Sound — 8
Riot act is somewhat similar in sound to Vs. or No Code (esp. No Code) in that the band experiments with a great deal of musical styles and there is not one cohesive sound to the album as a whole (as compared to Ten, Vitalogy, and Yield, for instance). There is a little something for everyone on Riot Act. The requisite slow songs are here (Thumbing My Way, All Or None), although both have a more starkly acoustic sound than much of their past work. Faster, crunchier songs are represented by Save You, Green Disease, Ghost And Get Right, and 1/2 Full, Love Boat Captain, and I Am Mine are your standard Pearl Jam anthems. Can't Keep recalls some of the swirling atmosphere of songs like Of A Girl or Who You Are. Matt Cameron continues to provide interesting songs outside of the usual Pearl Jam mold with You Are and Cropduster (Jeff Ament's Help Help would fall into this more experimental category as well). Bushleaguer is the band's most explicit political song to date, and the music is great. The most notable change in their sound is the addition of a keyboard player, who is used to great affect in some songs (Love Boat Captain), although there are also places where it sounds like they are trying to find something for him to do (Save You). Overall the band is in fine form throughout the album. Riot Act will not go down as one of their all time great efforts, and some songs feel a bit rushed, but there is a lot to love here. To be fair, many long time fans of the band found themselves somewhat disappointed with this effort, but that disappointment comes in part because Riot Act does not live up to the incredible standards Pearl Jam has set for themselves, and the enormous expectations their fans place on them. Much of the blame (if blame is the word to use) can be pinned on Eddie Vedder.
Lyrics — 8
Pearl Jam albums rise and fall on the strength of Eddie Vedder's vocals. When he brings his A game there are few singers in the history of rock that can touch him. Unfortunately his A game was not found on Riot Act. This is not to say that the vocals on Riot Act are bad. Even on an off day Eddie Vedder has a deep, rich, resonant, and striking voice. However, there are times he sounds a bit tired and weary. On some songs (I Am Mine, All Or None), it fits the mood perfectly and adds to the depth of the song. But Love Boat Captain and You Are fail to soar quite as high as they should. Likewise, some of the faster songs (Save You and especially Ghost) need to be punched up more than they are. There are places where glimpses of the old Eddie come through. The end of Save You makes the song, and he is strong on 1/2 full (although he sounds a bit muted that is a fault with the mix and not him, however). Lyrically Riot Act will not be remembered as Eddies best work, and with good cause. There are some nice lines and phrases here and there, but only Thumbing My Way has truly great lyrics (a friend of mine, not a particularly big Pearl Jam fan, got tears in her eyes when I played that one for her). The biggest disappointment has got to be Bushleaguer. George Bush is such an easy target and Eddie really fails to say much of substance about him (and the second verse is far too obscure and obtuse for a song with such an obvious message). As usual, the songs that Eddie did not write suffer in the lyrics department, and Matt Cameron's effort in Get Right is just awful. This portion of the review sounds more negative than it should. Even Eddie Vedder on an off day is still Eddie Vedder, and while the writing on the album is not his best, it is still good.
