Interesting timing this one. One week after Geffen release the archive Nirvana box set, Sony release Pearl Jam’s first best-of album. Coincidence or Christmas? You decide…
Still, regardless of the timing, Rearviewmirror is a long overdue retrospective from a band who, lest we forget, sold more copies of their debut album Ten than Nirvana did of Nevermind.
Of course, there were plenty of Nirvana fans (and Kurt himself at one point) who attributed this to Pearl Jam being commercial sell-outs. Such accusations were specious. Pearl Jam had more punk ancestry than Nirvana with some of the band having come from the legendary Green River, but they were always steeped in more mainstream rock influences, as anyone who owned a Mother Love Bone album – the middle stage in the evolution from Green River to Pearl Jam – would have understood.
Besides, as the years rolled by Pearl Jam became probably one of the least commercial bands around, not doing promotional videos, touring only when it suited them and releasing increasingly lo-fi and, it has to be said, inconsistent albums.
Perversely, a best-of selection like Rearviewmirror works better for Pearl Jam than if they hadn’t had such an erratic quality level since 1995. There are very few complaints about missing songs (though Last Exit, Whipping and Brain Of J are surprise omissions) because after the Vitalogy album, there’s little to argue about. And the songs that have been picked lead to what is a breathtaking collection for the most part.
Disc 1 is labelled the “Up” selection and for the first 11 of its 16 tracks, it’s not so much that each song is good, but that each one is great, and great enough, in fact, for most bands to have been happy if they’d written one such winner.
Once and Even Flow from Ten sound at least as exhilarating today as they did 13 years ago, while Alive is simply magical from Eddie Vedder’s personal lyrics of finding out that his father wasn’t his father at all, to the riff that ranks up there with Sweet Child O’Mine on the air guitar-o-meter, through to the glorious chorus and the seemingly improvised, incredible instrumental finale.
Other highlights include the grunge anthem State Of Love And Trust (surely one of the best tracks never to have made it on to a studio album), the venomous Go and Animal, the punkier-than-thou Spin The Black Circle, and the subtle but mesmerisingly emotive Rearviewmirror and Corduroy.
With Disc 1 being “Up”, it comes as no surprise to learn that Disc 2 is “Down”, although thankfully there are still plenty of highs. Even the notoriously cynical Richie Edwards, he of disappearing Manic Street Preachers fame, was once moved to declare that opening number Black was a beautiful moment in music, and he was dead right.
Subsequent, acoustically-driven numbers such as Daughter, Better Man and Immortality (the latter about Cobain’s suicide) may not be quite as beautiful, but they can still hold their melodic, commercial heads very high indeed, while the slow burning Given To Fly from 1998′s Yield album would have made Led Zeppelin proud back in their heyday.
As both Discs reached their conclusions, I predictably found that I cared less for the tracks, although the “Down” disc does cunningly close with Yellow Ledbetter – a track originally found on the B-side to Jeremy that is a tribute to blues godfather Leadbelly (also a favourite of Mr Cobain), and which is a wonderful live anthem, complete with made-up lyrics and Jimi Hendrix-style guitar licks.
With Rearviewmirror, Pearl Jam’s contract to Sony is fulfilled and it seems that they are in no hurry to re-sign with a major label. Whether they carry on recording or not, and even if they never create a great song again, one thing is for sure – their contribution to rock music has been nothing less than memorable.