Mixing rock and politics remains a tricky business. Different artists have their own ways of dealing with current events, and it would be hard to find two more divergent roads to protest than the routes Pearl Jam and Neil Young take on their new albums. Young, the elder statesman and a veteran of such topical yet lasting songs as “Ohio” and “Rockin’ in the Free World,” tackles his subject head on in Living with War (Reprise), a Crazy Horse–driven album that posits the war in Iraq as its theme and goes as far as “Let’s Impeach the President.” Young’s ire has been awakened: “Lookin’ for a Leader” rocks as hard as it rants, and it leads into “Roger and Out,” which makes a vivid connection between Iraq and Vietnam, and then a closing hymn, “America the Beautiful,” sung by a choir. Yet as topical as the disc is (Barack Obama and Colin Powell are just two names Neil drops), there are songs here good enough to outlive the current administration, just as “Rockin’ in the Free World” survived beyond the Reagan/Bush years.
Eddie Vedder, on the other hand, has struggled to reconcile his political views with his role in Pearl Jam, who play the Garden this Wednesday and Thursday. He may write most of the lyrics, but you get the sense the band members have agreed, at least tacitly, that their health depends on Vedder’s keeping his political activities separate. And yet he’s at his best as a songwriter when he gets his mind around an issue that matters — when he’s angry. His MO is to look to himself for answers, to dig through his tortured soul or use his powers of empathy to place himself in the shoes of, say, “Jeremy,” in an effort to see the world from another’s point of view.
ARMED AND DANGEROUS: Pearl Jam sound driven by a renewed urgency and sense of purpose
He does both on Pearl Jam. And politics are a big part of what’s gotten under his skin this time around. It works: Pearl Jam sound like a band reborn on their first album for J Records, a disc driven by an urgency and a sense of purpose this band haven’t harnessed in a decade or more. And though Vedder’s less inclined than Young to point fingers, he comes right out and says what he means on the ominously titled first single, the searing but melodic “World Wide Suicide.” “Medals on a wooden mantel,” he sings in that clenched fist of a voice, “Next to a handsome face/That the president took for granted/Writing checks that others pay.” The guitars of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready parry and feint until they coalesce on a hard, garage-rocking chorus that eventually gives way to an explosion of emotion from Vedder as he works himself up to a scream: “Looking in the eyes of the fallen/You got to know there’s another, another, another, another, another way.”
In the past, Pearl Jam have seemed happy paying tribute to their classic-rock heroes. Here, they play like a band possessed, slamming away with urgency behind Vedder, feeding a mix of melody and noise into the maelstrom, pulling back just enough for key lines like “And the solution?/Well, from me far would it be/But the delusion/Is feeling dangerous to me.”
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