I found out about the new Pearl Jam song, “Dance of the Clairvoyants” the way I do most new music now. It was a text from the Rock Chick.
“What do you think of the new Pearl Jam song?
“I haven’t heard it”
“What I heard is different. Might be good though. First listen…”
A new Pearl Jam song is kind of a big deal these days… They haven’t done anything new in the studio since 2013’s Lightning Bolt. For those of you who aren’t into the whole math thing… that’s seven years. They did have a one-off single, “Mind Your Manners” that I hoped would herald a new album, but alas it was just that one song (New Single: Pearl Jam’s Feisty, Great New Song “Can’t Deny Me,” Their First New Music In 5 Years). I was excited to hear about new Pearl Jam music as it’s something I’ve been clamoring for for quite a while now. However, the Rock Chick’s second text gave me pause. I trust her musical instincts, implicitly. “What I heard is different…”
There’s a song by Lou Reed, “Doin’ The Things That We Want To” from the fabulous album, New Sensations. Lou sings about a play of Sam Shepherd’s he went to see and then goes on to sing about the movies of Martin Scorsese. He’s clearly a fan of both those gentlemen. In the last few lines he says, of Marty and Sam, “I wrote this song ‘cuz I’d like to shake your hand… in a way you guys are the best friends I ever had.” That last line has always stuck with me. I feel the same way about certain rock artists I’ve listened to over the years. In many ways the musicians and lyricists I’ve heard have expressed things I’ve felt and thought more so than the people I see day to day. To paraphrase Lou, “in a way (those) guys are the best friends I ever had.”
I think it’s because of that feeling that I’ve actually formed what I’d call “a relationship” with certain bands. Nothing stalker-y or creepy, but an emotional connection to their art. That connection is what keeps me coming back to the catalogs of certain artists like Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones or yes, Lou Reed. Springsteen considers his body of work to be a “conversation” he’s having with his listeners and I don’t think that’s too far off. Many artists, like the Stones, have always stayed fairly close to the sound they started with. They do disco and country-rock but they’ve stayed blues/blues rock/rock pretty much their whole career. That doesn’t mean they don’t surprise me all the time, but the “conversation” is consistent. Artists like David Bowie are more “shape-shifting” in terms of sound. Bowie went from Ziggy to Philly Soul (Young Americans) to the Berlin Trilogy. Still, the conversation continued.
Now I would never fault an artist for wanting to change creative directions. I stuck with Dylan even through the “Christian Period.” I’ve followed Springsteen from E Street to dark acoustic stuff (Nebraska or Ghost of Tom Joad) and back again. It’s a conversation. All of that said, Pearl Jam have been pretty consistent in terms of sound and style for the bulk of their career. I kept wondering why it was taking so long for them to get their shit together in the studio, I thought it was Vedder being reluctant to record, but perhaps it was a desire to go in a new direction. It was great eagerness, when I returned home, that I put on “Dance of the Clairvoyants.” As always with a Pearl Jam record, I had hoped to hear some kind of arena sized, rock and roll anthem. What I heard, was quite different indeed. Not bad, just different.
“Dance of the Clairvoyant” starts with a bass line that swings like nothing I’d ever heard on a Pearl Jam record. The drums from Matt Cameron sound… programmed. It’s not his usual aggressive drumming. There was a little tickle of keyboards and I thought, oh no. I was gripped with the fear that they’d gone the route of U2 and are trying to be, I don’t know, Imagine Dragons? That bass line is almost… dare I say, danceable. Then Vedder starts singing and it sounds like he’s channelling twitchy, Fear of Music-era David Byrne. He spits out phrases instead of lyrics. “Imperceptibly big, big as the ocean…” I half expected Eddie to sing, “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was…” They don’t sound remotely like Pearl Jam until the chorus, “Expecting perfection leaves a lot to endure, When the past is the present and the future’s no more, When every tomorrow is the same as before.” The track has a long coda, “I know that girls wanna dance…” I won’t tell you what boys wanna do…
As usually happens when an artist heads off in a new direction sonically, I was confused at first. I remember being baffled the first time I heard U2’s “The Fly” from Achtung Baby. I will say, if “Dance of the Clairvoyants” is a stab at “being current” or being “relevant” it’s a better job than U2 has been attempting lately. After my second or third listen to this new Pearl Jam song, I have to admit it, it grew on me. I would have liked some searing Mike McCready lead guitar…but perhaps they’re saving that for other songs on the album. I like this track but it leaves me with no idea what this new Pearl Jam album Gigaton will be like. Which is probably what they want. I will say, this is an artist who I’d prefer to continue my “conversation” with… this threw me at first, but I’m on board and ready for more.