So, the first, most obvious question: What does it mean that the eighth Pearl Jam album is the first to get the simple, direct title Pearl Jam? When a band names an album after itself 15 years into its career, it's an invitation to analysis, and the general impression of this name choice is that it represents renewed confidence. After a stretch in the early '90s as arguably the most popular rock band on the planet, Pearl Jam has settled into an unexpected place as the grunge-era Grateful Dead, with a low-key mass-media presence, a rabid cult following, and a chorus of wary-but-respectful critics ready to proclaim each new album "the best since Vitalogy." Still, Pearl Jam has been more overtly positioned as the band's comeback record, because it's the first on a new label, and it's filled with straight-up, riff-a-riffic rock songs.
The second question: Is this Pearl Jam's best since Vitalogy? Maybe, but let's not go overboard. Like its fellow Seattle-scene breakouts (Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, etc.), Pearl Jam has never exactly burst with timeless melodies. A great Pearl Jam album is more a string of immediate, visceral experiences, where pounding drums and grinding guitars suddenly give way to moments where Eddie Vedder moans dreamily. The band gladly sacrifices fluidity for drama, and even catchy Pearl Jam tracks like "World Wide Suicide" (with its winding hook and acid lyrics) and "Parachutes" (with its charmingly odd acoustic bounce) periodically wander into the murk. The record is really best represented by "Unemployable," which surrounds memorable lines and power chords with all kinds of clatter, enjoying the rub of rock against rock. It's the kind of testament to the power of friction that typifies what is undoubtedly the tightest Pearl Jam album in a decade. But bear in mind that "tight" is a relative term for a band that's never taken song structure seriously.