No Code is 25: Fans Reflect on Most Criticized, Respected Album
Pearl Jam Fan Essays On What No Code Means to Them
Any band who is able to survive the turbulence of a long career in the music industry will likely find themselves at a crossroads where they will ultimately need to decide what creative direction they should venture into in order to continue to grow as artists. Some bands can’t let go of what initially helped them gain notoriety. Look at any 80’s hair metal band.
By the time Pearl Jam and the Seattle scene broke through, the days of face paint and leather spandex were gone in a flash. Those bands would have to wait until their era became nostalgia worthy in order to gain attention ever again. There are others that would make an attempt at the opposite strategy, completely changing their sound in order to keep up with the demand. Some fans would label these bands as sellouts, betraying a style which initially made them authentic. Metallica is highly considered to be the quintessential sellout band by shifting their frenetic, metal sound in order to sell records to a wider audience.
Pearl Jam achieved the complete opposite of both scenarios when releasing No Code 25 years ago. They managed to divert from a sound that was critical to their early success in order to reflect where they were creatively and emotionally as a unit. The days of the bombastic, hard-hitting style of Dave Abbruzzese were in the past, leading way to Jack Irons, who was a bit more experimental and tribal in his approach. It was never their intent to meet the demand previously exceeded by their first three records. In actuality, their intent was to not be in demand at all. It was not met with critical acclaim.
While there were ultimately fans and radio stations who heard their first single, the contemplative, Middle-Eastern influenced, Who You Are, which was such a turnoff to some that they went digging for their Sublime records for entertainment, the majority of fans who have stuck with them have cited No Code to be a major influence. Not just influential to their Pearl Jam fandom, but the album has the innate ability to capture many of life’s hardships and put them into comforting, therapeutic words. From how vulnerable and reserved Sometimes opens the album after three straight records with an accelerated kickoff, to the wisdom of Present Tense’s message of staying focused on what’s in front of you, to the understanding of someone’s place in a relationship that Hail, Hail delivers upon, and the struggle with addiction presented in Habit, this record displays a sense of growth and maturity that they were building to within their previous albums, but had yet to be exhibited in this manor.
I believe that my relationship with No Code started a little bit later in my Pearl Jam fandom. It was almost 13 years to the day since the record was released – at my second show that emanated from the United Center in Chicago on August, 24 2009. While it had been a year since seeing them for the first time, I thought that my knowledge of the band had grown exceedingly throughout that time. No Code and Binaural would likely fall on the lesser end of my listening habits while Vitalogy, Yield and Vs. created many of my bonding moments with this band. The No Code tracks that I had really familiarized myself with were unfortunately minimal. Hail, Hail was a staple of every playlist, Lukin was always good for a quick headbang, but I wasn’t sure where I stood with the rest of the record.
In Chicago, the third song into the set was In My Tree, a song that my friends had been discussing earlier in the day as one of Pearl Jam’s most relatable songs. It’s yet another track from this record that walks you through Ed’s personal struggle and makes him such an empathetic presence. While I knew the song, I don’t think I understood the weight that it held. The other song from the record performed that night was Present Tense. What struck me about this performance was that every single person in the building was almost hypnotized by that emphatic chorus. As the crowd sang along to that impassioned melody and hearing every voice reverberate off the walls of a hockey barn, there was something uniquely special about it. This wasn’t a song like Better Man or a Black where you would expect that kind of response. I didn’t know that it was possible for a song placed so deep on the album that it’s almost hidden to be able to have that kind of impact on thousands. I clearly didn’t give it its proper time and was merely a spectator in that moment.
After the show, I promised to never take a layup on a song, or album, ever again. Especially Present Tense. On the album it seemed so pensive, it wasn’t the type of song that was in my wheelhouse at the time. But the magic of the live atmosphere had turned it into something grander. Then, as I matured as a human being and expanded my taste beyond loud, fast songs with catchy chorus hooks, I saw something in Present Tense that I could easily attach myself to. As much as it was a song, it was just as much a mantra. A way of seeing life through a lens that I wasn’t able to find on my own. Whenever I find myself in a funk, I’ll tell myself something along the lines of “you can’t redigest past regrets”, and a line like that can make a world of difference to my mental psyche. The next time I heard it live was a year later in Madison Square Garden. Fully making up for my bonehead move in Chicago, I was singing my heart out, maybe louder than any other song that night.
My love for the record continued to grow as tracks like Red Mosquito and Smile became go-to songs in my rotation. But the one that spoke out to me just as much as Present Tense did was Off He Goes. Ed has gone on record saying that the song is about him being “a shitty friend”, but I’ve always seen it as something much more complicated than that. The behavior of the main character is depicted from the perspective of a close friend, someone making an attempt to understand why said character isn’t the same person he’s known to have been. This seems like it was written as a direct correlation between Ed’s issues with fame and continuous attempts to run away from it, but even when he was able to escape the spotlight, his struggles continued to wear him down mentally. The line that’s always spoken to me is “it’s like his thoughts are too big for his size.” That helped me understand what was going on through my own head at times. When a situation weighs on you so heavily where every waking moment is consumed with your own thoughts dominating your ability to stay present in the moment, it becomes bigger than anything that you have the capacity to absorb. In turn, you have no idea how your attitude affects your relationships with your loved ones. Personally, being able to relate to it made me more self-aware of my own actions and helped approach those obstacles in order to make changes in my own life.
As No Code shares a birthday with its universally praised older brother, Ten, you won’t see many major publications give this record its due as it hits a quarter century in age. So here are the stories from the hardcore fans that stuck with the band during this exploratory period, never wavering their appreciation when public response suggested they should.
