20 Years Ago: Pearl Jam Change Direction on ‘Nothing as It Seems’
At the turn of the century, Pearl Jam's sound was at its most abstract and eclectic. With each new release, the band seemed to stray further and further from what people expected. This presented a challenge to casual fans who fell in love with their landmark debut Ten, as the band seemed determined to distance themselves from doing anything as commercially viable again.
The band chose the slow, dark and brooding "Nothing as It Seems" as the lead single because it was so different from what was on rock radio at the time. "With that one we felt like we could do that and we weren't trying to fool people," Eddie Vedder told Sonicnet. "It actually felt like we were offering them something fairly challenging. We obviously respect the audience."
Chart viability aside, "Nothing As it Seems" was however a great representation of the album's overall feel and would become a beloved live show-stopper, largely in part to the psychedelic-drenched sonic pyrotechnics provided by guitarist Mike McCready.
Pearl Jam is perhaps at their most Pink Floydian on this moody track penned by bassist Jeff Ament. His original demo, which eventually surfaced on the soundtrack to the Pearl Jam Twenty documentary, was nearly identical to the album version, albeit without lead guitar and drums, and with Ament singing.
The lyrical themes of isolation and sorrow come from both Ament's Montana childhood, and something he experienced secondhand. The bassist said the "dark, heavy tale," was partially inspired after overhearing a couple breaking up. "For me, it's a song about judgment and not always understanding what is going on with another person," said Ament.
The song's droning acoustic rhythm, backed by Ament's stand-up bass, gives McCready the perfect canvas to cut loose on no less than three incredibly explosive guitar solos, which was no happy accident according to its creator.
"There were little sections of the song [where] I definitely heard Mike doing his thing," Ament told MTV, "so I kinda said, 'Hey, man, you need to write a theme for these little sections.'"
While the dynamics may owe a tip of the hat to Pink Floyd, the squelching guitar solos that bookend each section of "Nothing as It Seems" are more from the school of Jimi Hendrix, reminiscent of his more raucous playing on live works such as "Machine Gun."
The song became McCready's favorite track from Binaural because "it gave me a chance to really stretch out as a player," he told Guitar World. "I'm using this crazy, giant Fender pedal on the song, which is supplying all of the wild, swirling, distorted sounds. It sounds like a plane going down! I have no idea what the pedal is called; there's one pictured on the cover of a Sonic Youth album. Even the guys at Fender don't even know what it is. But if anyone out there has one, please sell it to me!
That pedal is believed to be a Fender Blender, a vintage octave/fuzz pedal that, when paired with McCready's Boss DM-3 delay pedal, created the whirling chaos heard in his lead's dramatic sonic assault. It is this sound that creates the all the tension and fireworks against an otherwise slow and gentle groove.
Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron had joined the band ahead of their Yield tour in 1998, but had not yet been featured on an album. He ended up being a difference-maker for the band moving forward, as his versatility allows them to go in nearly any stylistic direction they want. His subtle, yet crucial playing on "Nothing as It Seems" really rides the waves in unison with McCready's lead guitar until they both crash perfectly into a magnificent crescendo at both the song's bridge and again at the ending.
Despite being barely even sounding like the same band who had released a cover of Wayne Cochran's "Last Kiss" just a year earlier, "Nothing as it Seems" made it to No 3 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart, nearly matching the success of Binaural's No. 2 peak. On that release, Pearl Jam, working with producer Tchad Blake for the first time, covered a wide variety of genres on the album. From straight-ahead rockers like "Breakerfall" and "Evacuation" to the country-tinged "Thin Air" and haunted jukebox blues found on "Of the Girl," right through Vedder's solo ukelele ballad "Soon Forget," Binaural is as about as diverse a Pearl Jam record as you'll find. Somehow, Blake's production managed to make an incredibly contrasting collection of styles feel like pieces of a whole.