Pearl Jam in a pandemic: What ‘Gigaton’ offers a longtime fan

Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam Danny Clinch

What does it mean when your favorite band as a teenager releases a new album 30 years after you first fell for them?

What does it mean when that record comes out during a global pandemic?

What does anything mean anymore?

No matter what cultural significance Gigaton ultimately does or doesn’t end up having, I still get a rush from unwrapping the plastic on a new Pearl Jam LP. Though their last three records have been relative disappointments to me, I keep listening, hoping to rekindle the fire the band lit within me in their early days. Even if the flame lasts for just a couple songs, or is fleetingly found in a soaring Eddie Vedder chorus, or a rousing guitar riff from Mike McCready or Stone Gossard, I listen for those moments where they bring me back and make me feel young again. A part of my youth that I will always treasure is still tied directly to this band, and it always will be.

Pearl Jam helped me make some sense out of my confusing teenage years, helping me feel less alone in those moments of uncertainty and isolation, and they also soundtracked those celebratory moments when I began discovering just who I was and what truly mattered to me. As I grew with the band, their music encouraged me to nurture my creative self during my experimental college years, when I proudly proclaimed my love of Pearl Jam by getting the Alive stickman tattooed on my ankle. They reinforced my belief that no matter where I call home, I should always have my trusty record player by my side. And their outspoken support of political and charitable causes refined how I viewed the world at large and helped me discover what my role was in making society a better place for everyone.

Nearly 30 years after they started (and almost seven years since their last record, Lightning Bolt), Pearl Jam are back with their 11th studio album, Gigaton. After spending a couple weeks with the new record, I can confidently say that it is their strongest and most assured album since 2000's Binaural. The band sounds inspired, revitalized, and remarkably of the moment. They aren't trying to capture the lightning in a bottle moments from early in their career, and they’re wise enough to not attempt to replicate themselves, though there are still strong echoes of the band’s long history, especially within Vedder's weathered, resonant vocals.

As on most of Pearl Jam's recent albums, the rockers kick things off and propel the front half of the album before giving way to a series of ballads and more relaxed, somber tunes on the latter half. But Gigaton stands out as a cohesive creative statement, with the band reflectively examining the fractured state of our fragile world (even before COVID-19) and their tenuous place in it.

"I want this dream to last forever/A wish denied to lengthen our time/I wish this moment was never ending/Let it be a lie that all futures die," Vedder sings on the wistful album closer, "River Cross." Rather than wallowing in regret of things left undone (or rivers left uncrossed), the song is a hopeful anthem of potential change. A better way forward is possible as long as we stick together and share the light.

Pearl Jam also take a refreshing detour on the album's first single, "Dance of the Clairvoyants." The track is a quirky, Talking Heads-like stomp (complete with Vedder's David Byrne-esque vocal delivery) with a smoothed-out '80s Bowie swing to it. The risky musical experiment (complete with bassist Jeff Ament switching to guitar and keys while guitarist Gossard plays bass) really pays off.

One of the most satisfying things about Gigaton is that the album really didn't have to happen. Pearl Jam could have kept touring to sold-out stadiums and festivals even without releasing a new record. But while they certainly took their time putting this record together (this is a band who just got around to releasing their 2017 and 2018 fan club singles, mind you), the results have the unhurried, thoughtful quality that comes from a band having the space and time to assemble only their best material.

At 57 minutes, Gigaton is the longest record of the band's career, yet there are few unnecessary moments. The band is both stretching out and coming closer together, tapping into the dynamic creative partnership that has fueled them all these years. For a longtime fan, these new songs offer a sense of emotional escape, fitful unease, steadfast belief, and a personal reconnection and collective recalibration. Gigaton is a boisterous creative check-in to make sure the kids are still alright.

And if nothing else, Gigaton is an affirmation that this band I pledged my soul (and skin) to in the '90s hasn't led me astray. The kid I was when I discovered Pearl Jam is still alive within me, and their music is an uninhibited, exhilarating reminder to enjoy my youth no matter how old I get.