Comprehensive and wildly varied, it is nevertheless important to note that the Cameron Crowe-helmed soundtrack to his Pearl Jam documentary is not a catch-all for the casual fan, or even a career-spanning bid to win new converts. Indeed, Cameron Crowe has been an avowed Pearl Jam fan since jump street, and his soundtrack (and, presumably, his film) reflects this – the two-disc Pearl Jam Twenty has far less in common with their proper hits compilation Rearviewmirror than with their stellar b-sides record Lost Dogs, inasmuch as the Pearl Jam contained therein sounds a lot less like the Pearl Jam immortalized by rock radio than it does by a much more interesting, subtly textured version of Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam’s many devotees – of which, full disclosure, this reviewer numbers himself among – can tell you that a Pearl Jam song is a lot more than a gnarled Eddie Vedder roar over a nondescript, crunchy riff. And Crowe knows this, and has assembled Pearl Jam Twenty (heretofore PJ20) accordingly.
In order to effectively represent Pearl Jam’s career, for example, Crowe understands the importance of the band’s vast and storied live catalog; the entire first disc of PJ20 consists of live cuts culled from performances of varying size, intimacy, and polish from across the globe. The band sounds raw and elemental on early performances of tracks from their breakthrough album Ten – “Garden”, in particular, sounds like it’s a background performance recorded in a bar where the denizens don’t really give a damn about Pearl Jam – but stately, almost elegant on later-period ballads like “Thumbing My Way” or “Just Breathe”, the latter presented here in a breathtakingly earthy take pulled from their 2009 “SNL” appearance. A passionate rendition of early hit “Black” comes from their exposed-nerve “MTV Unplugged” performance, and it still sounds exceptional, and perhaps more essential than the version found on Ten; a hoarse, firebrand, exceptionally rare performance of Vs.‘s boilerplate punker “Blood” is tense, growling, angry, almost spooky in its rage. Ditto for “Do the Evolution” – the Yield lead single would eventually become a live favorite, and this version seems embryonic by comparison (it hews a lot closer to the studio version, which is a commendable barnburner, but lacks the ferocity of its live reputation), but it’s nice to hear nonetheless. And yet, Pearl Jam excel in quieter moments – lead singer Vedder audibly lets loose a few wistful chuckles during an acoustic performance of early fan-club single “Let Me Sleep”, and “Walk With Me”, performed with old buddy Neil Young, sounds earnest and genuine.
If the live performances didn’t hint enough at Crowe’s refusal to structure Pearl Jam Twenty as another rote retrospective, take a look at the positively-weird second disc: it boasts demos aplenty, bits of acoustic noodling that were eventually either scrapped or turned into fully-realized album cuts, more live versions of songs the casual fan simply doesn’t know, even tracks by, gasp, bands that aren’t really Pearl Jam. Bandmates who aren’t named Eddie Vedder are given a chance to shine here – lead guitarist Mike McCready gets some deserved time in the sun with a few pretty instrumental pieces (including a tantalizing acoustic rendition of PJ anthem “Given to Fly”), and bassist Jeff Ament even gets his turn on vocals with the quavery hiss-and-pop demo of spacey Binaural single “Nothing As It Seems” (as if by comparison, Crowe immediately afterwards offers up a full-band live take of “Nothing” to demonstrate what the embryonic track eventually became). Even drummer Matt Cameron gets in on the act – his “Need to Know” isn’t particularly interesting on its own, but it’s fun for a fan to see what peppy Backspacer single “The Fixer” looked like in its earliest stages.
But as interesting as this treasure trove is, it’s more interesting still to note what may be the collection’s defining song. Forever defined by their devoted relationship with their fans, Pearl Jam thrives on the love of their devotees. Near the end of the PJ20 comp, Crowe wisely includes a lengthy live take of fan-favorite and rock-radio staple “Better Man”. Eddie begins the song, as per usual, but then something a bit different happens – the NYC crowd takes over, singing every word in unison as Eddie happily keeps time. He allows the choir of voices to sing all the way through the first chorus, and then, as if to demonstrate the miraculous give-and-take the band has with its fans, Eddie, upon deciding that he’d like to take it from here, hushes the crowd with a single note of song. It’s a rapturous performance, and a beautiful illustration of the rapport Pearl Jam has with Pearl Jam fans.
And that, ultimately, is who Pearl Jam Twenty is for; it’s a compilation made by a fan, for fans. Boasting mostly live takes and demos, it’s important to note that none of these tracks can actually be found on proper studio albums. Which is why it’s bound to be such a coup for fans – this is not a superfluous double-dip, but, in fact, two new Pearl Jam discs for the fan to treasure. Casual fans, neophytes – you guys may wanna keep your distance until you’re done making your way through the Pearl Jam proper catalog, and until you’ve made the conscious decision to truly love this band. But if you’re already in love – well, then, as if to say “we love you back”, here’s PJ20.