Adam Wainwright (St. Louis Cardinals Pitcher)
No Code was a CD that got me through high school in a different way than all the other albums. I remember there was a specific Lit class I was having a hard time with. I didn’t have the attention span to stick with the group during in-class readings, and I didn’t have the drive to go home and follow through on homework assignments. I came home one day with a new book in hand and procrastinated reading it so that I only had a few days left to get it done. It was called Watership Down. A book about a bunch of rabbits was all I knew. I can remember opening it up and turning on No Code with my headphones on. I knew that I wasn’t going to like this book, so I thought I might as well listen to some music while I was at it. What happened next was crazy. Each song seemingly matched the scene sequence of the book. It started out slow with Sometimes, but by the time Hail, Hail got there, the rabbits were in full action mode. I dove into Watership Down deeper than any other book I’ve read to this day. The music opened up my mind differently in a way that brought out the imagination the author was trying to squeeze out of me.
I aced that test, and for the next two years I did the same thing with each book I read. It was a routine, and it worked. It may sound silly, but I have Pearl Jam to thank for getting my grades up! Now, my oldest daughter likes to listen to music while she reads, and I get it. It works. Those were special times for me. Ten was an eye opener. There was a new edge I hadn’t heard, a new style, and I loved it. No Code is a sneaky masterpiece. There are so many gems from top to bottom on that record. Most people talk about Ten and Vs., but don’t sleep on No Code being one of the best Pearl Jam records they’ve ever released.
Adam Copeland (aka Edge, WWE Hall Of Fame Superstar)
I relate many things to The Beatles. They set many templates, didn’t they? But I feel this analogy will make sense to many. If Vitalogy was Pearl Jam’s Rubber Soul, then No Code was Pearl Jam’s Revolver. It was the album where they drew their line in the sand and almost seemed to say, hop off now if you want more Jeremy’s, because that day has seen it’s sunset. And many did. But I don’t think we’d be talking about Pearl Jam as more than a footnote in 90’s zeitgeist if not for No Code and the brave choices they made on this album.
This was the fork in the road, so Around the Bend feels like an apt song to close the show. Come with us around the bend. Or don’t. But we’ll be creatively satisfied, as much as an artist can be.
I’ll admit, at first No Code threw me. It was a departure and I didn’t know what to make of it. Until I came to realize that it wasn’t. It was a new beginning and a new stage in the band’s life. Which just so happened to coincide with massive changes in my own life. Funny how that works. That’s how a band can feel like your band. They’re singing about the same things you are encountering, and that’s deeper. That’s more than I wanna Rock n Roll All Nite, which I think is fun, but it doesn’t sit with me or affect my thoughts or feelings.
There’s different beats, world music, and definitely Jack Irons influence. Let alone the writing of Jeff and Stone. And then it punches you in the sternum with Hail, Hail and Habit. But it’s Present Tense that has continued to grow for me and with me. It showed me something that was in myself that I didn’t always pay respect to. “Redigesting past regrets.” Haven’t we all? “Makes much more sense to live in the Present Tense.” I hold that knowledge with me wherever life takes me and whatever it throws at me. It’s been my life raft at times. To truly and fully appreciate what I, what we, have. That speaks to so much more, and a much deeper level than album sales. I’m so glad they decided to be in this for more than that. Pearl Jam told me with this album they got skin in the game, and it was going to be an adventurous ride.
Ronen Givony (Author, Not For You: Pearl Jam And The Present Tense)
It’s telling that No Code and Pinkerton came out within a month of each other in 1996. Have there ever been two albums more beloved by their fanbase that were so wildly underappreciated on release? Even the members of Pearl Jam haven’t always seemed sure what to make of it. If the first three albums were an instance of miraculous timing—right time, right place—the year of No Code was one where many of us had moved on. Like all the best music, it took us a while to appreciate. My personal suspicion is that it’s the favorite album of the truly fanatical, obsessive-compulsive types, but it’s hard to say. For my money, it’s the best album they ever recorded, and arguably their peak as a band.
Patrick Boegel (Concertpedia Contributor)
On a SEPTA Train, April 28th 2003. “No Code,” with a nod. “No Code,” in reply.
That part of what was undoubtedly a much larger conversation about Pearl Jam, music, live music, concerts, all these years later, the No Code acknowledgement is what remains permanently tattooed in my mind’s eye. The question to each other was basically what’s your favorite Pearl Jam record. It was myself and a tape trading friend of a few years, Chris, meeting in person for the first time and on our way to catch Pearl Jam at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia. It was the first of several shows I would see on the Riot Act tour, and the first of a few in that week alone. He had an extra fanclub ticket for me, so grateful still, a great show.
Chris and I did a couple of more shows on the July east coast run. In fact, at Madison Square Garden night one of 2003, there were probably 8-10 of the regulars from our regular trading circle. Chris and I, and several others, had been trading Pearl Jam live shows for several years now. I can’t recall exactly when the first time he and I swapped a show, probably sometime in either 1996, or more likely, 1997 in the aftermath of the No Code tour. The internet as a communication tool was just getting humming and fortunately for live music fans it was a treasure trove. Through free websites like GeoCities, listservs and message boards, fans would post our list of shows we had for exchange. We ran tape trees, and then ultimately around 1999, CDR trees. New versions of old shows would pop up from tapers, excitement and work to distribute ensued. New mixes of classic shows, again, excitement, work, distribution. Of course Pearl Jam decided to unleash official bootlegs for the entire Binaural tour, which was a game changer. In a few years, the CDR trees would be taken over by direct downloads and the culture kind of died on the vine.
