy at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark during the end of their 2000 tour. Nine people were trampled during the concert and were forced to cancel the next two days. This event caused the band to rethink about their lives within and outside of the band. Members of Pearl Jam were thinking about retiring. Yet, despite their deep regret and grief, they paused and took time to think about their future. This was one of the many events that portray how Pearl Jam is able to undergo various difficulties throughout their career and continue to make phenomenal music. Binaural is meant for both casual listeners and fans alike. People who have enjoyed their efforts in No Code, Yield or even their first three classic albums, will enjoy Binaural as it gives something new to offer for all listeners.

– Amirata Mahallati

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