Eddie Vedder has found plenty of material in mortality over the years.
His band, Pearl Jam, was born of a heroin overdose more than a decade ago. Rival songwriter Kurt Cobain of Nirvana committed suicide while at the height of popularity. Two of Pearl Jam’s biggest hits, “Jeremy” and “Last Kiss,” deal with teen death.
Now comes renewal, an appropriate topic as the lead singer and his bandmates re-emerge from their most proximate shock: the deaths of nine fans trampled during the 2000 Roskilde festival in Denmark.
“Riot Act,” released Nov. 12, is Pearl Jam’s first studio album since the festival, and it suggests how the band has tried to come to grips with it. It’s also something of a rebirth: Pearl Jam’s record sales had dropped since the early 1990s as the band retreated from superstardom to release more experimental music. “Riot Act,” with its sweet melodies, is bound to appeal to a broader audience.
Once again, Pearl Jam, with new drummer Matt Cameron (formerly of Soundgarden), is promoting itself. Band members have been doing rounds of media interviews and even shot an MTV-style video, something it hadn’t done since its original video for “Jeremy” was censored by producers in 1992.
They know that a commercially successful record this time around could help them get a better deal: “Riot Act” is its last album under contract with Epic. It could also earn the band more freedom, just as the success of Pearl Jam’s first album, 1991’s “Ten,” allowed members to do their own thing for the rest of the decade.
Pearl Jam’s latest CD is a part of what amounts to a grunge revival. A Nirvana compilation is out this fall, along with Cobain’s diaries, and Mudhoney and Audioslave (featuring former Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell) also have new releases.
“There really was something happening at that time in Seattle,” says Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, referring to the music scene a decade ago, “and it’s cool to see it come back around. It’s good to remind people of it, and for the younger audience, you know, it introduces them to Nirvana and hopefully will introduce them to us and to what Chris is doing and what Mudhoney’s doing.”
But for Pearl Jam, “Riot Act” seems primarily a way of dealing with Roskilde, and even 9-11 – not reliving those early days at the Off Ramp and other gritty nightclubs.
“There’s been a lot of mortality,” Vedder says. “It’s a weird time to be writing. Roskilde changed the shape of us as people, and our filter for seeing the world changed.”
On June 30, 2000, Pearl Jam played before 50,000 fans in a muddy field at Roskilde, one of Europe’s largest rock festivals. Fans toward the rear pushed forward to better hear the band; several fans toward the front were trampled. Besides the nine killed, 25 were injured.
“A friend of ours (Cornell) had just had a baby, and we heard about that about an hour before we went on to play that night,” Vedder says. “To have the life cycle so intensely illustrated in front of our face, at the time I felt like the world was collapsing.”
The title “Riot Act” suggests orchestrated chaos, an attempt to find order. But the album, Pearl Jam’s seventh in studio, gives its most overt nod to those emotions in “Love Boat Captain,” an elegy which has Vedder singing: “It’s an art to live with pain/ mix the light into gray/ lost nine friends we’ll never know/ two years ago today.”
The first single from the record, “I Am Mine,” handles the subject a little differently. Though it refers to “the meanings that get left behind/ all the innocents lost at one time,” it’s an affirmation, too: “I know I was born and I know that I’ll die/ the in-between is mine/ I am mine.”
“The through line is how delicate life is,” Ament says. “Roskilde, for me, is one of the worst tragedies I’ve been involved in. It can’t help but have a huge effect on your life. The positive part of it is it reinforces that philosophy… that you really need to seize the moment and the day and make the most of it, and not be afraid to tell your friends and family that you love them.”
Pearl Jam, created by surviving Mother Love Bone members Ament and Stone Gossard following the heroin death of singer Andy Wood, never exactly disappeared. But since its debut album, “Ten,” which sold more than 11 million copies, sales have fallen, with the group’s last album, 2000’s “Binaural,” selling fewer than 800,000.
In the meantime, the band had been wrangling with Ticketmaster, which it accused of anticompetitive practices, and in general going against industry grain: “Last Kiss,” a cover which became the band’s biggest single, was initially a fan-club-only release – a nontraditional path to heavy airplay.
Vedder also devoted attention to politics, campaigning for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. The spoken-word “Bush Leaguer,” on the new album, is a not-so-subtle assault on President Bush: “He’s not a leader/ he’s a Texas leaguer… Drilling for fear/ makes the job simple/ born on third, thinks he got a triple.”
Cobain biographer Charles Cross, Seattle’s resident expert on grunge music, said “Riot Act” is an improvement from Pearl Jam’s past few records.
“Vedder has matured as a songwriter. He’s gotten old enough that it’s not all about angst,” Cross says. “But basically, this is a band that has really kept the same approach for the past decade. It’s to their credit that they haven’t pandered to what was popular at a given time.”
Vedder and Ament say they wish Cobain, who accused Pearl Jam of selling out, had lived to see that.
But for now, they don’t have any plans to read his diaries.
“That’ll be really interesting reading, and maybe required at some point, like when I’m 50,” Vedder said. “But I wouldn’t feel right reading it now.
“I feel like we had kind of a coming together before he died, and I’m glad we had that chance, but there was a lot of weight we were all carrying around. I’d be happy if he had seen what we’ve done with our group, if he had stuck around, because I’m proud of it.”