PEARL JAM – No Code – A Reflection

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Whilst I find it extremely difficult to nominate my favourite Pearl Jam album the one record that I keep coming back to is the bands fourth record “No Code” which was released on the 27th August 1996. What makes this record such an exquisite movement of music is the way in which it allowed Pearl Jam to break free and really establish certain dynamics creatively that would help them survive for the next seventeen years of their career. For the humans who weren’t there when this album was released I suspect that they won’t have a handle on just how much division this album caused upon its release. It was indeed a very challenging record for any Pearl Jam fan but in 1996 at the height of my angst I felt extremely challenged by this record. A number of things, courtesy of hindsight, have helped me understand this album more but it wasn’t until I was 18 years old in 2001 that I truly started to see the power of “No Code” as a record.

In 1996 no other band mattered more to me than Pearl Jam and since I first discovered them in 1994 until that present moment, no other form of music made me feel the way they did. A lot of the power of Pearl Jam’s music at that point in my life came from the rush of all that distortion and heaviness. The mid-tempo songs and the ballads provided a good balance dynamically on the band’s first three records but it was the rage and the rock n roll that really resonated with me. Without much musical knowledge at that point in my life, I thought it was just a more refined version of heavy metal. I’d heard the words “punk rock” thrown around in regards to Pearl Jam back then but I still really didn’t understand what that was. The best part of the band’s sound I thought was the intense emotions communicated by Ed Vedder; it was really dark and matched a lot of how I was feeling at the time. At that point in my life I felt incredibly alienated from humans my own age, so the loud intensity of Pearl Jam was destined to connect with me.

In 1996 when the band announced that they were releasing a new album I automatically felt that we’d get a more intense version of “Vitalogy” which was at that point my favourite Pearl Jam album. It’s probably hard to imagine for humans now but back in 1996 the only way that you could hear a bands new single was if the Radio played it. The internet was not a common household thing and the only way to find out about new music was via the radio and of course a range of different print media. The first glimpse of “No Code” came via Triple J who at the time worshipped at the altar of Pearl Jam. All of those Seattle bands dominated Triple J back in 1996 so naturally they were going to have the exclusive. I can’t exactly remember when it was debuted but I have a distinct memory of hearing the first single “Who You Are” on Triple J with my Brother. We of course recorded the thing to a cassette tape as it was happening and thank fuck we did because to be honest the song itself really confused me. This was indeed a very different Pearl Jam that was coming out of my stereo speakers and I was not sure if I did or didn’t like it.

It of course feels silly now in hindsight for me to say that because of how much I now love that song, but I was 12 going on 13 and did not have the capacity to cope with the new level of maturity Pearl Jam were displaying. This maturity in sound both intrigued me and alienated me at the same time, I knew that I liked it but I was also not expecting it considering the bands previous albums. I had such young ears back then and was still not totally plugged in to the politics of creative evolution and a bands need for change musically in order to feel fulfilled as artists. I had so much to learn about the punk rock spirit at that point in my life.

Another massive part of the “No Code” era is the way in which the band completely overhauled and took control of their image. This is not to say that they were controlled by the corporate machine early on, but after all the fame and the hype the band started to adopt a bit more of a faceless approach taking the focus off them as individuals and instead putting the spotlight on what was important to them, the music. This deconstruction of the bands image had started with the release of their second album “VS” with the bands commitment to not releasing video clips and other related stances being a big part of the change. In terms of the reason why the band went down this path has a lot to do with them regaining some control over how the corporate music machine wanted the band to operate.

Slowly but surely the band started to shake off a section of their audience that they deemed inappropriate to what they were about as five individuals. Regardless of who was driving this deconstruction, it was quite clear that a big part of it was driven by Ed Vedder in an attempt to distance himself from celebrity culture so that he could be taken seriously as an artist. There was a lot of criticism leveled at Pearl Jam in the early days with a lot of the more pure punk rock souls labeling them as “corporate rock stars” and really calling into question the bands credibility.