Let’s step back a couple of years. When No Code was on the horizon in the summer of 1996, I had recently moved to Manhattan. The band, having toured limitedly in 1994 and 1995, the pending small jaunt of a single show in Toronto, Canada and a handful of dates along the eastern United States would be my first time seeing them live. After hundreds of hours of listening to tapes and CDs of every live show I could get my hands on, a change in opening band itinerary for a leg of Neil Young’s late summer 1993 tour which swapped Soundgarden for Pearl Jam on the east coast, and a couple of admittedly dumb in hindsight mistakes of not throwing caution to the wind, this time nothing was going to be left to chance. Pearl Jam was still boycotting Ticketmaster venues and essentially doing a DIY tour. I had finally gotten wise and joined the Ten Club at the end of 1995, and in the process signed up one of my brothers and my girlfriend (now wife of 23 years). Several SASE (self addressed stamped envelopes) later and a series of money orders, tickets were secured for 3 shows. All that was left was the release of the album.
Album leaks were not really a thing yet in masse, but they did occur. My good friend Joe had acquired a tape of No Code, albeit just days before the album proper was out. By late July, we knew the tracklist for the album. The lead single, Who You Are, was released on July 30th, backed by Habit which had been played live several times in 1995. Lukin and Mosquito (now Red Mosquito on the tracklist) were also known entities among live show aficionados. The band had a few other songs that had been played once or twice the prior year and it wasn’t clear if maybe any of the new, unfamiliar titles were perhaps an evolution of those.
Joe would ultimately dub me a version, which was great because cars in those days mostly only had tape decks. That tape copy would arrive, however, via mail a couple of days after the midnight album sale at the long since closed Sam Goody down in the East Village. I was waiting in line this night with maybe seven other people, and I was the only one there buying No Code. Everyone else was buying the soundtrack to the musical Rent.
While waiting on line my ears were getting their first taste of Sometimes, the opening track to the album. That was when I heard another set of words that have always reverberated in my memory. “Pearl Jam doesn’t even sound like Pearl Jam anymore.” That was from one Rent soundtrack buyer to her friend. Pearl Jam had somewhat successfully and quite intentionally torpedoed their stardom. I was totally fine with that, but what a curious thought. Should a band have a single sound? Or are we looking for sequels to an experience we already had?
To be sure, No Code certainly had a different vibe to it. The aforementioned Who You Are was driven by an absolutely hypnotic drum groove by Jack Irons. So too was In My Tree. The latter boasts a surge and flair to it, that arena rock rise and soar courtesy of a fine tuned three guitar attack. Sometimes was a shakeup in the sense of its quiet, contemplative opening in contrast to the band’s prior three albums. Yet for the most part, other than these few very overt things, the music of No Code was not a distant stretch from Pearl Jam’s various patchwork of rock, punk and post punk influences. Where No Code seemed to differ most significantly was in its message, in tone and delivery. While the prior three entries in the band’s catalog got cheaply pigeon holed into goofy industry and marketing lingo via a pop culture sausage grinder, No Code had the opportunity to shed baggage. This was afforded by both the previously discussed purposeful pullback the band orchestrated and the convenient nature of societal fads. Fads fade. Popular music and it’s gatekeepers were eager to move on. Conveniently, so was the band.
I’ll be blunt, and this is not a secret nor worrisome, in 1996 it was definitely not cool to like Pearl Jam any more. But for those of us who were either decidedly uncool to begin with or didn’t care (I squarely submit to attendance in both focus groups) it didn’t matter. The band wanted to change, or better said, control who they were as a community. In the process this strange, mostly recorded on the road album, hashed out during a haphazard start and stop set of mini tours in 1995 became something unique and wonderful. It was not a grand embraced pop culture frenzied message of hope. It was more a homemade birthday card from a good friend on top of a present that bore a simple message – it’s okay.
You are overwhelmed with a lot of thoughts sometimes, it’s okay, so are we and sometimes we seek answers in strange places. You are overwhelmed with the past, good news who cares let’s be new, it’s okay. Not sure what the point is, stop overthinking little things and recognize you are who you are, it’s okay. Want to be grounded, your inner sense of self is attainable, it’s okay. You see where I am going here perhaps? Every song has this type of story arc or elemental attitude that things are not so bad and you have more control over that than you might imagine. Forget the past, live in the moment, only carry forward with you what is innocent and most pure. Grab a backpack, not a moving van.
It feels somewhat odd in hindsight that most of the band do not seem to have many fond memories of recording No Code nor touring No Code. During the album promo sessions for Lightning Bolt, this came up early in the conversation led by Mark Richards with the band. The general gist being that the record was a bit of a misfit, and to a certain extent the time period around it, a burdensome load. A lot of variables would go into that feeling, I’d imagine, and it would be a whale to dissect and unpack. Still as a fan, it seems to me a rare occasion when I ask another PJ fanatic who has been hanging on since the days of Ten, what’s your favorite record, and the answer is not No Code.
I’m not sure how to quantify that or examine why it seems to hold true. The best I can try to say is that the album felt like a grand gift to the fans that had stuck it out as the band tried to navigate the riptide of fame. Ornate in packaging, rich with texture and a sense of purpose, replete with songs and ideas you can delve into over and over again. It feels like a musical tattoo on my DNA. Listening to the songs never fails to give me a sense of inner peace, purpose and hope.
All those years ago, I do also remember digging through the album packaging and artwork, in an effort to decipher the clues or what hidden message was surely being sent. It took me a long long time to consider that perhaps No Code was a pretty straight forward message, not some hidden set of secret messages in a bevy of polaroids tied to lyrics and words. DNR. Do not resuscitate. Pearl Jam were a no code in hospital terms. Even in a moment of self reflection and guarded optimism, Eddie Vedder who was principally responsible for the album theme and artwork had a sly dry wit about him. Don’t it make you smile?
Jason Leung (Author of This All Encompassing Trip & therockstardad.com)
By the mid-90s, Pearl Jam had gone into such obscurity that I wasn’t even aware No Code was coming out. I had lined-up for the midnight releases of both Vs. and Vitalogy, but I had no clue about No Code. My Ten Club membership had also lapsed earlier in the year without my knowledge. With the media taking a break from Pearl Jam, it would seem as if I had as well.
