After defining grunge rock nearly a decade ago with the seething anger and potent social commentary of Ten and its equally powerful follow-up Vs., Pearl Jam has spent the past six years and three studio albums distancing itself from its anthemic rock roots. Early fans have since jumped ship for more accessible, less cerebral bands (see Creed), but diehards remain entranced by Eddie Vedder's disillusionment and Pearl Jam's hard-hitting guitars and sophisticated songwriting. So it comes as no surprise that Pearl Jam's sixth studio album is a continued exploration of the band's influences -- namely, the Who and Neil Young. One difference this time out is Vedder's delivery. Normally bombastic, the disgruntled singer takes a backseat to his bandmates' prowess and instead sounds subdued.
While earnest and admirable for its digression, Binaural, like Vitalogy, No Code, and Yield, is a record with as many shining moments as forgettable ones. "Of the Girl" might be one of the album's best tracks, but it's going to disappoint fans looking for arena-sized power chords. An omnipresent acoustic guitar keeps time while Mike McCready heats things up by playing an old-school Delta blues guitar melody. Vedder's vocals perfectly temper the backwoods campfire feel of the tune. The jazz-tinged "Soon Forget," an indictment of materialism, is another departure for the group. A pensive number, it's driven by Vedder's simple lyrics and some loose guitar picking.
"Nothing as It Seems," the album's first single, finds the band rediscovering the blues-based rock that dominated its earlier material. Layered waves of momentous chords carry Vedder, who resorts to singing contrived lyrics (written by bassist Jeff Ament) such as "Putting in/Inputting in/Don't feel like methadone." Despite the stellar fretwork, the track ultimately doesn't measure up to previous high points ("Indifference," "Corduroy," and "In Hiding"). The same could be said for the inconsequential "God's Dice." Those longing for the days when Vedder used to body surf over the mosh pit will once again be disappointed with the path Pearl Jam has chosen. Ultimately, its diversity will ensure longevity; the only question is whether anyone will still be listening.