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 A lot of this kind of stuff was lost on me at the time because I didn’t really understand the whole social hierarchy that existed between mainstream and underground artists. For me it was pretty simple back then, if your album was available in a record store, your song was on the radio, your film clip was on TV and your band was in a magazine then I thought you were a rockstar making a living from playing music.  To me, the measure of a bands popularity or “mainstream appeal” stemmed on how many people at school like them and how many didn’t. Even though Pearl Jam were incredibly popular where I went to school it still didn’t resonate as something “mainstream” more a reflection of what youth culture was attracted to at this point in time.

All that aside, what the band was attempting to do with “No Code” – becoming a faceless band – really started to work and I noticed a lot of the cooler humans at school begin to distance themselves from Pearl Jam and for the first time in my life I started to encounter that terrible imposter stain of “I only like their first three albums” syndrome that usually kicks in for most bands once they make a radical change creatively. I repeat again, the people who say this kind of thing are a bunch of imposters but you know that’s a debate for another time.

Moving back into my relationship with “No Code” as an album, although I had a heavy amount of indifference towards the first single from the album I learned to love it and the fresh new rhythm provided by the bands new drummer Jack Irons really gave a new direction and pulse to the sound of Pearl Jam as a whole. This was also a point in time where Pearl Jam had started to hang out and begin a very fruitful relationship with Neil Young.

It wasn’t until I was 18 years old that I discovered how important the influence of Neil Young was on “No Code” and although I was aware of who he was I didn’t investigate his music until I was, as I have mentioned, 18 years old. Pearl Jam themselves had just cut a record with Neil prior to “No Code” called “Mirror Ball” and also acted as his backing band for one of his tours. This experience clearly changed and matured the band to a point where they were able to keep the rage and angst but shed the juvenile nature of these emotions and adopt a more grown up approach to expressing the ache caught deep inside of each member.

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The first thing you notice on “No Code” is just how emotional a record it is but instead of the previous focus on full on attack / rage, “No Code” sees the band deliver more intense performances via the more subdued and quieter tracks. The opening track of the album “Sometimes” is a perfect example of this and stands to be one of the most important opening tracks in the history of Pearl Jam’s career, both past, present and future. The power of a song like “Sometimes” is its ability to say so much in such a short space of time and to also do it with an epic amount of space and heavy mood.

There is a beautiful plea from Vedder lyrically about the pressures of success and how in the post-Cobain landscape a lot of people started to question what was really achieved by the rise and fall of the alternative nation. There is a funeral march to “Sometimes” and an incredible amount of shiver and fragility in the vocal delivery especially when the song rises ever so slightly in the middle. The bittersweet emotion is a lot louder than anything previously released by the band and after spending the best part of five to six years fighting for some kind of control within the corporate rock machine, Vedder echoes the feelings of the band by just sounding burnt out and defeated. This defeat can be aimed at the Ticketmaster fight, the fight to be taken seriously as artists, the fight for control of their own creative destiny and the control to be understood.

The loneliness vibe of a song like “Sometimes” is scattered all throughout “No Code” and it is the kind of loneliness that comes from finally having your art swallowed up by millions of people and still feeling incredibly lonely and misunderstood. As a listener this pain displayed by Vedder is to our benefit and connects directly to us as we apply it to our own lives, but if the song “Sometimes” taught me anything it was just how defeated Vedder and the rest of Pearl Jam were and how this disconnection and deconstruction of their sound was vital for their survival as human beings and as a band. There is an exquisite beauty to the way Pearl Jam almost used “No Code” as the sonic representation of just how much private emotional turmoil each member was facing and instead of avoiding the turmoil they let it be reflected through the music. This is one of the most emotionally open records released by a rock n roll band and it is this openness and vulnerability that allowed those fans who loved Pearl Jam to fall deeper in love with their sound and the humans involved with making it.

