In the Seattle grunge scene of the early ’90s, they emerged as part of a larger mosaic, members of a supergroup before their debut even came out. This support from contemporaries is likely what empowered Pearl Jam to find their voice, writing earnest, soaring rock songs inspired by punk but delivered as arena anthems in jam band-style marathon live sets. Now that they are an industry all to themselves, their origin story might seem like a footnote—especially in 2020, when they remain the last band intact from their particular scene. But this sense of uplift still defines their work.
Communal goodwill is the saving grace of Gigaton, their eleventh studio album and first in nearly seven years. At 57 minutes, it’s their longest album, as well as the one that took the longest to complete. You feel the weight of both durations throughout. The ballads stretch out slowly, and the uptempo numbers are derailed by meandering build-ups, like stopping for a chat while running in place mid-jog. From the curveball disco-rock of first single “Dance of the Clairvoyants”—a portal into an alternate universe where David Byrne produced the Who to soundtrack an ’80s action film—the band immediately forecasted an attempt to revitalize its sound. In context, it’s more of an outlier: a reminder of their underdog mentality, that they have some fight left in them.
From the sounds of it, Pearl Jam pieced Gigaton together from various sessions over several years, with Vedder adding vocals to the choice bits after the fact. It’s hard to imagine this process leading toward a unified statement from any band, let alone one that’s already been having trouble finding inspiration. After records like 2009’s Backspacer and 2013’s Lightning Bolt combatted their dearth of ideas with low-stakes thrashiness—a throwback to the rowdy garage band that they never actually were—Gigaton attempts to reinstate their ambition. Co-produced by the band and Josh Evans, it’s filled with all the markers of cerebral, studio-born rock music: drum loops and programmed synths, swirling keys and fretless bass, wide dynamics and spacey textures. For the first time in a while, the winning moments are the slower cuts: songs like “Retrograde” and “Seven O’Clock” that evolve patiently into their atmosphere, as opposed to pro-forma ragers like “Never Destination” that never quite find their groove.