Binaural is the sixth album released by the cult-classic band Pearl Jam. The album uses experimental sounds, most prominently found in the use of binaural sounds and beats. The album reached gold status but became their first album not to achieve platinum sales. Binaural is one of Pearl Jam’s most underrated albums, though a very high-quality album but one which did not receive the praise it deserved.
An Aural Journey Different from Usual
The album starts with “Breakerfall” which is a quick and high-tempo song, with a lot of punk vibes to it. The lyrics are Neil Young-esque, which only shows the Godfather of Garage Rock’s influence on the band. “Breakerfall” is followed by “God’s Dice” which is a genuine banger of a song. Speaking of the randomness of tragedy, continuing with the punk-style guitar riffs, along with some powerful lyrics. The one that immediately comes to mind is in the second stanza, “This power has no roots to guide…” The tune is very catchy and keeps you hooked till the very end of the song.
The most listened-to song on this album is “Light Years” which is a sad song about losing someone special to you without having the chance to say goodbye. Eddie Vedder said at the Pinkpop Festival 2000 that the song referred to a good friend of his named Diane. Everyone has lost someone that they never got a chance to say goodbye to, and this makes the song that much more impactful. The emotion in Eddie’s voice elevates the song that much more, and this is a very emotional track, and a song you should listen to when you’re down.
Then comes “Nothing As It Seems.” Bassist Jeff Ament has said that the inspiration for this song came in part from his childhood experiences while growing up in rural Northern Montana. It goes at a slower pace, just like ‘Light Years’, but it is impactful nonetheless. The song seems to descend downwards in a negative spiral until what seemed utopian becomes bittersweet, and what was happy becomes mixed, with happiness and sorrow mixing into a sweet and sour combination.
The next track “Thin Air” speaks about love, about the precious yet fleeting feeling they have with it. It feels slow and smooth like the previous two tracks, which had a slow pace but their emotional impact struck you because one got to spend time with them. This song feels lighter than the others, talking about the fleeting nature of the moment they are in, but a moment of love they will enjoy nonetheless.
“Insignificance,” “Of the Girl,” and “Grievance” are low-key songs that need more attention from the listeners than the other songs as they are more subtle. At this point, the album slows down and continues with lighter songs that depend more on the lyrics than the guitar riffs and bass playing.
A Stinging Critique
“Rival” is an angry song and uses the aforementioned binaural recording technique which creates the sensation of you being in the very room where and when the song was recorded. A scathing song, with an Americana vibe, and guitar playing that feels straight out of the Dire Straits sound book. The meaning of the song is simple, it focuses on Americans and their need to solve the overpopulation crisis by shooting each other’s heads off. It’s an indictment of many Americans’ propensity to resolve disputes with immediate violence rather than talking about the issues and finding lasting non-violent solutions.
“Sleight of Hand” is one of the album’s many strengths while “Soon Forget” is very sarcastic but interesting. Eddie Vedder sings to a simple acoustic tune, and he has dedicated this song to Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the co-founders of the legendary tech company Microsoft. He begins with “Sorry is the fool who trades his soul for a Corvette…” and the song is caustic and stinging. No surprise considering this is Pearl Jam.
The album ends with the apt title “Parting Ways” which is a goodbye to the listeners and is the meaning in the song itself. It contains the hidden track “Writer’s Block” starting at 6:49. “Parting Ways” is about people who love each other but feel that they are drifting apart but they cannot do anything to stop the inevitable separation despite their love for each other. It may have been inspired by Eddie Vedder and his separation from his then-wife Beth.
Walking Down the Road Less Taken
While the earliest Pearl Jam albums like Ten, Vs, and Vitalogy were very accessible and connected with listeners all over the world their later albums saw them turn inwards and made it difficult for fans to follow them. The band became very introverted and sang songs that did not have the commercial appeal that their earlier songs had. Pearl Jam fought bitterly for their creative independence with practically everyone in the massive music universe. They achieved it but also got a bit cut off from the mainstream American music happenings that were affecting the world. Binaural is one of their lesser-known albums and the band hardly promoted it. It is an interesting album from a band that experimented with new audio techniques while giving their fans the high-quality songs that every Pearl Jam fan has come to expect from this great very American rock band.