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Pearl Jam - Twenty

Pearl Jam

Twenty: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack For the Film PJ20


It’s always been “by the numbers” with Pearl Jam. They debuted with the landmark 1991 Seattle rock opus Ten (a nod to jersey number of NBA player Mookie Blaylock, who refused to allow his name be used as the band’s actual moniker); they were Live on Two Legs in a double album celebration of their 1998 tour and now—20 years into the band’s career—they’ve fittingly found Twenty. PJ20 is writer/director Cameron Crowe’s in-depth biopic of the band’s history and a testament to their longevity and ongoing appeal and with it comes an exhaustive soundtrack cataloging live highs along with a handful of previously unheard demos.

Now Pearl Jam hasn’t been stingy with recorded output. They’ve never left their legions of dedicated fans waiting more than a couple years in between new studio releases, and have regularly gone so far as to issue each separate stop from entire tour itineraries for the devoted. So, with the plethora of Pearl Jam music that is out there, the power of the material across Twenty and the way it presented is only made more compelling: There isn’t a lot of “new” stuff here but there’s still plenty of surprises and intrigue. Outside of the framework of the film (which has only been at a handful of festivals and limited run of screenings prior to airing on PBS’s American Masters and DVD release) the soundtrack exists on its own as a remarkable totem. It captures the unfolding of a band—one that came together almost by accident—as it struggled, fought against the current through two grinding decades and consistently on its own terms. The first disc, a chronological journey, is specifically significant in illustrating why Pearl Jam is the sole great American rock behemoth to emerge in the 1990s and not only survive but consistently reinvent themselves and grow. From one of their earliest performances of the breakthrough “Alive” to a fiery take on “Not for You” (from the Philippines in 1995) and the evocative, immaculate “Thumbing My Way” (from Seattle in 2002), it’s made clear. The fact that a better, more enlightening performance with poorer sound quality (the rare “Garden” from Switzerland in 1992) would supplant a more pristine or obvious choice speaks to the band’s vision, and is paramount to the Pearl Jam story. That, along with an undiluted power—a certain push and pull—in their songs never lets up on Twenty.

Among the second disc gems are demos from each member (showing the qualified democracy within the band), a sprawling demo version Temple of the Dog’s “Say Hello 2 Heaven” and more revealing live material. Even apart from Crowe’s film, this soundtrack tells a cogent and thrilling tale by itself, though this set will likely only whet the appetite for the biopic.

Of course, my story is one of a believer. I saw them back in 1992 as “grunge” upstarts with the feted Lollapalooza, then another half dozen times over the years. Last week, seeing them hold an enrapt, sold-out Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario for nearly three hours, I knew it: Twenty years and Pearl Jam is still, improbably, getting better.

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