This loneliness is further explored later in the album on the brilliant sixth track of the album “Off He Goes” which a wonderful country song dirge about the politics of long term friendships.  Once again this song carries with it an intensity that speaks louder than the distorted moments and sees Vedder take on the “storyteller” dynamic lyrically which allows for a fresh perspective on his internal emotional world. It is an easy tale to relate to and although I related to the overall sound of it when I first heard it back in 1996 it wasn’t until I was deep into my twenties that I truly understood the depth of this song’s lyrics.

What “Off He Goes” speaks about is the yearning for your best friend, not the person who you involve yourself with romantically, but your best friend and how through the cruel rhythm of time and “growing up” you find that you spend more time apart than you do together. Going deeper into that there is also a lot of regret radiating through “Off He Goes” which strikes deep into the heart of us all when we know that we’ve been a terrible friend. A song like “Off He Goes” will always be relevant to me because the ever changing cycle of life has the ability to push you closer and further away from human beings you want to spend decades with, not just a few hours. 

To focus on the quieter moments of the album however is to ignore the new sense of fury that was scattered all through the more rocking numbers. Two songs in particular that share a common thread on “No Code” are the brilliant second track “Hail, Hail” and the wonderful seventh track “Habit” which are two songs that further explore the more garage proto-punk sound that the band delved into on “Vitalogy” and of course both songs deliver quite the cathartic release.

By far the most interesting moments of “No Code” occur on three of the more mid-range songs that balance the rock n roll fury with some new rhythmic dynamics to allow for the mood and emotion of the tracks to build at a steady pace with the final payoff being a range of different musical crescendos not yet reached by Pearl Jam as a band, this was some new musical territory that the band would further explore in the next 17 years of their career. The tracks I’m referring to is the Fourth track “In My Tree” the Eighth track “Red Mosquito” and the tenth track “Present Tense”  all of which showcase some brave new sonic territory which gave Pearl Jam some new directions to chase as a band creatively. These three songs document Pearl Jam’s commitment to evolving the rock n roll language and on a totally shallow level these songs are just exquisite examples of the power that Pearl Jam can summons when they communicate musically as a band.

What “In My Tree,” “Red Mosquito” and “Present Tense” offer is a balance in terms of dynamics whilst also stretching the creative template of Pearl Jam’s rock sound. As I mentioned above, Pearl Jam are a rock band but unlike your standard balls to the walls rock n roll approach there is an artistry to the way they communicate and craft their music. What Pearl Jam do as a band is make art for the sake of art not rock music for the sake of rock music and trust me there is a big difference. Rock may be the genre vehicle that the band uses in order to communicate their emotions but the songs they write are treated as pieces of art as opposed to simple distorted attack. It is about total escapism and “In My Tree,” “Red Mosquito” and “Present Tense” are exquisite pieces of art delicately crafted and executed with a level of beauty and raw emotion that very few bands in the rock world come close to matching.

The commitment to making art over just flat out rock music also extends to the visual presentation of “No Code” which is quite a treat and experience for fans of the band that also helped push the “faceless” band ethos to a deeper level. I would define what Pearl Jam did with the album packaging of “No Code” as quite unique and it is rather hard to document with words just want makes it so unique and I guess with the hindsight of time people probably won’t really understand. In 1996 however, Pearl Jam were one of the first bands with a mainstream audience to really move away from the standard Jewel case and using instead the old vinyl presentation for the CD format. The band had debuted this approach on their previous album “Vitalogy” but on “No Code” it was taken to a whole new level. To those humans that were alive during the golden era of vinyl I’m sure what Pearl Jam offered with the packaging of “No Code” was probably not as fresh but for a new generation of music fans who grew up with primarily the CD and Cassette Tape it was revolutionary.

