Under The Knife: Do You See The Way That Tree Bends?

Long time, no post... I know. I'm workin' on it all, so get off my back. Without further delay:

From the first opening notes, the chiming melody played on an electric guitar, there is a hint that "Present Tense" is going to be a very special song.

Before it, there weren't many songs in the Pearl Jam catalog that started with just one spare and lonely electric guitar, and one vocal melody. Two tracks, two sounds, alone in a room, communicating.

The song is so different from everything before it, just like the album it comes from, 1996's No Code. A break from the stylistic mode of '90's grunge and alternative rock that Pearl Jam helped create, No Code is a stunning departure for a band who, had they chosen to play the part scripted them, would be on top of the world. As it were, though, Eddie Vedder and company decided to pull back - sticking to their no vidoes policy, thus shunning MTV's massive publicity machine. They also became less and less accessible to the media, pretty much shutting out the press entirely. No marketing campaigns. No interviews. No videos. Just music.

Because of the intense celebrity media attention they received at the outset of the alternative revolution, which became even more intense when Kurt Cobain committed suicide, Pearl Jam became increasingly introspective with thier music, as well. Some would call them anit-social, and hellbent on committing career suicide. No one knew then what we know now - that they are the elder statesmen of rock, less a grunge or alternative band and more just an incredibly good and sincere rock band. The missing link between the massive media explosion after Ten and the current lean classic rock machine and stadium-dominating tour-happy Jam we see now, then, is undoubtedly No Code.

As you may have guessed, I could go on and on about the music contained on this album. It is such a wonderful collective piece of music, and is essential to the band's lengthy and decorated career, not only for being perceived as a giant letdown to record lables and media pundits (and for some fans), but also for stretching the band into new and uncharted realms (for them and their music), stretches that would ultimately to some of their later experimentation and some of their strongest songwriting ever. The good thing about No Code is that all the experiments work, and in and of themselves are incredible gifts of song.

And for me, the greatest of these is the song "Present Tense."

"Do you see the way that tree bends? Does it inspire? Leaning out to catch the suns rays... a lesson to be applied." Eddie starts by asking these simple questions and offering this wonderful, achingly honest observation - after a half decade of pressure and trying to flee fame, maybe it was better to be positive, thankful, better to reach out, be inspired? He ends the first verse, with Mike McCready's chiming, mellow, ethereal guitar stretching out behind the vocals, with another question. "Are we getting something out of this all-encompassing trip?"

To a casual fan, this could just be an introspective mantra, and it is, but it's also so much more. This is a band wrestling with thier demons, their mercurial lead singer giving voice to frustration, disappointment, disillusionment. "You can spend your time alone, redigesting past regrets," Vedder sings in the chorus. "Or you can come to terms and realize you're the only one who cannot forgive yourself." The words are so effortless, so penetrating, both so personal and yet so universal. "Makes much more sense to live in the present tense."

I won't let, the song itself has been like a prayer for me, from the day I heard up until now, and I am sure, going forward. The words always seem to penetrating whatever I am going through. They are always meaningful, always relevant.

We're treated to a little more instrumentation in the second verse, as it builds with a beautiful acoustic guitar accompanyment. The words, again, are intoxicating in their beauty. The song sounds so much more like a conversation between close friends than just... lyrics.

" Have you ideas on how this life ends? Checked your hands and studied the lines. Have you the belief that the road ahead, ascends off into the light? Seems that needlessly it's getting harder too find an approach and a way to live. Are we getting something out of this all-encompassing trip?" This builds to another sparse chorus, this one more forceful, as drums creep in cymbal washes and the chiming guitar carries throughout the rest of the chorus. It's emotive and emotional. It just has the je ne sais quois. And that's all before...

The jam. One thing Pearl Jam has always done - Stone and Jeff were doing it back in their Mother Love Bone days, actually - is write incredible bridges and musical interludes. Often these are purely instrumental, and some close some of the best songs the band has written. "Present Tense" gets this magic-bridge treatment, and to wonderous effect. Out of the chorus, the band launches into one of their trademark grooves - heavy on the classic rock funk of the '70's. Vedder adds some chanting, but in this case it adds to the real treat - a monster jam thrown down by Jeff, Stone, Mike and the drummer Jack Irons. They ride a simple chord like a wave, and then let it crest, becoming bigger and bigger until it breaks.

The song ends like a wave breaking, crashing down into something beautiful, as the chiming guitar from the very first notes of the song returns, bringing with it its sweet melody. This time bass, drums, and another chiming guitar adding a strong, sweeping arppegiated counter-melody come along for the ride. Together the instruments lock up and ride the gentle drift back to shore, slowly fading out.

If that sounds a little melodramatic, as a description of a song, well, trust me, it isn't. The song is damn-near perfect, emotional and sweeping, epic by less-is-more, soaring in the way the Pearl Jam make a song do so well. Those familiar with the lost treasure "Hard To Imagine" might instantly see the connection between these two songs. Where "Hard To Imagine" wouldn't fit the stylistic tone of early Pearl Jam on Vs., here the band has created an album where "Perfect Tense" is the perfect fit, and an excellent way to sum up the entire No Code experience. For an album that was so named because it was "full of code," said Vedder, this song stands as a striking example to the tongues the band was speaking in, and the full effect they could have on a listener who really listened, who got involved with the music. The experience of hearing this song live only makes it that much sweeter. All the power and epic-quality of the tune is magnified in the live setting, McCready's excellent fret work and Vedder's soaring vocals taking the song, and fans, to another realm entirely.

And while No Code, and "Present Tense," may not make many critics "best of" lists, you'll find many a hardcore Pearl Jam fan that points to this album as the band's true Rosetta Stone. It holds the keys to understand their personalities, their struggles, their failures and their victories, their weaknesses and their strenghts, and most important of all, their humanity.

1 comment:

RemyLebeausAce said...

I write for this blog and I had to listen to the song while I read it. Not because I didn't know the song, but because it's just worth it. Simple...and beautiful