19 Years Ago: Pearl Jam Work Through Their Issues With ‘Binaural’
Grunge icons Pearl Jam were in a very tired state around the turn of the millennium. After releasing their fifth album, 1998's Yield, they spent most of their energy touring. Following a brief break, the band reconvened to begin writing and recording what would become their sixth album, Binaural, which they released on May 16, 2000.
The LP marked a new era, with two major personnel shifts. Before the Yield tour, then-drummer Jack Irons left the band due to the vigorous touring schedule. Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron filled in for the tour, and the sessions for Binaural became his first recording gig with Pearl Jam.
Working without their longtime producer Brendan O'Brien for the first time in seven years, the band also brought in Tchad Blake, who helped them explore rich stereo sounds with the experimental technique of binaural recording.
Pearl Jam had a difficult time with writing and recording Binaural. To start, guitarist Mike McCready left partway through the process to enter rehab for an addiction to prescription medication, and to make matters worse, singer Eddie Vedder found himself mired in writer's block.
Vedder was having a hard time with his vocal parts, both with writing words and developing melodies, so he banned himself from playing guitar in order to focus on writing lyrics. This led him to pick up a ukulele, which he used to write "Soon Forget."
Binaural did not reach the commercial standards set by all of Pearl Jam's previous albums, despite its debut at the No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart. It was their first album that didn't go platinum, and it only featured two singles, "Nothing as It Seems" and "Light Years." Like the album as a whole, both tunes are relatively subdued; the latter is full of psychedelic touches, including swirly guitar solos and dense instrumentation.
Following the album's release, the still road-weary band decided to, well, hit the road, touring first in Europe before returning home for a U.S. run.
Toward the end of the band's stint overseas, tragedy struck at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. As Pearl Jam performed, the crowd of around 50,000 people began to crush in on itself. The situation quickly became dire, and security tried to get word to Pearl Jam to stop playing.
Once they heard there was a problem, they stopped playing immediately, and Vedder asked everyone in the crowd to take three steps back. Unfortunately, though, nine fans lost their lives. The tragedy, understandably, had a tremendous effect on the band members. Vedder told Q magazine in 2011 how the incident stuck with them:
If I remember correctly, I think Stone [Gossard] was the one who maybe thought we shouldn’t continue. I think if it was an issue that went right to us, or something we did, or our security or whatever, then that would’ve been harder, I don’t know if we’d have been able to keep going. But there was kind of nothing we could’ve done about it. I’m also grateful to Pete [Townshend] and Roger [Daltrey] and Tom Waits, the people that reached out, cos I was in a fuckin’ fetal position the day after.
Following the tour, Pearl Jam released bootleg recordings of each live show they played on the road. This led to them setting records for the number of album releases that debuted on the Billboard Top 200.
While Binaural may never be considered a staple in Pearl Jam's catalog, it is a direct connection between Yield and Riot Act, showing the band's constant evolution from album to album. It's a crucial part of their history — one worth revisiting years later.