Luckily, I was browsing a record shop during the last week of August in 1996 where this one album really stuck out to me. There was an interesting collage of squared photographs but I couldn’t make out the name of the band or the album on it. I asked the store clerk what it was and he told me it was the new Pearl Jam album. Stunned by this revelation, I quickly returned the other CDs in my hand, bought No Code and rushed home for a listen.
It sounded much different. Was this really Pearl Jam? I put it on again and again, and then again. I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t getting into it right away like the other albums. At least I had some nice polaroids to look at. It would take a few years before it started growing on me. After seeing some of the songs live, I would go back and re-listen to the album again and say, wait, that song was from No Code?
No Code has since become one of my favorite albums and the songs In My Tree, Present Tense and Smile are consistently at the top of my list. I feel that it’s one of the most important albums the band has ever released, starting a new era away from the mainstream. They were able to let loose and be themselves. In turn, the fans that stuck with them during this time are the ones still here today. We get Pearl Jam and we have No Code to thank. Now, if only I could get my old Ten Club number back!
Paul Wirt (Concertpedia Contributor)
It’s the summer of 1996, I’m 13 at the time, and I’m sitting in my sister’s Toyota Corolla heading to Potomac Mills mall in Northern Virginia listening to the local rock station DC 101. After several songs from mid-90’s one hit wonder bands, the DJ comes on the air and states that he will be spinning several new songs from the upcoming Pearl Jam release titled No Code. As Who You Are, In My Tree, and Red Mosquito played, I sat in wonder at how different the songs sounded from the “classic rock” vibe of Ten. Jack Irons’ playing was more tribal and incorporated a wide range of non-western influences that were absent from the thunderous rock of the band’s previous drummers.
Jack’s drumming was a shift that I heard immediately, and it impacted the songs on No Code by bringing out sounds from the band that many would not have guessed they’d produce before that point. The lyrics on the album seemed to be more introspective with lines like “I remember when, yeah. I swore I knew everything, oh yeah. Let’s say knowledge is a tree, yeah. It’s growing up just like me, yeah” sticking out on first listen.
After we turned off the radio my sister was not nearly as enthusiastic as I was about the new batch of songs, but that afternoon sold me on Pearl Jam being my favorite band. I went back to the same mall a few months later to purchase No Code on CD and was immediately impressed by the packaging and artwork for the album and thought the Polaroids were a very unique addition.
With this album, the band was not only able to shed the weight of being the “biggest band in the world”, but they also became a more appealing band that I could rely on to not make the same album over and over again. A few months to a year after first hearing songs from No Code, I began visiting Five Horizons and PJ’s Synergy website. My fandom grew over the next few years with Yield and Binaural and I finally attended my first show at Virginia Beach in 2000.
No Code still feels misunderstood by those only familiar with “the hits” but diehard PJ fans know just how precious an album it is and how crucial it was to the band’s evolution and survival. I can’t imagine there being no Present Tense, Off He Goes, Lukin, or Smile. In the words of Eddie “hail, hail the lucky ones…” I consider us all the lucky ones to have existed at the same time as this band.
Eric Stevenson Gonzalez (Concertpedia Contributor)
No Code being the band’s first internet-era album was definitely not planned. The polaroids were most likely an ironic coincidence. But I remember, as one of my early internet experiences, being in a chat room shortly after the album’s release. I can’t remember whether it was a rock music-themed room or one of those general ones where people said if you hit Alt+F4 you’d win a prize. I do remember some person in there singing the album’s praises with phrases like “HAIL, HAIL, Pearl Jam!” and something about Habit and telling everyone to look for the new CD by their band, Peg, which I’ve never heard of again since. I’ve got to wonder which podcasts this person listens to now.
And I remember myself, with all my 15 years of wisdom and wealth of music expertise, engaging with this person and arguing something about still respecting the band but not “getting” them anymore after hearing this album. A lame cop-out, but also true. I was already on the way out, as an adolescent in the flourishing rock culture of South Florida (insert sarcasm flag here) and a little tired of being the only one I knew who followed groups that were in fashion three or four years earlier. One of those episodes in the anthology of things people are proud of from their adolescent years.
Once the internet era entered its MP3 download period, I was back. It really only took a few random songs I didn’t recognize and I was off to the record store to get myself caught up—most of all, with a certain loose end I was very aware I’d left pending. And I realized, the silliness of falling off the PJ wagon notwithstanding, at 15 I couldn’t have wrapped my head around No Code even if I’d wanted.
We all know the story of this juncture for the band, from before recording started until release. As a record, No Code might not be a lot of things other records strive to be, but it is certainly honest. With its new layers of depth, lessons to be applied, and staying power that grows, it achieves this level of honesty without expressing any need to explain what it’s being honest about.
So, No Code is basically a collective early mid-life crisis. And not everyone is going to “get” someone else’s mid-life crisis. Or maybe I should have? But I eventually did, as I eventually came to appreciate just how awesome each of these songs are. And in ’96 vintage analog!
Today, we all know it worked out well. But if I only knew then what I know now—a line that works just as well inside-out.
Paul Ghiglieri (State Of Love And Trust Podcast)
No Code might as well have been Morse code to me in 1996. Undecipherable. Inaccessible. Such a drastic departure from everything I had come to know about Pearl Jam’s sound. Heavy garage rock coupled with new drummer Jack Irons’ eclectic, tribal world beats. I didn’t know what to make of it. Most of my friends who called themselves Pearl Jam “fans,” already disillusioned with the failed Ticketmaster battle, quickly hailed this record a major disappointment and abandoned the band, declaring their run of world domination over and their peak at an end. I refused to believe we had already seen the best of my favorite band, that they had begun a descent into obscurity.