Overall Impression — 8
Like No Code, Riot Act breaks from Pearl Jam's standard operating procedure of crashing openers and begins with Can't Keep, which has a mysterious, mystical quality about it, and the vocals have a chant-like cadence to them that work quite effectively. The song is an introspective declaration of freedom, about embracing possibilites, and is one of the highlights of the album. Given the subtle (and with Bushleaguer none to subtle) political message running through the album the song can also be seen as hinting about the possibility of social change, of refusing to allow ourselves to be limited by what we have in front of us. 01. Save You - is probably the second best song on the album. It is a desperate cry for a friend (or a country? ) to recognize the self-destructive nature of their behavior and to let those who care help them help themselves. The song is about how frustrating it can be to be cut off from those we love and care about, about how their refusal to listen often leaves us with no other option than to scream. Given the angry and fast paced nature of the music Eddie's vocals seem a bit subdued at first, but it fits perfectly with the song. Despite his frustration he is trying so hard to be calm and reasonable, but by the end of the song he just has to scream, because there is no other way of getting through. As I said above, Eddie's screams lack some of the power they used to, but they also have a tightly wound intensity to them that works really well at the climax of Save You. 02. Love Boat Captain - starts out with a beautiful organ part and some gentle guitar strumming as Eddie ruminates about why it is we are so often forced to feel pain and suffer. Given the connection the song has to the 2000 tragedy where 9 Pearl Jam fans were killed during a concert, this is understandable. However, Love Boat Captain is meant to be cathartic, and rather than wallow in our loss we need to embrace love, as it has the power to overcome loss. Too often we lose track of that, and we believe that we are the only ones who suffer, who hurt, and by isolating ourselves and our pain we fail to see that suffering ends, that many have hurt before us and have come through it fine, precisely because they have recognized the power that love has to unite us (here he is talking much more about fellowship than romantic love). Despite its awful title (probably the worst one they have ever come up with it), it is an affecting song, although if Eddie had really let himself go it could have been even better. Given how over the top the message of the song is restraint did not serve him well here. 03. The Music For Cropduster - was written by Matt Cameron, and is unlike anything they have ever done before. The music feels like spring, like something is being born (or reborn), and the lyrics in part reflect the cycle of life and death. However, there is some political subtext to this otherwise overused metaphor. Unlike nature, which has its own natural cycles, social and political change is not bound to an organic cycle. It happens only if people actively step in and intervene in that process. Without that intervention and engagement we find ourselves shaped by the world, instead of shaping it ourselves. Cropduster is an interesting song (I have no idea where the title came from), but not quite as engaging as the first three. 04. Ghost - is about feeling disconnected from the world around you, drifting through the world like a ghost because you cannot penetrate the haze of stimulation and sensory overload that surrounds us. Ghost can easily be seen as a reaction/response to the insecurity that surrounded the country after 9-11. Eddie holds him back here (like he does on most of the album) and while it works thematically, the song suffers a bit because of it. Ghost feels a bit like a missed opportunity, a pretty good song that could have been great. It was one of my immediate favorites but did not age as well as it could have. One of my all time favorite Mike McCready guitar solos follows the first chorus. 05. I Am Mine - is the highlight of the album for me, their finest song since Given To Fly. Although Eddie has said the song is not about 9-11, it anticipates the feelings of loss, uncertainty, and insecurity that so many people felt. The song is about having our emotional and existenstial grounding ripped out from under us, and having to rebuild it not knowing who we can trust besides ourselves. The music is fantastic, the delivery of the lyrics is quite affecting, and the song ends on a beautiful and cathartic guitar solo that, while only 20 some second long, is probably the best thing Mike McCready ever did. I am Mine is the masterpiece of Riot Act, and the album is worth owning for this song alone. 06. Thumbing My Way - is a stark and brutal song about trying to cope with the loss of love (or a loved one that is never quite clear). The controlling image is a hitchhiker trying to slowly find his way back to a home he was exiled from, and it works perfectly. It is a miserably depressing song, yet it still has that element of hope, of resistance and struggle even in the face of failure and despair, that makes Pearl Jam's music so emotionally powerful. Lyrically the song is absolutely brilliant, and Eddie sings it well. However, the music doesn't do the song justice. It just drones on without really creating the atmosphere and intimacy found in Indifference or Elderly Woman. 