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The cover itself is made up of a whole heap of Polaroid photos that when opened up looks like the above photo. Further to the cover the album also included a set of Polaroid photos inside that had various song lyrics on the back. Each album had a different set of Polaroid photos inside it. My brother purchased “No Code” before me and he brought the CD version, about a month or so later whilst on holiday in Sydney I purchased the cassette tape version which simply contained a single Polaroid photo as the cover and little booklet with the relevant photos and album details. Every cassette tape version of the album had a different Polaroid photo as the album cover; it was an incredibly unique move by an alternative rock band at that point in time. It certainly pushed boundaries and put a focus back on the importance of the physical product being something tangible and artistic so that it matches the music. It was very reminiscent to how bands of the 60’s and 70’s packaged their albums and believe me, it added to the experience of owning “No Code” and how you interacted with the album.

In this current climate of digital downloads an album like “No Code” would be a rarity but I can’t illustrate enough how the artwork of a physical album and the packaging could change the way you related to the record. It won’t always automatically change the sound or appeal of the music but it helps with the mood and how it connects to you. Good album artwork and packaging can build a level of mystery and is a portal into what the band may be attempting to communicate with their music. It’s an incredibly important part of releasing an album proper and I reckon Pearl Jam have always made a continued effort to present their albums with interesting and intriguing artwork. Sometimes it is collaborative but a lot of the times it is driven by Ed Vedder and Jeff Ament. All in all, this band take the full experience of releasing an album very seriously and having been a hardcore fan of the band for the past nineteen years of my life I can safely say that part of the thrill of a new Pearl Jam record is how the band will present the artwork.

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There are also a collection of songs on “No Code” that help the overall flow of the above mentioned tracks and in the process add to the emotional depth that this record has. A lot of imposter humans would refer to such tracks as “filler” but in the case of Pearl Jam this is a false way to refer to these songs because they are the glue that helps bring the more progressive moments of the album together in order to make one cohesive piece of communication. This is not exclusive to just Pearl Jam, any band that I love is renowned for their ability to write the “glue” songs in order to help piece the full scope of a record together. These songs may not hit you instantly and may zoom past as you ache to hear the more progressive / interesting moments of an album but over time as an album makes more sense some of these “glue” songs can become more exciting and relevant to you.

The first example of a “glue” song on “No Code” is the fifth track “Smile” which comes after the freedom bliss of “In My Tree” and plays out just before the country dirge of the sixth track “Off He Goes.” As a song “Smile” is perfect in terms of helping the continuity of the first side of “No Code” and it flat out rocks as a song.  A blues jam at heart with harsh harmonica stabs to help with the dissonance and communication of longing that drips from the song. The intense refrain of “I Miss You Already” is a joyful explosion framed by some heavy hurt and when it hits you there is nothing else you can do but join in on the sing along nature of the song. There is also some other worldly guitar playing from Mike McCready during the course of “Smile” that really lift the song up and in the process takes it to another planet completely. As is the case with most songs on “No Code” the emotional terrain covered in the lyrics focus on the downer of distance and how missing friends and family can be a crippling blow to your mental health.

The second example of a “glue” song occurs in between the eight and tenth track and is the punk rock rush of “Lukin” which is Ed Vedder at his punk rock best. The song “Lukin” goes for barely a minute but in that minute the band pack more angst and rage inside of the song that it really begins to outshine their previous more angry material found on earlier albums. As a punk song it is perfect, as a Pearl Jam song it is a great example of their ability to communicate fury and rage along with a light hint of comedy (check out the lyrics and the history of Matt Lukin to understand the comedy angle) and as the ninth track on “No Code” the rush of “Lukin” provides the perfect bridge to one of the more interesting and most reflective moments on the album, the tenth track “Present Tense” which really remains the centerpiece of this record even though it is packed so deep in on the second side of the album.

The final collection of “glue” songs happen after the tenth track “Present  Tense” and are the eleventh track “Mankind” and the twelfth track “I’m Open” both of which offer some extreme alternatives to what had occurred on the first ten tracks of the album. The main point of difference is that “Mankind” has guitarist Stone Gossard taking over as lead vocalist and what is interesting about this is that he adds a bit of light relief to the intensity communicated by Vedder on the previous tracks.

