Once upon a time, Pearl Jam seemed to live for a reaction -- a trait that catapulted the band to the forefront of grunge. They blazed their brand of arena rock for the sole purpose of shoving it in listeners' faces, and their faithful hung on every power chord and Eddie Vedder wail. In his lyrics, Vedder took on his own identity crises as well as child abuse, suicide, the pitfalls of fame, abortion -- the hotter the issue, the more passionate he became. Guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready and bassist Jeff Ament propelled the songs with a subtly controlled wall of noise. They were easy to love -- and just as easy to hate. Earnestness tends to have that effect.
Now, with the spotlight on Seattle long dimmed and the group members pushing a comfortable 40, Pearl Jam has become what once was unthinkable -- boring. Its seventh studio album, Riot Act, is a disappointment. While Pearl Jam is still as musical, well-practiced, and diverse as any band in rock, its relevance has been stripped to the bone -- to the point of osteoporosis. Can it be that Vedder, afloat on his millions, just doesn't care about the little guy? Contrast "I will scream my lungs out/Till it fills this room/But how much difference does it make?" (from 1993's "Indifference") with "The full moon is looking for friends at high tide" (from "I Am Mine") and "Far from lights of a city/The elements they speak to me" ("Half Full"), and we see a former Gen X spokesman turning wussily celestial.
Only on the amazing, psychedelic rumination "Love Boat Captain," penned by Vedder, and the punkish "Save You," a group effort, does Pearl Jam approach its former romanticism. Sadly, a band once so fiery it landed on the cover of Time is now just sorta there, leaving its minions to ponder the limits of hero worship.