In truth, the band was at a crossroads, and I lacked the maturity and perspective to crack the code of their unique fourth album. However, songs like In My Tree and Who You Are strangely resonated with me, and the more I listened to the album, the more I realized that I loved it when Pearl Jam took risks and expanded their sound. No Code made me work in ways Vitalogy only teased. Over time, I grew to adore the album’s nuance and subtle harmonies. It became a spiritual listening experience for me, an album turned inward towards introspection rather than outward with biting social commentary. Pearl Jam had grown up. It took me doing the same to finally love and appreciate this record, and there might be no better example of this than my unbridled affinity for a track like Around the Bend, a song I scoffed at with utter dismissal upon first listening to it.
If Vitalogy was Pearl Jam’s condensed attempt at creating their own White Album, then No Code is their quintessential Exile On Main St., right down to the experimental variety of sounds and collage of images that graced its cover. A graphic concept that would later inspire the logo for my shared passion project and love letter to the band, the State of Love and Trust podcast with Jason Kerepesi.
Tanya Kang (Pearl Jam Fan Portraits)
My favorite No Code memory is the Moline October 17, 2014 show. When the tour dates were announced, I assumed that the Moline stop would be a special show because they have a history of making special setlists or giving a little something extra for small, random town shows. I figured I was in for a great night, but wow, it surpassed any expectations I had.
I was doing almost the entire tour that year, going nonstop and having a blast. Being at the Moline show with my two best PJ friends made it even more special. Pearl Jam opened the show with Small Town and us diehard fans weren’t sure how it was going to unfold. But Ed started off the night by saying something like “this is gonna be a good one.” And it’s always a good sign when he says that. They proceeded with Hail, Hail, and when they got to In My Tree, we were starting to catch on that they were playing No Code, but were in utter disbelief.
When Ed exclaimed “end of side one,” that’s when we really lost it. Holy crap, we couldn’t believe they were actually going to play the whole album! I’ll never forget how meaningful those three words were. It was one of the most memorable feelings I’ve ever had at not just a Pearl Jam concert, but any concert. Just when you think they can’t get any better, they decide to play No Code in its entirety, unannounced. They always surprise you when you least expect it! The whole night we kept saying to each other, “Is this really happening?!” It brought back so many memories of when I first discovered that album. There’s so many gems that don’t often get played at the shows, songs that emit beauty to raw rock. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions and hearing it live enhanced all of those feelings.
Playing No Code flooded my mind with so many other thoughts of why I love Pearl Jam. They take risks. They go and do something different. They just go for it. Ed made a comment that night saying something like ‘it’s good to know we can still do something like this and have it be well received.’ And the fact that the first album show (before we knew it was going to become a thing) they chose to do out of all their albums was No Code. Not the most recognizable ones like Ten or Vitalogy. And that it was for a small town that probably didn’t have nearly as many diehard fans that their other shows get, so much of the audience may not have known a large portion of songs. I have so much respect for them for doing something so different and unexpected.
Glenn Bobe (LO4L Patron)
By the fall of 1996, I had been on a four-year Pearl Jam feeding frenzy at every turn, gobbling up all of the audio and media content that I could find. As such, I eagerly awaited the release of No Code. At the same time, the emergence of a new drummer coupled with the complicated tours/ticket process, I was also concerned. Specifically, I was concerned that the inevitable fame and demands of the music industry would eventually destroy my band.
At first listen, I was confused by the music. The songs did not completely resonate with me. In short, after the high of the new album wore off, I simply did not like No Code. For years, my position did not change. While a few songs inspired me, I had a difficult time finding a common ground with the record. But over time, I changed. I was governed by fatherhood and the high pressure demands of being a trial attorney. With that change, came a new and powerful appreciation for No Code. In fact, for the past five to six years, No Code has rested on the mantle as my favorite album of all-time. Suddenly, the songs had new meaning. New impact. New relevance. The title, No Code, birthed a new appreciation for where I had been and where I was going. The demands of my life had left me feeling like I had flat-lined and truly had no code beyond resuscitation. At the same time, being true to myself meant that I had my own subjective code. My code was not anyone else’s code. No Code was my code.
Sometimes best exemplifies my latter point. Sometimes I rise/fall/cringe/live/walk/kneel. A perfect compliment to Who You Are. The songs, the content, and the message became clear to me. The introspective journey. The cathartic reflections. The life messages. How did I ever miss the importance of this album? In My Tree and Present Tense are lyrically and musically flawless. Hail, Hail is a quintessential Pearl Jam song. Off He Goes truly encapsulated where my professional life had taken me in a quiet conflict with my personal life.
If you do not fully appreciate or understand No Code, you are probably not alone. But give the album time. Allow your life to evolve and for time to push you through your journey. Most likely, at some point, No Code will click. When it does click, sit back, soak in the lyrics, absorb the music, and understand that No Code is there to cleanse your soul.
Kelly Whalen (Pearl Jam Fan)
My No Code story isn’t as clear as my Ten story. I had moved to California from Maryland at that point, and been there for a few years. I remember going to San Diego to see them on the Vitalogy tour and how difficult it was, but how it was sooo worth it. I was working at the Tower Records on Sunset in Hollywood and my co-workers were saying how the band was over with that album, but after I listened to it, I couldn’t help thinking how wrong they were. It was so beautiful, yet still raw. I also remember thinking it wasn’t a bad thing for most people to stop liking them – I’d get to be closer at the shows without all those other Ten fans. The songs on No Code imprinted themselves in my DNA, and when they play them live it’s like it makes the dormant parts of me come to life. At that point, I’d decided it was my favorite album of theirs and to this day, it still toggles between 1st and 2nd place on my list. It’s unlike anything else they’ve ever done, definitely the most beautiful.
