Pearl Jam’s tenth album, Lightning Bolt, came out earlier this week (Oct. 15th) and of course there’s been much discussion of the album among fans and reviewers. As with anything, it’s a mixed bag. Some love it, some hate it, some find it merely adequate, some wish it were a different album entirely.
For my part, I love it. I think it’s a strong album filled with a variety of songs that are reminiscent of where the band comes from but it also branches out into new territory-- exploring types of songs I really never envisioned Pearl Jam doing. LIGHTNING BOLT is enough of a stretch to be interesting without being alienating.
The most puzzling comments to me, however, have been about the band’s second single off the album, “Sirens.” Admittedly, I’m more than a little in love with this song. It’s got a bit of a power ballad aspect to it, which being a teenager in the late 1980’s naturally appeals to me.
The music, written by Mike McCready, is simply gorgeous. It also makes me laugh to realize that the fans who blast singer Eddie Vedder as a dictator who ruined the band and claim that “Mike needs to control an album” are more often than not the same people who hate both “Sirens” (music by McCready) and “Inside Job” (Words and music by McCready). It amuses some part of my brain, which naturally possesses the voice of Leonard Nimoy, that says, “Your position is not logical.”
As much as I love McCready’s music for “Sirens” what I love even more are Vedder’s lyrics. I’ve read more than one comment on social media that said lyrically he was weaker this album than he’s ever been.
I can concede they are different. They do have certain repetitions of common phrases listeners might interpret as simplistic. To stop there, however, is to sell Vedder, and the band, short. "Sirens" is an excellent example.
It’s a love song. Clichès about love are about as common as tattoos at a Pearl Jam show. And while I don’t see any phrasing that seems particularly odious in being clichè, I do recognize that songs about everylasting love are done pretty often. (Lionel Ritchie’s and Diana Ross’ duet “Endless Love” instantly springs to mind.) But to say that “Sirens” is a typical love song is about as correct as to assert that “Black” is a typical break-up song. Which, if you ask any Pearl Jam fan-- even the casual fan-- they will assure that “Black” is not your average break up song. “Black” is THE break-up song.
When I heard the inital hype about “Sirens” I was alarmed to hear it compared to “Black.” For 20+ years, “Black” has stood alone-- the quintessential song about break ups, eartbreak, and unrequitted love. To imagine there might be another Pearl Jam song as emotionally gripping as “Black” was unfathomable.
And, yet, “Sirens” is just as emotionally charged and powerful as “Black.” The difference lies in the fact that “Black” is filled with the angst of having to go on without the object of affection. The couple’s bond broken, the speaker of the song cannot imagine going on, the future “all washed in black” there is a sense that only death can alleviate the pain of this lost love. It’s beautiful and sad, a song perfectly suited to the young who romanticize death and love as somehow going hand in hand. “Black” is the Romeo and Juliet of love songs-- perfect, fatalistic, heart-rendering, and suitably morbid.
“Sirens” is a far more positive take on love, more mature, more hopeful. Our narrator (who we can assume is either Vedder or a persona which Vedder uses to mirror aspects of his personal life in lyrics) is the same as “Black” filled with emotional angst and longing even after all these years.
Yet, the angst is changed. No longer is the narrator longing for death. Our narrator is grateful for the life lived and afraid only of it’s end, afraid that it is THIS love that might end, afraid “someday we’ll be over,” but not because of breaking up ask the relationship in “Black” did. Rather, the sirens he keeps hearing are sirens that indicate death is close. An accident, heart attack, drug overdose-- the sirens are those of ambulances, police, fire trucks and all symbolize death, tragedy, and fear.
He sings, “I didn’t care, before you were here” in acknowledgement of both the angst and anger of previous songs like “Black” and “Rearviewmirror.” This is a calmer song, a gentler love. It’s easy to dismiss the sentiment as trite, clichè. That’s perhaps a valid sentiment if you look no further than the song is a story of a middle aged man who, upon hearing the wail of an ambulance felt fear of death and losing the love he’d finally found with his perfect mate he reaches across, takes her hand, feels love and gratitude for the lives they have and whispers a little prayer of grateful love that it not change for a little while longer. It's simple. It's common. Fall leaves are simple and common, too. It does not change their beauty.
It’s not so simple though. Granted, I think that’s a lovely song. It need go no deeper than that image-- a man hearing sirens and reaching to the hand of his wife, to feel gratitude for the grace of one more day. But, "Sirens" is so much more than that when put into the context of what the word “sirens” means.
Sirens are not just the wails of emergency vehicles. When you consider sirens are also mythological creatures who lured men to early and watery graves, the song begins to morph. The sirens our narrator hears aren’t just external, but also the lure of those early vices which can and do lead to wasted lives. Consider too, at least from Vedder’s point of view, the significance of water, the ocean, and realize this is a reference he’d know well.
And finally, there’s a duality in this song-- there are sirens heard from outside (emergency vehicles), from inside (the vices of a life lived not caring if death came), and finally the idea of woman as siren, beautiful and tempting. In this case, the woman whose face he studies and “the fear goes away.” Death once romantic, now has lost to the beautiful love he has discovered. A siren song has lured him into living and now the siren call of death brings fear.
When I heard comparisons between “Black” and “Sirens” I couldn’t imagine that Vedder could do anything as profound. And yet, not only did he do it, he did it with such nuance I think many listeners will fail to grasp the complete meaning. However, I don’t think he’ll mind too much. He is, after all, content in the life he’s cultivated for himself. A fact I find not only fitting but also comforting.
Nothing turns out happily ever after. I’m not so childlike as to believe it does.No one over 30 has that luxury. Yet, as “Sirens” indicates, there is the grace which allows us to live life, a happy life, with death over our shoulders.