Riot Act was released on November 12th, 2002 with very little hype. The resulting album came at a time when Pearl Jam was somewhat still reeling from the effects of the accidental death of nine fans at the 2000 Roskilde Festival in Denmark (Around 40 minutes into the concert, the concert audience tried to rush towards the front of the stage, in effect, crushing nine people to death) and the awful 9/11 terrorist attacks that shocked the world. Perhaps, reeling from sadness, anger even guilt, Eddie Vedder’s songwriting for the album turned to politics and issues of love, existentialism, loss, life and death. It is easy to pinpoint the material on the album that deals with the subject of death and or mortality with Save You and Ghost. While on a political level songs like Bushleaguer and Green Disease outline the current state of affairs of politics in America according to Eddie Vedder. He comments in a 2002 interview to Josh Modell of the A.V. Club that “I think that (those songs) perfectly represents my state of mind these days. I’m optimistic yet disillusioned, hopeful yet frustrated (by life and politics).”
On track 10 Green Disease, Vedder vents about how disgusting he finds it that CEO’s on huge corporate salaries can justify what they get payed at the cost of other people’s livelihoods. While on Bushleaguer, Vedder has the cheek and audacity to write a stinging attack of President George W. Bush, as he sings in poetic overtures how angry he is that Bush got elected to the White House.
“He’s not a leader, he’s a Texas leaguer
Swinging for the fence, got lucky with a strike
Drilling for fear, makes the job simple
Born on third, thinks he got a triple.”
(Track 13 Bushleaguer)
Pearl Jam doesn’t go out of its way to produce ‘hits’. They make music for themselves, and Riot Act is no exception. Some critics like to point out that not one song on their seventh studio album even remotely sounds like a commercial single. Indeed, its dark in nature, but Riot Act also has some of the most beautiful lyrically written material the band has produced with musical stand outs like I Am Mine, Thumbing My Way, and All or None. All these songs are steeped with existential themes. Lyrically or philosophically they are songs that emphasis the uniqueness and solitude of one’s experience in the world. Vedder, in particular, is possibly trying to stress that we all have the freedom of choice and we alone are also responsible for the consequences of our actions.
The selfish, they’re all standing in line
Faithing and hoping to buy themselves time
Me, I figure as each breath goes by
I only own my mind
The North is to South what the clock is to time
There’s east and there’s west and there’s everywhere life
I know I was born and I know that I’ll die
The in between is mine
I am mine
(excerpt from Track 6, I Am Mine)
The best song on the album would have to be Love Boat Captain. It was Inspired in part by the Roskilde tragedy. Vedder was quoted as saying to an Australian newspaper that “There’s been a lot of morality…it’s a weird time to be writing. Roskilde changed the shape of us as people and our filter for seeing the world changed.”
Vedder as a songwriter had matured. He had in many ways matured as a person too. No longer was it all about angst. Themes of existentialism and love were now thrust forward. In Love Boat Captain, he deliberately makes reference to The Beatles song All You Need is Love with the lyrics “I know its already been sung before…can’t be said enough/Love is all you need…all you need is love,…”
A beautiful reference is also made to the people who lost their lives at Roskilde with the line “Lost 9 friends we’ll never know…2 years ago today.” Movingly, Vedder changes the lyrics to reflect the passage of time since the tragedy every time they perform Love Boat Captain in concert.
On a final note, Jeff Ament lends his skills as a photographer by taking the picture of the album’s cover art. Two skeletons forged from metal by an artist sit front and centre with crowns on their heads. Ament implied that the title of the album ‘Riot Act’ has something to do with “getting your act together.”