Sound: Probably the most varied work of thiers to date, in terms of different musical styles, etc. (although Vs. and Riot Act are close). The music is very good, although if you are expecting an album like Ten or instantly accessible songs like Elderly Woman or Betterman, this will be a hard one to get into right away. No Code is a demanding album, with a lot of experimentation and a lot of risk. Not all of it pays off, but it is a credit to Pearl Jam that so much of it does. There is a fine mix of slower ballads, classic rock numbers, grunge pieces, and more experimental tracks. The band shared writing credits for Vs. and Vitalogy, and this is the first album since Ten where you have individual writing credits for songs. It is interesting to see how each person in the band brings thier own styles and influences to bear. This is also the first album with drummer Jack Irons, and you can tell that, for better or worse, this is a new incarnation of Pearl Jam. // 8
Lyrics: Eddie has some strong lyrical performances on this album, and the vocals are consistently good, although there are fewer memorable performances. While there are some top flight songs, there are no Vedder showcase songs like Black, Release, or Betterman that really show off his amazing vocals, except for Lukin and Habit. Listening to Eddie shred those songs makes you wonder how the man still has a throat. Amazing, if not melodic, performances. Lyrically Vedder shows a lot of maturity on this album. The songs are all in one way or another about growing up, about transitioning from being young into being an adult. Old themes are revistied in new ways, and there is less angst and more searching. This means that the songs make less of an immediate impact, but grow with you. Lyrical highlights include In My Tree, Present Tense, I'm Open, and Red Mosquito. Stone Gossard, one of the guitarists, writes and sings Mankind, a fun little song that gets real old real fast. When you have a writer and singer as talented as Eddie Vedder, no one else in this band has ANY business singing or writing lyrics. Mankind foreshadows what will become a drawback to the post No Code albums in this regard. This gets a five, but it is a qualified five. If there was a four and a half rating this would be more accurate. Overall the writing and singing does change from the earlier albums. It is more mature, but with that maturity comes a loss of fire and immediacy, even if it gains in intimacy. If early Pearl Jam turned you off you might be attracted to the No Code on years. If this (or one of the later albums) failed to spark something in you, it might be worth checking out one of the first three. Same band, but a different place in life. // 10
Overall Impression: No Code is a bit of a streaky album. It begins with Sometimes, a slow, questioning song (the music is perfect)about man's relationship to God. Given the scorchers most pearl jam albums open with it immediatley clues you in that this is something new for them. Hail Hail is a strong vitalogyesque (in terms of sound, if not theme) love song that asks really important and interesting questions about the reasons why we stay with one another (are we bound out of obligation... is that all we got? ). Who You Are is an eastern tinged meditation on spirituality that has some nice lines and good music, but lyrically is a little trite, especially next to some of the other stuff on the record. The fact that they chose to release this as the first single demonstrated that they were really concerned about shrinking the size of thier fan base, as this was unlike just about everything they'd done before, and not an immediatley accessible song). In My Tree is another song, like who you are, that shows the influence Jack Irons had with the band. Fantastic drums, great music, great lyrics, and a powerful song about holding onto your innocence as the world around you changes. This is one of thier underappreciated (at least in mainstream circles) classics. Smile sounds like it could be a Neil Young song, with simple (there are really only five lines to the song) lyrics that Eddie makes work. When he sings 'I miss you already' you really feel it. Off He Goes is a meandering acoustic number that sees Eddie staging a meeting between two facets of his personality and trying to encourage himself to slow down and relax. While this song is really popular amongst Pearl Jam diehards, personally I feel it is a bit self-indulgent and goes on about two minutes too long and kills the flow of the album. Habit is a jarring, crashing song about confronting a friend with drug addiction. It is about as loud as pearl jam gets, and is a fun song with a great jam at the end, but not one of their all time greats. Red Mosquito, on the other hand, is. This is an awesome classic rock number about resisting the devil and temptation. Lyrically it doesn't have the heft of Satan's Bed, but this is the best pure guitar song they had done since Alive, Lukin is a cathartic one minute scream, nominally about a stalker Eddie had to deal with, but mostly just an exercise in noisy anger. It is perfect at one minute long. Any longer and it would be pointless, any less and it wouldn't do what it needs to do. Present Tense might be the best song on the album. Beautiful, searching guitars accompany introspective lyrics about learning to not judge yourself so harshly, and reaching the important conclusion that 'you're the only one who can forgive yourself'. Plus it ends with an awesome jam. If No Code was ten songs long it'd be one of their best works, but the last three songs hurt the album as a whole. After a few listens Stone Gossard's mankind is largely pointless. I'm Open is a spoken word soundscape with great lyrics, but it comes across ultimatley as somewhat pretentious. Around The Bend is a soothing lullaby, and you can imagine Eddie singing it standing over a crib, but is almost too gentle and too soothing. After the absolutley killer tracks they've closed out past albums with (Release, Indifference, Immortality--I'm not counting stupid mop), this feels like a let down.
In the end, No Code is a strong album, and worth a listen, but has some down moments, especially towards the end, and with a few exceptions (In My Tree, Present Tense, Red Mosquito) doesn't soar quite as high as the previous albums. The best stuff here is as good as the best stuff anywhere, but the overall quality of the record doesn't quite match up to the ridiculously impressive standards set by the first three albums. // 8