I also remember getting the polaroids in the CD, so I then had to buy the vinyl, cassette, and minidisc (yeah, I’m that old) to try to collect them all. I don’t think I ever managed. Maybe with the vinyl reissue this year I’ll finally get to complete that collection.
Andrew Taylor (LO4L Patron)
I consider myself a music snob, and that’s not a compliment. I’m not proud of this distinction, and I don’t revel in the reality of knowing when people suggest music to me, I will vehemently dismiss it, with extreme prejudice.
It would be nice to be more open minded about music or more willing to absorb suggestions from friends. However, inside my brain there must be some mental defect. Like the fictional cartoons who occupy the minds of the characters of ‘Inside Out’, I imagine there is an unpleasant little fellow sitting behind a desk inside my brain who is in charge of determining what music gets absorbed and what music must wait in the lobby until they are allowed into my head.
While it took over 20 years for me to fully appreciate Ten, which was released on the same day five years earlier as No Code, it did not take me as long to appreciate the fourth studio release by Pearl Jam.
On Christmas of 1994, my cousin Brian gave me an original copy of Vitalogy on vinyl. Unlike Ten or Vs., which I always viewed as overly commercial, Vitalogy was a giant middle finger to the media and corporate machine I had always felt Pearl Jam was placating to. You can chalk up my mistake to youthful ignorance.
I was still figuring out how to explore the cosmic realm of Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead while eating mushrooms and dropping acid. I wanted to expand my mind, and listening to media-hyped commercial bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana who were shoved down our throats on MTV and the cover of Rolling Stone seemed like the opposite of psychedelic exploration.
It wasn’t until I heard the fumbling guitar notes and the pounding snare drum of Last Exit that I first began to appreciate Pearl Jam as a counterculture force like Bob Dylan or The Doors, who went against their mainstream success and told their critics to fuck right off. In my mind, there is no greater Pearl Jam album than Vitalogy. It is written expressly for the fans, and exclusively for the true fans. The critics and the “Even Bros”, the media and the record labels did not enter the conversation when Vitalogy was being written. It was ‘Not For You’ as the band so bluntly recorded, and for that reason, and in that moment, I became a Pearl Jam fan.
I firmly believe No Code is essentially Vitalogy part II. Not that Pearl Jam has ever been accused of compromising their music, they’ve always had a firm grasp of what they wanted to present to the world. However, the success of the first three albums afforded the band even more creative control over what their fourth album would be. While Vitalogy was a 180 degree shift from the accessibility of Ten and Vs., No Code was another shift away from the stadium sound on their first two albums.
As a sophomore at Appalachian State, the shift in sound on No Code piggybacked on the angry middle finger to critics that was Vitalogy, and it was a sound that hit me with a great deal of emotion. From the existential question of why we exist of Sometimes, to the hard hitting breakup ballad Hail, Hail to the blues infused monster of Red Mosquito, No Code is, simply put, an incredible album. From the top to the bottom, we are handed an album that is both deeply personal, with songs like Lukin and Habit touching on the band’s struggles with fame and addiction to the metaphysical questions they force us to examine about life and death on songs like Present Tense and Who You Are. I found the album both experimental and accessible. Similar to The Beatles’ use of sitar, bringing different undertones and emotions into their style of music, Pearl Jam infused No Code with Eastern sounds and tribal drums, while maintaining the essence of what their fans expect from their music.
While No Code ranks relatively high with most true Pearl Jam fans, I believe it would be rare to find many who would give it the silver medal. Music is subjective and there are no right or wrong answers. Looking back over my college years in the 1990’s, and looking over my entire record collection, No Code is the second best Pearl Jam album and one of my favorite albums of all time.
It never fails to make me Smile.
Jacob Chamberlain (LO4L Patron)
No Code was released days before I started my Freshman year of college. By the time the record came out, I was already a fan because of the Who You Are single. I could tell that the band was taking a hard left turn and I couldn’t wait to hear the whole record. After the first listen, my initial thought was, “they just made their Zeppelin III.” I knew that they would never make another Ten and I couldn’t have been happier. And don’t get me started on Jack Irons. He’s right up there with Bonzo and Moon in my eyes. No Code is my favorite Pearl Jam record and without it, they never would have made their best record, Yield.
Michele Menke (Footsteps In The Sand)
Off of No Code, the song Present Tense has a lot of meaning to me because of my diagnosis of cancer. I was diagnosed in 2011. The words, “Do you see the way that tree bends? Does it inspire? Leaning out to catch the sun’s rays, a lesson to be applied. Are you getting something out of this all encompassing trip?” really resonated with me. After my diagnosis and treatment, I looked at life much differently. I was more present, and made an effort to be more precept in the moment.
This line relates to me as I took time to notice the little things as in the way a tree bends. “You can spend your time alone redigesting past regrets, ohh! Or you can come to terms and realize, you’re the only one who can forgive yourself, ohhhh! Makes much more sense to live in the present tense“ This really spoke to me as I did not need to live my life angry due to my cancer diagnosis. I still needed to live! I couldn’t blame myself, anyone, or anything regarding my situation.
In 2016, I took off on tour because I needed to live and see what it was like traveling to different cities to see Pearl Jam! I was living in the present tense. It was such a memorable time that I will always cherish. I met so many people that became friends for life.
Josh Mosher (Pearl Jam Fan)
Fast forward five years after the debut of Ten, No Code is getting the midnight release treatment. I waited in line at the local music shop with the same older brother who received a Ten cassette as a Christmas gift, but now he was old enough to drive. We bought it on CD and cassette. August 27th is an important day because it happens to be my birthday. In 1996, I turned 14. The next day, an old friend gave me a copy of No Code on vinyl as a birthday gift. At that time, vinyl was a bit of a novelty and I didn’t even own a turntable. But I held onto it, and some years later with my vinyl addiction in full swing, I can brag about my OG No Code. Almost two years later, on August 28th, 1998, I got to see the band for the first time in Camden, New Jersey. Pearl Jam and my birthday have always been weirdly connected!
