As the soundtrack to a warts-and-all documentary about Pearl Jam’s 20 years together, PJ20 sometimes reflects its source material a little too well. The album begins with the 2006 version of the band, offering a rousing and captivating performance of Ten‘s “Release.” It then jumps all the way back to 1990 for a downright sloppy take on another Ten standard, “Alive,” and then follows that up with a woozy and muffled live version of “Garden.” The rest of this two-disc collection follows this haphazard pattern, mashing together well-recorded cuts from live shows with long-lost outtakes whose grunginess has more to do with the quality of the sound than any source of musical inspiration.
The soundtrack’s lowest point, in terms of both fidelity and aesthetics, is the demo of Temple of the Dog’s “Say Hello 2 Heaven”; the roughness of its edges rob the track of the archaeological thrill of hearing a not-yet-finished song. Conversely, the circa-2000 cover of Mother Love Bone’s “Crown of Thorns” (complete with a brief vocal-free “Chloe Dancer” intro on the Rhodes piano) is both bittersweet and sublime, with Eddie Vedder acquitting [word choice -ap] himself quite well as Andrew Wood’s stand-in. It’s these highlights that help smooth over this collection’s intermittent rough patches: Vedder vengefully ripping into “Not For You,” a haunting Jeff-Ament-sung demo of Binaural‘s “Nothing As It Seems,” a gorgeous version of Backspacer‘s “Just Breathe” from the group’s 2010 SNL appearance, and (fittingly for this kind of retrospective) a spirited album-ending push through “Rearviewmirror.”
It’s not perfect, it’s definitely not flattering, and it’s sometimes not even that enjoyable. It’s simply Pearl Jam.