Pearl Jam may never again sell 5 million-plus albums the way the band did in the early 1990s when its first three CDs, Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy made the band the leader of grunge rock and arguably the most important band in rock.
Today, the group's success level is far more modest, with recent CDs such as Yield, Binaural and the current release, Riot Act topping out at around 1 million in sales. Pearl Jam remains a legitimate arena-headlining act, but the band's tours no longer generate the frenzy of attention they once did. But life within Pearl Jam is perhaps better than ever. At least that's the impression one gets from talking to bassist Jeff Ament about the life and times of his group during the dozen years that have passed since the band formed in Seattle.
"It's the most tired analogy of all time, but you can compare it to a marriage," Ament said. "You have the honeymoon, which is our first record or two. Then all of a sudden it's like, OK, we're five years in and we don't know how to talk to one another, so you have to learn how to communicate. And if you can get through that period, that's when the glory days happen."
And for a time after the initial rush of success, it was anything but a sure bet that Pearl Jam would survive the post-honeymoon period. Especially around the time of the band's 1996 CD, No Code, relationships within the group were frayed, and several members, including Ament, felt creatively stifled.
That, obviously, has changed, as the songwriting credits on Riot Act abundantly illustrate. While lead singer Eddie Vedder remains the band's chief songwriter, Ament has one sole songwriting credit ("Help Help"), plus co-writing credits on two other songs. Drummer Matt Cameron has credits on three songs, while guitarist Stone Gossard has two co-writing credits. Only guitarist Mike McCready lacks a featured songwriting credit, although he joined the entire band in writing the song "Save You."
For a time, that clearly wasn't the environment within Pearl Jam. "There was a point when, like Vitalogy and maybe a little bit of No Code, it was kind of Ed's band," says Ament, who notes he seriously considered quitting around that time. "I think that was him trying to see what he could do, see how far he could take it. Fortunately, around the time of Yield, actually at the end of the No Code thing, he was just so fried from trying to finish all these songs that Eddie said, 'I can't do this anymore.'"
The band's record sales might not reflect it, but Yield, Binaural and now Riot Act have proven that each member of Pearl Jam brings a considerable amount of creativity to the table. Cameron, who after his stint as Soundgarden's drummer joined Pearl Jam for the Binaural CD, offers one of the most intriguing musical moments on Riot Act -- a CD that stands up to the band's best previous efforts. "You Are," a tune that, with the exception of some lyrics provided by Vedder, was written by the drummer and features Cameron playing some of the staccato guitar that makes it one of the most striking tunes on the CD. "Wanted to Get Right," another Cameron song, is one of Riot Act's most combustible rockers.
Ament makes his presence felt on "Help Help," a track that shifts between tense moodiness and full-on rock, and on "1/2 Full," a rocker that lumbers along nicely behind its jagged beat and sharp guitar line.
Vedder, of course, is also a prominent figure, as main lyricist and a primary writer of the acoustic track "Thumbing My Way," the blistering rocker "Save You" and "Love Boat Captain," an epic track that builds from an understated opening into one of Riot Act's most potent moments.
Beyond just opening up the songwriting process to the entire band and each member learning how to be more open in expressing his feelings and opinions within the group, Ament says that just on a musical level he sees a considerable difference between Pearl Jam today and the band of the mid '90s.
"I think the main thing is we're better musicians," he says. "And I think the reason that we're better musicians is kind of a few different things. A lot of it is playing (more), the repetition of it. But the other thing is really trusting one another. I think if you can trust one another on a friendship level, I think it can really kick the chemistry of the band up to the next level. You're up there, and you're not holding back. You're giving the song everything that you can.
"There's no kind of ego trip where you're trying to get your lick in here and maybe it's taking away from the song."
- "He was just so fried from trying to finish all these songs that Eddie said, 'I can't do this anymore,'" Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament says of lead singer Eddie Vedder.