We've Heard Vedder

Advance copies of Pearl Jam's latest CD, "Riot Act," arrived on critics' desks inside of Sony Discmans that had been glued shut to prevent the making of bootlegs. The headphones, similarly, had been glued into their jacks so that critics couldn't feed the CD into recording devices or speakers.

Apart from representing a sort of endearingly low-rent display of synergy--Sony owns Pearl Jam's record label, Epic--the bizarre security precautions only pointed up how little demand there actually is for Pearl Jam's music these days.

The group's MP3s may well bounce around Limewire.com and Kazaa.com like free electrons, but in the nonvirtual world, Pearl Jam's record sales have been declining steadily from day one. The band's debut album, "Ten," sold nearly 9 million copies back in 1991, outselling Nirvana's "Nevermind." Its most recent CD, 2000's "Binaural," barely broke 700,000. In other words, when Epic glues Discmans shut it's protesting too much. The record label had a better idea when it disabled every button on the Discman but PLAY: even if critics hated "Riot Act," there was no way to make it stop.

"Riot Act" turns out to be a mixed blessing, a good-but-not-great album with the usual Pearl Jam-y combination of introspection, anger and Ralph Nader politics. It doesn't have the high-decibel propulsiveness of "Vs." or even the off-again-on-again brilliance of 1994's "Vitalogy," and it's certainly not the career-reviving blast that the band, its label and its fans were hoping for. It should be said, of course, that Pearl Jam has never been after the ordinary commodities of fame and money. In fact, band members seem to have spent the last 10 years stomping on success with their Doc Martens.

They not only avoided the media but famously initiated a giant public feud with Ticketmaster and stopped making videos for MTV--two of the boldest and most self-destructive stands any rock band has taken in years. Now, the fact that Pearl Jam's contract with Epic is about to expire--coupled with those sagging sales--seems to have inspired the band to make nice. Singer Eddie Vedder et al are doing interviews and making videos again. "The guys in U2, they would tell us, 'C'mon, you guys gotta get back on the wave with us, take rock and roll back'," bassist Jeff Ament said recently. We can be snide about Pearl Jam's motives, but the truth is that somebody needs to take rock and roll back, and Pearl Jam has as good a shot as anybody.

Back in the day, it was Vedder who really made Pearl Jam matter. His grainy, anguished baritone has been the most imitated voice in rock for years, the most famous and obvious copycat being that icky dude in Creed. The other guys in the band ... Well, for one thing, they must hate being referred to as the other guys in the band. But that's what they are: totally proficient hard rockers who do a fine job recycling the guitar riffs they were raised on, but certainly not visionaries. If they weren't Vedder's backing band, they'd be somebody else's. (Some of the guitar solos on "Riot Act" are so Hendrix-ish and dated that you cringe a little whenever somebody fires one up.)

Apart from being Pearl Jam's singer, Vedder has also served as its chief lyricist. Apparently he's lightened up lately, and on "Riot Act" he lets his bandmates give it a shot. As a result, there's a wandering, unfocused feel to the album. That shouldn't come as a surprise. The democratization of rock bands is almost always a drag: would you rather hear an R.E.M. song written by Michael Stipe or Mike Mills?

Pearl Jam has always admired R.E.M., as it happens, and at its best, "Riot Act" brings Stipe & Co. to mind. That's partly because of its utter earnestness. On the lovely, grungy waltz "I Am Mine," Vedder sings some very Stipe-like poetry: "The ocean is full 'cause everyone's crying/The full moon is looking for friends at high tide/The sorrow grows bigger when the sorrow's denied." And it's partly because Pearl Jam's politics are roughly the same as R.E.M.'s. On the brisk rocker "Green Disease," Vedder appears to lash out at corporate greed: "Tell the captain, 'This boat's not safe and we're drowning'/Turns out he's the one making waves'." And on the lame "Bushleaguer," he takes some swipes at the president, then tosses off some spoken-word poetry that recalls Jim Morrison at his drunkest, flabbiest and closest to death: "The immenseness of suffering/And the odd negotiation, a rarity/With onionskin plausibility of life and a keyboard reaffirmation."

Elsewhere on "Riot Act," Pearl Jam sounds like Soundgarden--the grave, moody love song "You Are" would have been perfectly at home on that band's "Superunknown"--but they never quite sound like a band that knows what it is or where it's going. It may be that, despite their sudden interest in giving interviews, Pearl Jam has actually run out of things to say. Vedder seems to have outrun most of his demons, both personal and professional. He doesn't sound tortured or furious, just sort of bummed out about the state of the world. Listening to "Riot Act," you can't help but miss the primal angst of old hits like "Alive" and even the furious railing against fame in songs like "Not For You." Pearl Jam may want to help U2 take back rock and roll, but first they've got to figure out what to do with it.