When “Mankind” kicks in you are almost awaken from the deep escapism of “Present Tense,” a song which puts a massive focus on the whole life and death question. That first riff of “Mankind” wakes you up from this and helps you to put your feet back on the ground for a moment. Where Vedder sings about the wonder of what is beyond us Gossard tends to focus on some more real world “right here, right now” type lyrics. It is a refreshing change of gears but things continue down the path of Vedder escapism once “I’m Open” begins to shiver out of your stereo.

There is a beautiful level of artistic indulgence that happens on “I’m Open” and while most fans probably bypass this track I think it is one of the most important tracks on “No Code” and a stunning piece of emotional communication. The basis of “I’m Open” is a spoken word poem by Ed Vedder that muses on the desire for escape and the need for a brand new self. Although Vedder is leaning on fiction to communicate his desire for escape it is quite clear that the character reflects Vedder’s own desire and need to escape to a new life away from the craziness and the hype of fame. When I listen to “I’m Open” I often wonder if Vedder wants to escape to the past where things felt more innocent or whether it is a need to escape so far into the future that he somehow becomes anonymous.

Regardless of Vedder’s desires, the plea and ache of “I’m Open” is about his desire to remain open to the joy of the world and the people that inhabit it whilst also wanting to remain anonymous. It is a beautiful ride and an important song in the Pearl Jam catalogue that rarely gets sourced, referenced or played. It helps bring context to the “No Code” journey and just what it is that that Pearl Jam are trying to communicate as a band with this particular album. After studying “I’m Open” I am convinced that a big part of “No Code” is about the band, Vedder in particular, trying to find some kind of redemption from all of the pressure and intensity that came along when Seattle became the most talked about music scene in the world. It feels like what Vedder is wanting most is a chance to fit in now that the craziness has passed but at the same time it feels like he remains conflicted as to what fitting into a post-hype world feels like, you can tell he and the band are chasing longevity but what does that mean when so many people are prepared to tune out now that world has moved on to the next cultural explosion. It’s very confronting stuff indeed and it was a question that faced not only the band but the fans as well.

If the journey of “No Code” is about finding some kind of redemption and or longevity after the craziness of fame and hype has disappeared then the final track on the album – “Around The Bend” – is the perfect full stop and point of resolve. There is a heavy dose of calm with the albums thirteenth and final track and like the sixth track “Off He Goes” the appeal of “Around The Bend” is in its country dirge and the way it uses a more subdued language to frame the pain.  The main difference though is that “Around The Bend” has a small peppering of hope scattered throughout the song. This is indeed a love song but it can be applied to a love of so much more than some physical human being.

The imagery of “Around The Bend” rests on the notion that for all the drama and all the chaos that change is always just around that bend and that holding on for that change is always worth it. As a song “Around The Bend” is the final lesson in the “No Code” journey and for all the confusion and rage and pain and longing that presents itself on the album, “Around The Bend” offers the freedom of the sweet hits of sunshine when the night begins to disappear and the morning is starting to birth itself. It is an incredibly beautiful piece of music to end the album with and really signals both an ending and a new beginning.

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All of these wonderful elements that I have spoken about over the course of this article took me a great many years to realise and understand. When I first heard that album as a 12 going on 13 year old I favoured the distorted moments because that was where my emotional intelligence was situated. I wanted the fury and the rage and although there wasn’t as much attack on “No Code” as I was previously used to with Pearl Jam, the few songs that offered this made it an album worth listening to. I was never deterred from the band or the album however, I may have been confused but I understood from the various interviews I read back in 1996 that “No Code” was about maturity and escaping the sounds established on the bands earlier albums, it was about becoming the faceless band that they – well at least Ed Vedder – desired.