Brian Cohen (Pearl Jam Fan)
It was 1996, I was 16-years old and up until then, Pearl Jam was just a band that I liked. Prior to that, I was Nirvana obsessed. I grew out my dirty blonde hair and grew a scraggly goatee to look like Kurt. Nirvana was my everything. I was bullied mercilessly in middle school so I felt that Kurt got me. He helped me carry my hate and wear it on my sleeve. It came crashing down in 1994 and left me scrambling for a new voice. I liked Pearl Jam and sensed their anger on Vs. and Vitalogy, but I still felt lost.
Fast forward to the summer of 1996. This is when I started working during the summer, I was working in the yard of my family’s sign company, which I am now a manager of. I cleared brush, unloaded trucks. It was boring work. My only entertainment was a small boom box with a tape player and radio. August came and the local rock station, 104.1 WMRQ, was playing Who You Are pretty much every hour on the hour. I wish they played it more. As soon as it came out, I got the No Code cassette. I had to wait until the third track to get to my obsession, but first came the simple notes of Sometimes. I had a new obsession. I rewound it and listened again and again. The ending just hit me in the feels. Finally, I played the whole album through, again and again.
I found my new voice. Eddie spoke to me through Sometimes, Who You Are, In My Tree, Present Tense. Here I am, 16-years old, letting go of my anger from being bullied three years prior. I’m not saying it was perfect, but it would slowly melt away over the years. I realized at that point that Pearl Jam was not just a band I liked, they were a band I loved. They were my religion, and there was nothing that could stop me from being a fan.
My other friends all said, “man the new Pearl Jam is awful right? Nothing like the other albums” but to me, at that point, and even 25 years later, they can do no wrong. Well, except Can’t Deny Me, but we’ll let that one slide.
Nick Smith (Concertpedia Contributor)
The idea of writing about everything that No Code has meant to me is exciting, and at the same time incredibly daunting. How do you tell anyone what the most important and all-time favorite album means to you? Chronological is where I start because you always start at the beginning right? It feels like a turning point in my life, and also in the life of the band, as this is a clear turn away from what their previous work was to a whole new level of creativity and expression. To take you back to 1996, I am 16-years old and have a car, which means so much freedom and a world of new experiences. One of my favorite memories is being able to go to the cool record store in our town at midnight to be one of the first to get my hands on new Pearl Jam music! I can still smell the incense soaked store and the 10 or so other people there to buy the newest releases, feeling like I was finally part of the cool people!
Not only was I part of this seemingly exclusive club that hangs out at the record store late at night, I bought vinyl! Vinyl records in 1996 were not even hipster-cool, they were dead. I think this was one of maybe 15 vinyl albums even offered in the entire store. I didn’t own a record player at the time, but I knew this was something that I had to have as later in life I would acquire one. Checking eBay prices today for original vinyl, this may be one of the only times in my life that I made a smart investment, if I were crazy enough to actually sell it that is. Part of the magic of No Code is not only the music, but as nerdy as it sounds, it’s the packaging. At this point, everything was on CD and they all came with a plastic case and booklet which was fine. But much like its predecessor, No Code was meant to be appreciated on vinyl. Even the CD looked like vinyl packaging. It was cardboard that folded out and came with weird polaroids for some of the songs with minimal lyrics on the back. Then you realize that the cover which didn’t make any sense at first glance didn’t even say ‘Pearl Jam’, but was a collection of even more polaroids. The disc itself almost tried to hide the band’s name amidst a collection of weird letters, numbers and symbols. It felt almost mystic and out of this world.
Having only heard Who You Are on the radio months earlier and fallen in love, but also knowing I was certainly in the minority, I couldn’t wait to listen to hear what else they had in store. This was no longer the band from the Jeremy video. This was something completely different, and, for a 16-year old kid, grown up. This was a band completely unafraid to expand and explore rather than desperately trying to hold onto their past. From the opening track, the album announced this is going to be different, so get ready. Their previous opening tracks were explosive, hard hitting, rock songs like, Once, Go, and Last Exit. Sometimes was a quiet, prayer of a song. From the very first listen, this was a band that was doing what they wanted, not what they were told to do or what they “should” do. This was exactly what I needed. I was desperately looking for anything to say it’s okay to be yourself and to experiment to find out exactly what that meant. I’m sure the industry was desperate for a power ballad featuring their idol singer and what you got was a quiet prayer, a spoken word, and we’ll even let our guitarist sing because why not?
I remember feeling absolute joy and was in awe of how truly great this album was, but also feeling very alone in that opinion which was perfect. It felt like my own little gift. I think back to that now beat up vinyl I bought in 1996 which I’ve packed up each and every time I’ve moved. Whether it was my first apartment a mere mile away from my childhood home or to New York City, this album, both the physical copy and the music contained within, has followed me through each and every step along the way. I now own a record player and own the newer pressing of the vinyl and am still awed not only with the intricate packaging, but of how truly great these 13 songs truly are. At one point or another, each and every one of them have been like a north star, guiding and comforting me along the way in this crazy journey of life.
The last marker of just how much I love this album is that among my tattoos, you won’t find a stickman, but you’ll certainly find 3 crooked hearts. As that song currently plays as this is written, it certainly does make me smile.