07. The Music In You Are - is awesome. I've heard Matt Cameron ran some guitar parts through a drum machine or something like that to create a weird electronic sound for them. I can't explain what he did, but the effect is great, and it is easily the most imaginative piece of music the band ever wrote. Lyrically the song is a somewhat generic love song about how love is important, etc. Matt cameron admitted that he just came up with some generic rock lyrics for it (love is the tower and you're the key), and it shows. Eddie punched it up in a few places but it remains a bit trite despite having one of the greatest opening lines I've ever heard (this broken wheel is coming undone, and the road's exploded). This is another song where Eddie could have made a good song great by pushing his vocal performance further than he did. 08. Get Right is a fun, fast, crunchy, catchy song with no substance to it whatsoever. It should have been a b-side, especially when you factor in what was left off the album (more on that later). 09. Green Disease - is a jangly number about the evils of greed, capitalism, etc (the Bush tie ins should require no further explanation). But rather than just ranting, the song remains hopeful, exposing the Green Disease is a necessary first step in the battle to combat it. It actually sounds like it could have been an REM song from the mid 80's. Very catchy right away, but like Ghost, lacks some depth and does not age quite as well as some of the other numbers. 10. Help Help - was written by Jeff Ament and is one of the more experimental songs on the album with bizarrely distorted vocals. There is a lot of interesting stuff happening musically, the song has a lot of layers to it with an awesome breakdown at the end. However it comes across as a song that is easier to respect than to love. This one is much better live. The song is about not being able to trust authority (read: Bush) and being forced to question everything you hear because the people who tell it to you have their own agenda. 11. Bushleaguer - is the biggest disappointment on the album. The music is terrific, and the chorus is a menacing look into what a future world created by Bush might look like. However the verses are delivered as spoken word poetry instead of sung, and while the delivery is meant to be sarcastic it just comes across as a bit lazy (Eddie conveys the sarcasm much more effectively live, perhaps he should have brought the george bush mask he used into the studio). And the lyrics are a big disappointment (esp. the second verse) given how easy a target Bush is. 12. 1/2 Full - is a cousin to Red Mosquito. If you liked that one you'll probably like this one. it is a fun extended guitar jam with some of Eddie's best vocals on the album. It harkens back to some of the Daniel Quinn inspired themes from Yield, and the song is a warning, we can't abuse our world forever without eventually suffering some consequences. 13. Arc - is a beautiful, mournful, piece of music. It is just Eddie looping his voice over and over for about a minute. It is somewhat frustrating because it is a reminder of how powerful an instrument Eddie Vedder's voice can be when he wants it to be, and highlighted how inconsistent some of his performances on Riot Act were. The album closes on a fairly strong note with All Or None. While not at the level of the usually fantastic songs Pearl jam closes with, it is a good song none the less. It is a stark acoustic song (a la Thumbing My Way) about how easy it is to surrender to others, and especially to ourselves, and how important resistance is. Thematically this is well traveled terrain for Pearl Jam, and they've done it better before lyrically. However, there is some wonderful soloing by Mike McCready (who seems like he doesn't have much to do on the album, yet he anchors a number of songs) that saves the song. Riot Act has 15 songs on it, and that is probably a good two or three too many. The album lasts a bit too long for its own good, and would have been a much tighter listen had a handful of songs (Cropduster, Get Right, Help Help, Bushleaguer, Take Out your least favorite ones) had been removed. The song selection becomes particularly exacerbating when you also account for the fact that Riot Act (like Binaural) produced some extremely strong b-sides that were better than much of what made it onto the album proper. the inclusion of undone and down to replace some of the weaker songs could have made a good album great. In the end Riot Act is a solid, if somewhat unspectacular, outing by Pearl Jam. The album's title and terrific cover art promise a more jarring political album than is actually delivered. The politics are there but fairly subtle, and while there is thematic continuity for the album it doesn't tie the album together effectively. You have to dig a bit too much to find it. As such it often feels like 15 separate songs as opposed to an album (as opposed to No Code). There are some truly great songs on Riot Act (Save You, I Am Mine) and no disasters (maybe Bushleaguer), but in the end one is left feeling that Riot Act could have been much greater than it was. Here Pearl Jam's standards are their worst enemy. However, two very strong tours in 2003 and 2004 and the deeply moving song Man of the Hour leave me optimistic for the next album.