Pearl Jam's fourth album, No Code, the unthinkable happens: Eddie Vedder almost seems relaxed, at ease. Until now, the band's most distinguishing feature was their singer's pent-up, sputtering presence. Only Vedder could sing a celebratory ode to vinyl records (''Spin the Black Circle,'' from 1994's Vitalogy, the band's previous and sturdiest album) and make it sound like a tirade about an unwarranted parking ticket.
No Code's first track, ''Sometimes,'' is an immediate tip-off that change is afoot. The song is built on slender, almost skeletal, guitar plucks rather than the band's thrashy bluster. The subject of the song, though, comes as a far more unexpected surprise. ''You're God and you got big hands...the challenges you give man,'' Vedder murmurs, adding that he will ''seek my part/devote myself/my small self'' to this higher power. This brief number reflects not only Vedder's collaborations with Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan but also a new twist from the heroin-addled grunge generation: yearning spirituality.
The song is merely the beginning of a Pearl Jam album unlike any other for better and, ultimately, for worse. The good news is that No Code cracks open their sound. Despite the progress heard from the arena swagger of their debut album, Ten, to the more lyrically detailed, idiosyncratic songs of Vitalogy, the band remained musically monochromatic. Reflecting the influence of their various side projects and offshoot bands, No Code displays a wider range of moods and instrumentation than on any previous Pearl Jam album. Vedder's work with Khan is heard in meandering mantras. Thanks to new drummer Jack Irons, the rhythms are freer; ''In My Tree,'' seemingly yet another Vedder rumination on the price of success, is set to a drum that beats like a dribbling basketball. In basic terms, the album doesn't rock, yet its free-for-all eclecticism recalls the '60s, when rock groups used full-length albums to stretch out both their music and their minds.
Many bands most recently, R.E.M. and the Smashing Pumpkins have toyed with such sonic mood swings. But the experimentation backfires for Pearl Jam: No Code is their sloppiest, least cohesive work. Vedder's muttering-dervish meditations aim high, whether he is addressing coming to terms with the past (''Present Tense'') or friends who have fallen off one wagon or another (''Habit'' and ''Off He Goes,'' on which he sounds more frustrated than angry at his pals). Yet his band mates don't have the musicianly chops to flesh out his ambitions. Their attempts at world-music pitter-patter are as thin as watercolor paint. Guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready seem most comfortable turning the volume up to 11 (or, on ''Smile,'' imitating Neil Young's chunka-chunka guitars). But judging by half-baked ravers like ''Lukin'' and ''Habit,'' Vedder's heart isn't into manic depression anymore.
Sharp songwriting, in terms of both musical hooks and pointed lyrics, has been a recurring problem for Pearl Jam. Even so, the breakthroughs heard on songs like ''Rearviewmirror'' (from Vs.) and ''Better Man'' (Vitalogy) are sorely missing here. The droning ''Who You Are'' has lyrics that recall Krishna-era George Harrison: ''Transcendental consequence,'' Vedder sings, ''Is to transcend/Where we are/Who are we/Who we are.'' Nor should the band ever attempt a pretentious spoken-word recitation like ''I'm Open.'' No Code becomes a collection of fragments that don't add up to much of anything, except a portrait of a musically disjointed band.
Pearl Jam are clearly at a crossroads on No Code although, in fairness, they're not alone. Grunge, once a movement against the hair metal and canned dance pop of the early '90s, conquered its enemies and, more important, fulfilled a larger role as an outlet for one generation's confusion and angst. But as that generation ages and its inner confusion abates, whither goes the music? For some, grunge has not proved to be the dead-end street punk was. The musicians who pioneered the genre have begun channeling its aggressive primitivism into metal (Soundgard- en), Beatlesque pop in a cheery package (Foo Fighters), and classic-rock grandeur (the Screaming Trees). Their less imaginative peers from founding fathers like the Melvins to Cobain-come-latelys like Candlebox already seem lost, instant relics from another time.
Pearl Jam ring the grunge-is-dead bell loudest on No Code, but the most commercially successful of all these outfits seem unsure of what should replace it. Trapped somewhere between purgatory and bliss, the album leaves you with the vaguely unsettling feeling that Pearl Jam without pain are like a pretzel without salt, or Seattle without rain. C