Gabe Spece (Concertpedia Contributor)
For reasons I can’t remember, I was on a Pearl Jam hiatus when No Code came out. I had devoured Ten and Vs., playing them on constant rotation for years, but somehow I totally missed Vitalogy when it came out. Sometime in the summer of ’96, when I was 14 and about to start 10th grade, a friend told me about Pearl Jam’s new song, Who You Are, describing it as unlike anything they’ve ever done and almost Middle Eastern flavored. I remember hearing it on the radio for the first time, mesmerized in equal parts by that jangling, simple guitar riff, Ed’s subtle vocal delivery, and Jack Irons masterful drumming. I was grateful and in awe of their change of direction.
The album that followed was a stunner and remains my favorite Pearl Jam record to this day. It’s hard to put a finger on the best part: Is it the Hail, Hail jump scare? The mournful lyrics about a lost friend in Off He Goes? The absolute bone-crunching delivery of Lukin and Habit? The climax of Present Tense that still ranks among one of the band’s best cohesive moments? Who knows. Who cares? It’s all magical. Not a wasted song in the bunch, even Stone’s first foray into lead singing in Mankind, and the band’s most underrated closing track, the lush, beautiful Around the Bend. My favorite No Code memory is that September 20, 1996, performance of Hail, Hail on Letterman. I’ve probably watched it a thousand times. Ed in that cheap suit jacket. Stone in the orange. Jack just pummeling those drums. I get a lump in my throat when I think about what that song, that performance, and that record meant to a kid like me in the fall of ’96. Just a young dude marching to the beat of his own drum and feeling like my favorite band in the world had made an album just for me. It felt like a secret handshake between friends – so intimate, so special, so unforgettable. It still does.
Bradley Piasecki (Concertpedia Contributor)
My history with No Code is not as straightforward as my history with other albums. I first got into the band on the Yield tour and quickly became obsessed with Ten, Vs., and the aforementioned Yield. The other two albums took me a little longer to get into, but I was already somewhat familiar with Vitalogy because of the heavy radio play for almost half of the album. So at my first show there were a few songs that I barely recognized because they were on No Code. As I started getting more and more into the group, I remember hearing negative reviews of the album and how it didn’t really sound like them. And instead of giving it a fair shot myself, I took the words of music journalists and other writers and kept it on the shelf for a little while.
That year for Christmas I received Live On 2 Legs on CD. After listening to that several times, I really liked the tracks from No Code and wondered why I wasn’t very familiar with them. Turns out, I foolishly took the advice of music critics and never gave the album an in depth listen. Boy, did I feel dumb. After just a few listens with an open mind and a little enthusiasm it quickly became one of my favorites and I still rank it in my top 3 of theirs. To this day, I always get excited when a No Code song shows up on a set list at a show I am attending.
Branden Palomo (The Better Band Podcast)
Their music is what hooked me. Their story reeled me in. Getting into Pearl Jam in the early days, all you had was the music. Then the story slowly started to emerge. Green River, Mother Love Bone, the tape. Reading articles about it, you found out it’s called Mamasan, or Momma Son — something that someone probably heard, but didn’t know how to spell. You learned that Stone made a demo and Jack Irons gave it to Ed. That Jack turned down drumming for Pearl Jam in the beginning. But then you see his name in the back of Vitalogy, and Jack ends up joining the band. For me, it was like the comic books I had been reading for years. A character gets introduced, and you kind of forget about them. They go to space or something, and then they show back up to join the team in their darkest hour, right in the middle of the big fight that has been building up over several monthly issues. It was like the little boxes in the corner of panels that would tell you to look for an older issue to find out that this line of dialogue was a reference to something that happened years ago.
No Code came out at the beginning of my Senior year in high school. During lunch, I drove across town to Tower Records. It was pretty much the only place that sold new vinyl at the time. It was part the drop in blood sugar, because I didn’t have any time to eat (and I had to use the money I had on the record of course), and part the excitement of this being the first Pearl Jam album I was getting on release day. But I was shaking visibly enough when I got up to the register, that the clerk asked me if I was okay. I just said that I needed some lunch, because I didn’t want the judgement of someone who was obviously cool enough to work at a record store to know how excited I was to have my second ever Pearl Jam album on vinyl. Especially since, by this point, the bloom was coming off the rose of Grunge.
But this album firmly established that Pearl Jam was not interested in looking back and trying to rehash what fans may have come to expect from their past three albums. They had learned an important lesson that they wanted to share with us, and still, it would take me YEARS to put into practice. My Senior year, I had my first girlfriend. While we were together, I couldn’t help but spend the whole time worrying that I was going to mess everything up. After she broke up with me almost a year later, I wallowed in the pain and darkness, trying to find some comfort among the shards of what was my first love. Worried that she was my one and only shot at finding someone who would love me.
It took way too long to realize that it does make much more sense to live in the present tense.
Heide Marx (Concertpedia Contributor)
25 years ago this August, I was beyond elated. A new Pearl Jam album called No Code came out and the accompanying tour was coming to my hometown. Ecstatically, I went to buy the CD as soon as it dropped and rushed home to give it a listen. I’ll be the first to admit it, I had mixed feelings about the new album in the beginning. I remember finding it more cerebral than what my tastes were at the time. But a funny thing about personal tastes – life and time can find a way to alter them.
In hindsight, No Code is an album that was ahead of its time. More specifically, ahead of my time. Over the years as I have walked through life with its rewards and its challenges, I spent more and more time really listening to No Code. Those lyrics. Those beautiful lyrics set to an eclectic mix of music that appropriately sets the background for each song, lending itself to the perfect auditory escape. The feeling that someone is there with you that understands what you are experiencing; relationship struggles, regret, life struggles, love for your child, questioning your existence.
Music is very personal, like a friend I’ve always thought. One that is with you when you need it, to celebrate with you, comfort you and provide your life’s soundtrack. No Code has morphed into that friend for me. And I am happy to say among the many “friends” in my musical library, No Code is my best friend. Happy 25th anniversary No Code! Thank you for everything.
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