When I re-visited the album five years later in 2001, I was 17 going on 18 and I carried with me a new level of emotional intelligence and understanding of music. I was also in the throes of becoming a hardcore fan of artists like Neil Young and R.E.M. who were big influences on both Pearl Jam and the entire alternative nation that I discovered back in 1994. It was through the wisdom of my good friend Brett Wyatt who I met in 2001 at my day job working in the Queensland Ambulance Service Administration Office back in Bundaberg that I started to re-visit the glory of “No Code” as an album. I remember clearly Brett praising the artistry of “No Code” and claiming it was his favourite album comparing it heavily to the music Neil Young made. My brother was also reaching a similar position and he also influenced me to once again delve deeper into the album to try and understand it a bit better.

It was that moment in 2001 when Pearl Jam became the focus of all my attention once more that I started to unlock certain parts of the sound that had escaped me earlier in my teenage years. The real joy this time round however came from listening to “No Code,” “Yield” and their most recently released album (at that point) “Binaural” and  combining this with the sentimentality of “Ten,” “VS” and “Vitalogy.” All of a sudden I started to worship the mature sound developed by the band from “No Code” to “Binaural” and it became more important to me than the first three records. You see, some bands learn how to survive and through that survival they manage to develop a longevity that is an incredibly rewarding experience for the fans.  

Although popular culture was turning further away from the healing power of Pearl Jam in 2001 I fell deeper in love with the band and from 2001 until 2013 I have maintained the belief that “No Code” is the bands greatest artistic achievement thus far. They have of course gone on to write better music but there is something important about “No Code” that allowed for that progression to happen for Pearl Jam and their career will forever be in debt to “No Code” and it’s place in their history as a band. There are a lot of different and amazing elements that help make “No Code” a brilliant album but I think the real appeal of it for me now is the way it helped set free the band and allowed them to last as long as they have.

 I touched on this earlier but a lot of the imposters tend to only ever talk about “Ten,” “VS,” and “Vitalogy” when it comes to the history of music made by Pearl Jam. Whilst these three records provide a flawless introduction to Pearl Jam it wasn’t until “No Code” that the band really came into their own and crafted out their own unique language. Some would argue they did this on the three albums prior to “No Code” but after spending 19 years of my life dedicated to this band I firmly believe that it is the work the band did from “No Code” onwards  that truly holds the revolution in terms of sound, image and their overall communication as artists.

When I talk about the artistry of Pearl Jam and what it is I want people to respect about them I’m always going to lean on “No Code” as the finest example of just how vital their sound and legacy is. It may be the album that “imposters” list as the album where the band “lost it” or “sold out” but you see the band did nothing of the sorts. It was the fans and the trend that “lost it” and “sold out” trading in the Seattle experience for the next trendy hit of culture. It wouldn’t have mattered what kind of album Pearl Jam made back in 1996, natural attrition tells us that most bands or artists associated with a pop culture explosion usually only have a good five years in the spotlight before they are replaced. That is not to say these bands themselves don’t continue on, there relevance depends on the real appreciators of music – humans who respect music – not the imposters to help aid the longevity. The other most important factor in a band surviving more than five years is their commitment to making art as opposed to just strict commerce.

Pearl Jam has always be a band dedicated to making forward thinking art music through the vehicle of Rock Music. To have lasted as long as they have is a tribute to the re-building of their band that happened with “No Code” and whether you agree or disagree with me you have to at least respect the creative risk taken by the band at such an important turning point of their career. I honestly believe that the reason we still have Pearl Jam in 2013 is because of the brave forward thinking music the band made with “No Code” in 1996 and with their new album “Lightning Bolt” I feel like the band is about to turn another corner creatively to help give the next twenty years of their career some real legs.

For now though, my advice is to turn this album up fucking loud and just enjoy the great rock record that “No Code” is and make sure you take the time to discover the whole history of Pearl Jam – you won’t be disappointed.

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By: Dan Newton

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