15 Years Ago: Pearl Jam Reads the ‘Riot Act’
In the years following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many American bands and songwriters wrestled with how to reflect the state of the country in their music. For a group as seemingly earnest and grounded as Pearl Jam, there was no question the Seattle rockers would be addressing the calamity – as well as the politics of 9/11’s aftermath – on their next album. Yet the band were also reeling from a more personal tragedy.
In 2000, when touring on Binaural, nine concertgoers were killed (and dozens more were injured) amidst a crowd rush during Pearl Jam’s appearance at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival. Although the band members were in no way responsible, the accident had an immense effect on Pearl Jam.
Between 9/11, the George W. Bush administration and the horror at Roskilde, the group’s seventh studio album became a contemplation of anger, frustration and loss. Riot Act was even dedicated to the memory of three bassists who died while Pearl Jam was making the record: Dee Dee Ramone, the Who’s John Entwistle and jazzman Ray Brown. Yet, the record was also about perseverance.
“I’m optimistic yet disillusioned,” singer Eddie Vedder told the A.V. Club in 2002, “hopeful yet frustrated.”
On “Love Boat Captain,” Vedder addresses the Roskilde tragedy directly: “Lost nine friends we’ll never know, two years ago today.” But he also praises the ability to heal, singing “One you hold the hand of love, it’s all surmountable” and quoting the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love.” Elsewhere, he finds dark humor in an excoriation of then-President Bush on “Bu$hleaguer” (“born on third, thinks he got a triple”), takes aim at greedy CEOs on “Green Disease” and gets philosophical about it all on “Cropduster.”
Although previous Pearl Jam recording sessions had witnessed bouts of writer’s block for primary lyricist Vedder, nothing like that surfaced while the band were making Riot Act at Seattle’s Studio X and Space Studio in 2002. In fact, the band’s frontman became even more integrated into the recording process by setting up a typewriter in a studio alcove, so that he could be directly inspired by the sounds coming from guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron.
“I’ve never seen Ed work harder on lyrics,” McCready told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “He’d run upstairs while we were in the studio and type out his lyrics and then come back down and cut them that night. And the next day he’d do the same thing. There wasn’t ever a break for him.”
Vedder, like the other four members of Pearl Jam, also brought his own musical ideas (riffs, melodies, chord outlines) to the sessions. As with previous releases Binaural and Yield, all of the guys contributed sketches, which were turned into full-blown tracks via studio collaboration. A diversity of sounds – blistering rockers, hushed acoustic tracks and curious experiments – was all but guaranteed. But Riot Act’s mix of rock muscle and sonic investigation found a balance that had somewhat eluded the group’s studio records since 1994’s Vitalogy. It wasn’t a breakthrough, but a refinement.
Some new blood aided in the process. Kenneth “Boom” Gaspar joined in the recordings on keyboards, cutting soulful swaths of Hammond organ with which to lace Pearl Jam’s melodic hooks. Gaspar had become a surfing buddy of Vedder’s and when the frontman introduced him to his bandmates, they took to the idea of bringing pronounced keyboards into their sound. Gaspar has continued to record and tour with them.
Co-producer Adam Kaspar was another addition, although he had engineered Pearl Jam tracks previously. According to band members, he fostered a more unstructured environment, where fresh approaches could be recorded before they became over-practiced.
“On ‘Thumbing My Way,’ we were out in the room learning the song,” Ament recalled to Billboard. “In the process, Adam went and re-miked everything very covertly. So all of a sudden when we were ready to play it, it was up and he captured it. … A lot of times, there’s that cool thing when you don’t quite know the song and everybody is really concentrating. It lasts four or five takes and then it’s gone.”
After completing Riot Act – Vedder came up with the title near the end of the process – the band members came away satisfied, perhaps more than usual. After Pearl Jam’s seventh record was released on Nov. 12, 2002, it got a fair amount of media support from the sometimes press-averse musicians, who spoke glowingly about each other and the results of their work together.
As a dense, and some might say, difficult album, Riot Act might have needed the push. Critical opinions ranged from “meh” to measured praise that noted that the album required time to unfurl its musical layers, melodic subtleties and little turns-of-phrase. Many reviews commented that the record paid little heed to musical trends and was directed squarely at Pearl Jam’s devoted fan base.
That’s largely who pushed Riot Act to gold status in the U.S., where it hit No. 5 on the Billboard chart (Pearl Jam’s weakest showing to date). Commercially, it performed better in Canada and overseas. It would be the last of the band’s studio albums to come out on Epic Records, before the quintet signed a one-time deal with J Records, then moved into self-releasing albums.
Riot Act was promoted with a big world tour in 2003, one that saw some political uneasiness among certain fans (when Pearl Jam’s frontman donned a George W. Bush mask to mock the President during renditions of “Bu$hleaguer”) and earnest dedications to others (Vedder performed the voice-only “Arc” to honor the Roskilde accident victims). Frustrated, but creatively rejuvenated, Pearl Jam moved forward to their next act.