…and if so, who answers? We do.

In a little over two weeks Pearl Jam will release their tenth studio album, Lightning Bolt and the publicity juggernaut has begun. I suppose by sheer nature of timing, this would be part of that.

The first release from Lightning Bolt was “Mind Your Manners” which I thought was a little forced and empty. After a couple more listens, I feared the band was going to return to the lost years of 2000-2005 in which the band released the less than satisfying Binaural and Riot Act. “Mind Your Manners” has grown on me, but it’s still not a personal favorite.

And then I heard “Sirens”.

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Now I must admit I am not a casual Pearl Jam fan. I think they are the single most important rock band of my generation. But not because they are still a high functioning and viable act, more because they are still creatively relevant.

I recall reading about the band, in an August 1991 issue of Rolling Stone, before I heard them. It was a one page article and I was intrigued. So I went out and bought their debut Ten and after one listen, I was sold. I became obsessed.

Back then, I was a student at Western Connecticut State University (college number six) and working at the radio station, WXCI. This was at the end of the halcyon days of college rock and just before the grunge explosion. Accordingly, our format was pretty rock centric straddling the middle playing bands from Fugazi to the Red Hot Chili Peppers . This suited me and my Wednesday morning 6a-9a show just fine.

At the time, Nirvana’s Nevermind had yet to come out so Bleach and  Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger were in  heavy rotation. Once Nevermind came out, it immediately moved into heavy rotation. We also played other Seattle bands like Mudhoney and TAD and were pretty heavy on the grunge thing, before there was a name for it. We even had Temple of the Dog in light rotation in the fall of 1991. I presumed adding Pearl Jam would be a 30 second conversation.

I was wrong.

The station wanted nothing to do with Pearl Jam. I badgered the Program Director and Music Director about putting Ten into rotation every time I saw them. On campus, at the station and at staff meetings I would always ask “We gonna add Ten this week?”

They acted as though adding Ten would have been a crime akin to some sort of auditory rape on our listeners. I was told:

They’re corporate cock rock.” (Still not even sure what that means.)
Dude, they’re hacks. I mean have you really listened to that album?” (I had. A lot.)
No way is that album going into rotation. It’s too polished for us.” (Somehow Nevermind wasn’t.)
They’re just riding Nirvana’s coattails.” (They weren’t. Ten’s release predates Nevermind by one month and Pearl Jam founder Stone Gossard’s first band Green River is considered by many to be the “grunge” starting point.)

Nonetheless, Ten and Nevermind will forever be inextricably linked and serve as exemplars of the grunge sound. Which is fair because both albums are virtually flawless and highlight the single most important movement in music since the late 1960’s (disco doesn’t count).

Through the autumn of 1991 Pearl Jam toured and I continued to badger the station to play it.

Then something happened.

What seemed to come out of nowhere (but was more calculated and coordinated then anyone will ever admit) Nirvana began to explode.

In the matter of two months, Nirvana became the biggest band in the world. As a result all eyes and ears turned towards Seattle to explore this new “grunge” sound. Pearl Jam rode the crest of that wave.

At our Christmas party that year, I once again cornered the Program Director and told him “Look, they’re touring with the Red Hot Chili Peppers AND Nirvana! COME ON!”

I’m not sure if I had finally worn him down or if he had finally accepted what I already knew to be true, that Pearl Jam was the real deal. Maybe he was just in the spirit of giving. In any event, he acquiesced and told me he would add Ten to the library, but he wouldn’t add it into any sort of rotation.

And so grunge became the sound and look for the next few years giving birth to some of the most electrifying music of any generation. And then Kurt Cobain committed suicide.

By the time Cobain shot himself, advertisers had exploited the music and discarded it like a five dollar hooker on pay day, the record companies had sucked the Pacific Northwest dry of anything original or creative and began  their descent into heavy metal rap dreck like Limp Bizkit. The labels eventually spiraled down a rabbit hole of obsolescence, where they currently live.

Through it all, Pearl Jam continued to do what they had always done. Create.

Sure, they made some missteps throughout the years, like having a very Spinal Tap experience with drummers before former Soundgarden member Matt Cameron signed on in 1998, the bands steadfast refusal to do promotional videos and a very noticeable push and pull for the creative direction of the band that eventually settled down by 2006’s self titled Pearl Jam.

Over the past 23 years, they’ve been able to do what almost no other rock band has ever been able to do, mature as men, mature as artists and mature as a band. More importantly, they’ve been able to share the process artistically. Slowly becoming one the most creatively respected and biggest bands in the world. They have maintained a level of loyalty to themselves, their craft and their fans with a commitment to excellence that is rarely, if ever, seen in any genre.

Which brings us back to “Sirens”, a career making song by a band that doesn’t need it.

It’s hard to say what makes “Sirens” so powerful. Musically, it’s not terribly original; it’s got all the marks from the quiet beginning leading to the crescendo and the blistering guitar solo. Lyrically and vocally it’s got the stalwart threat of loss and the pleading voice inherent to a love song or song of torment.

But somehow, “Sirens” is different. It’s not a love song. It’s not a plea to stay. It’s not a song of loss. It’s a song about just, well, being.

There is a universality to “Sirens” that speaks to the reality of the human condition.

Oh, it’s a fragile thing, this life we lead, if I think too much, I can get overwhelmed
By the grace, by which we live our lives with death over our shoulders
Want you to know, that should I go, I always loved you, held you high above too
I studied your face, the fear goes away.

There is the maturity and understanding that comes from having a deep and loving relationship:

Just to know we’re safe, I am a grateful man
This light is alive and I can see you clear
I could take your hand, and feel your breath
For fear that someday this will be over
I pull you close, so much to lose

Knowing that, nothing lasts forever
I didn’t care, before you were here
A distant laughter, with the ever after
But, all things change, let this remain

There is the humility necessary to grow as a person:

For every choice, mistake I made, it’s not my plan
To see you in the arms of another man
And if you choose to stay, I’ll wait, I’ll understand

There is the love:

Just to know we’re safe, I am a grateful man
This light is pit, alive and I can see you clear
I could take your hand, and feel your breath
For feel that someday this will be over
I pull you close, so much to lose

“Sirens” is a song by a band that is proving yet again why they continue to matter. Warts and all, Pearl Jam continues to defy the odds. Growing as artists they are unafraid to  share with their audience just how human they are and that regardless of job, career or economic position we are all the same and we all want the same thing, love. And we don’t want to lose it.

Maybe “Sirens” resonates so much with me because it reminds me that, in love, there is a balance one needs to strike between protective silence and the shriek of sirens and how hard it is to achieve. It reminds me to not stop trying. It reminds me how grateful I am to have someone who is willing to walk on the road of broken glass that love, all too often, is.

Love lives and “Sirens” proves that Pearl Jam is still very much alive.