An Epistemolgical Break
Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain had just taken his life, Pearl Jam’s drummer Dave Abbruzzese was replaced by Jack Irons, bassist Jeff Ament was distanced from the band and singer-songwriter Eddie Vedder was pondering if anyone was getting anything “out of this all-encompassing trip?”
In this scenario, despite the band’s huge success, they were prepared to risk it all and alienate a large part of their fan base, by revolutionising their musical direction. The resulting album title, No Code (27 August 1996; Epic Records) made it clear that the rule book was being torn up and there were no limits as to what might be included or left out. In the field of medicine a "no code" order means "do not resuscitate". “I thought that was symbolic of where we were with the group: if we’re dying, let us die. Don’t try to save us. We don’t want to live as vegetables,” explained Vedder.
In the event No Code did go to number one in the US but it didn’t sell as well as previous albums, and many grunge fans were lost. Nonetheless it breathed new life into the band and for many it has stood the test of time better, for example, than bigger-selling classics, such as Ten.
It is worth recalling the context of this 1996 release, which saw Tupac Shakur drop the first-ever rap double album, All Eyez on Me, in February, which was tragically followed by his murder in September. In contrast, on 8 July of that same year the Spice Girls released their global breakout hit Wannabe, and shortly afterwards Oasis played the largest free-standing gig ever at that time, at Knebworth House, Stevenage.
The release of No Code was described by some as a ‘mess of tunes’; featuring blues, jazz, eastern influences, psychedelia, and a wide range of guitar effects, led by Mike McCready, probably on his Fender Strat.
The ‘shock’ began on the majestic opening track Sometimes, written by Vedder, which finds him in quiet and contemplative mood, as he reflects upon the challenges that God gives man, and how he ‘seeks his part’ within this.
The storming single Hail, Hail sees the band offering their rock fans some respite (as do Habit and Lukin’); but it is followed by the curveball of Who You Are, which features Vedder on an electric sitar.
The outstanding single Smile recalls the band’s close associate Neil Young with both its rhythm and mouth organ parts. It is difficult to pick one favourite on No Code, but if pushed I would plump for Off He Goes, which is an acoustic ballad that Vedder says describes himself and how "shit a friend" he is: “Know a man, His face seems pulled and tense…. So I approach with tact, Suggest that he should relax”… before he disappears again.
On Red Mosquito McCready sought to reproduce the sound of the pesky insect on his guitar, using a Zippo lighter as a slide. Present Tense is another outstanding song that provided fans with a passionate lyric to sing-along to at concerts. The album closes with Around the Bend, which might say something about Vedder’s state of mind at the time.
No Code seems to lack focus when compared with Pearl Jam’s previous output but it opened up new musical vistas for a band that might have otherwise been at the end of the line. The record represented a rupture with the group’s past and consequently left many fans behind, but it was a break that in retrospect was both practically inevitable and enormously regenerative.