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Pearl Jam protests, powerfully

Pearl Jam has spent the last decade answering to powers higher than popular appeal, gloomily waging battles of conscience with Ticketmaster, the marketplace, and their own better judgment as musicians. But there's a real war going on, and the current state of global affairs trumps the band's aversion to convention. What the world needs now (among other things) is hard rock -- the lean, brawny stuff, scraped clean of ballast, arty oddities, and anti-careerist baggage.

''Why swim the channel just to get this far?/ Halfway there, why would you turn around?" Eddie Vedder clamors to know midway through ''Life Wasted," the incendiary call to action that opens ''Pearl Jam," in stores today. The eighth studio release from the biggest American rock band of the '90s is a full-blown protest album, and based on the Seattle rockers' explicit 2002 song ''Bushleaguer" as well as its participation in the Vote for Change tour, one might imagine that the disc is full of name-calling and finger pointing.

In fact, there's little of it. Rather, the whole collection is fueled by outrage and filled with urgency. There's work to be done, and Pearl Jam -- hell-bent on firing us up -- is on fire again. From the barbed guitars and restless bashing that kick off ''Life Wasted" to the sickly, treated keyboards on the simmering finale ''Inside Job," the sound of the songs is as loaded as the lyrics.

The first five tracks on ''Pearl Jam" come fast and furious. Blistering drums and dueling guitars build to a ferocious peak on lead single ''World Wide Suicide," the disc's most explicit antiwar anthem, as Vedder growls and barks about ''medals on a wooden mantel next to a handsome face/ that the president took for granted/ writing checks that others pay."

Guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard wrestle like animals, all claws and fangs on the punk tune ''Comatose," gunning angry power chords in ''Severed Hand," and spewing equal-opportunity licks to underscore the point of ''Marker in the Sand," where Vedder sings ''Now you got both sides/ Claiming killing in God's name/ But God is nowhere to be found, conveniently."

The album shifts out of full-frontal assault mode at track six: ''Parachutes" is an antiqued acoustic jaunt that would be at home on a Paul McCartney record, and from there the album begins to meander.

Vedder, a surfer, loosens up for a bumpy ride on ''Big Wave" and gazes inward on ''Gone," a brooding ballad. ''Army Reserve" is a measured elegy to soldiers' families left behind at home, and the song's chiming guitars, so evocative of tolling bells, echo still more ominously in the soulful, slow-burning glow of the following tune, ''Come Back."

For all of its visceral power, though, the music on ''Pearl Jam" isn't notable for inspired songwriting. It's hard to imagine any of these tracks becoming anthems, or cover tunes, or even lodged in anyone's memory for very long. No matter. Immediacy has its place, especially when tomorrow is looking more and more like a crapshoot. ''I will not lose my faith," Vedder promises in closing, under massive thunderclaps of classic-rock riffage, reclaiming the very notion from fundamentalists everywhere.

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