20 Years Ago: Pearl Jam Releases ‘Riot Act’

Pearl Jam dominated the 1990s. Surviving massive amounts of fame, the up-and-coming rockers managed to keep their heads, carefully monitor their careers, and take control of almost every decision that could possibly affect their brand and their future. But when the 21st century arrived, Pearl Jam’s world was rocked a bit. They managed to release five studio albums during the 90s, and their sixth, Binauralcame in 2000. However, the disc was the first released by the band that did not reach platinum status.

On a more personal level, Pearl Jam suffered through a concert tragedy the likes of which no band should ever experience, when nine people died and another 15 were injured in a crowd crush situation during the band’s performance at Roskilde Festival in 2000. Eddie Vedder told Seattle Weekly, “In the days that followed we were all quite inconsolable. I’m sure the families and friends have had to live with it in much harsher ways than us. But our own personal experience was that we were practically in the fetal position over the reality of, what had happened.” Band manager Kelly Curtis recalled, “Since we still weren’t sure what had happened or how it went down, I think we all thought at the time, ‘this could be it’.” But the band would eventually continue, even though it was a difficult path to complete.

In short, it was time for a break and the band decided to step away for a year shortly after their support for Binaural was complete. During this year off, Pearl Jam followed the rest of America during the events of September 11, and soon the band not only had something to say, but they decided to use their platform to say it. So after nursing some wounds, the band regrouped with determination, ready to lay the groundwork for new music.

First was a decision to work with producer Adam Kasper for the record. Drummer Matt Cameron said: “I think we came into this thing quite prepared and focused in terms of what we wanted to do. Adam is a super guy and that helped a lot – the working environment was really relaxed. We tore through it, tracked everything for about four weeks. You really hear it ‘live,’ the sound of a band playing together in a room—which you don’t hear too much these days.”

As I said, the sound took on more of an immediacy, and that includes the vocals and lyrics from Eddie Vedder. “The biggest difference we heard, right from the first day we started, was how emotional Ed’s approach was,” the bassist said. Jeff Ament to Philly.com about the sessions. “He talked about things that you could tell were important to him, in his gut. Things like”Bu$hleaguer‘ would not have happened five years ago; he’s really gone somewhere else, both in terms of what the lyrics say and how he sings them.”

Pearl Jam, “Bu$hleaguer”

Vedder added, “Right after 9/11, there was this sense of unity that was deeply moving. But what bothered me was how quickly it became a blind patriotism. I remember realizing a few days after the attacks, that the progress being made on the environment and other issues would be hit, and it seemed like even questioning that was anti-American. Well, it’s not anti-American to be critical of the government… We wanted to put some ideas out there that might help create an open and honest debate.”

He told Billboard, “You start to feel, ‘What am I going to say? What is my point?’ Then I realized I had an opinion. Not only did I have one, but I felt it was formed by processing a lot of information and having good influences.”

Guitarist Stone Gossard recalled, “Every day it would be different. Ed would come in with an idea, sometimes it was as simple as ‘all you need is love…’ You think this is going to go down the corny road feeling, but because he hasn’t made a career out of saying stuff like that, and because of how the music hangs together behind him, it doesn’t. It ends up being pulverizing.”

Pearl Jam, “Love Boat Captain”

The band also opened up musically to additional sounds. The disc that would be known as Sedition Act was the first to feature Pearl Jam collaborator Kenneth “Boom” Gaspar, who lent keyboard tracks to the song “Love Boat Captain” as well as several other songs on the disc. Gaspar, a Hawaiian musician, first got to know Eddie Vedder through surfing and admitted Honolulu Advertiser, “I knew him as my friend Eddie. I didn’t know how big he was. I just loved him for what he was … and how he came to us.” After some time jamming, the beginning of “Love Boat Captain” was born and Vedder invited Gaspar to join the group in the studio. Then one song became more and was finally followed by an invitation to join the band on tour as well.

When the tracks were finally completed over two sessions in February and April 2002, the band turned their focus to releasing the album that would be titled Sedition Act. It arrived Nov. 12, 2002, preceded by the single “I am mine“The sing-along style of the track instantly connected with listeners as well as the band. Mike McCready told Billboard“It touched me immediately. His lyrics: ‘Sometimes my.’ It is a kind of positive confirmation of what to do with your life. I am born and die, but in between I can do what I want or have an opinion about something. It seems very positive to me. It meant a lot to me and still does when I hear it.” The song became the biggest single from the album, reaching No. 7 on the Mainstream Rock chart and No. 6 on Modern Rock.

Pearl Jam, “I Am Mine”

The stinging but humorous dig at President Bush, “Bu$hleaguer,” came next. Gossard recalled“I wrote that. It was written at the same time we were putting it together [new songs for] that [2001 edition of the] Bridge School [benefit]. It’s another experiment that worked really well. It’s so satirical. People are going to enjoy it. The four-on-the-floor drum feel that Matt plays — he plays a kick drum pattern that we don’t have a lot of in our songs. The groovy, creepy outtro is quite another thing.” Ament added, “Everything Stone brought in was kind of dark. The one text he had was “blackout weaves through town.” It’s a very heavy line. The way Ed wrote lyrics around it, they were almost kind of humorous. It made the song even creepier for me. It took me a while because he actually originally sang over the verses of that song and he had a really cool melody. I had a hard time letting it go.” The song never really made it to the radio, but became a favorite among Pearl Jam fans, especially as Eddie Vedder often donned a George W. Bush mask during performances that ran the political number home..

The album’s second charting single was “Straighten up,” which arrived in February 2003. It’s a love/hate relationship song with a punk-tinged sound. McCready listed, “I came in with that riff and we just kind of started jamming on it. It was a blast to play. The track that actually ended there, halfway through the song, Matt lost his headphones. He was going off. That’s my favorite part of that song, his crazy drum fills. I like the solo too, but the drum fills are insane, how good they are. He does them without his headphones, just by watching the bass.” Cameron added: “It was me looking at Jeff’s fingers and hoping I was in time, you know? There’s a breakdown of just me and Jeff. I hit a cymbal, moved my head and the headphones flew. A little point of interest there. to the listener!”

Pearl Jam, “Save You”

The last song released from the album was the aforementioned “Love Boat Captain”. For Pearl Jam, it was a bit of a unique song. Cameron recalled, “There were no lyrics when we tracked it, so we did what we thought would be a good, tight instrumental version that would later have vocals on it. When we tracked it, I was like, “What? What’s this?” It didn’t make sense to me. But when the vocals were added, it made perfect sense and it lifted the whole piece.”

When all was said and done, the Sedition Act album was considered both a creative and commercial rebound after a rare dip in Pearl Jam’s career. The album debuted at No. 5 and was certified gold by the RIAA. And the band’s tour showed an energetic band that delivered one of their most memorable tours in the band’s history. While not a hugely successful album for the group, it is one that is highly underrated and was key to launching the second decade of the band’s career.

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