Eddie Vedder chuckles when he looks back on the early years of Pearl Jam's lifecycle and how the group balanced the pressures of success: "You get growing pains when you get taller, but we got them wh

Eddie Vedder chuckles when he looks back on the early years of Pearl Jam's lifecycle and how the group balanced the pressures of success: "You get growing pains when you get taller, but we got them when we were trying to shrink."

The Seattle quintet's 1991 Epic debut, "Ten," remains a modern-rock touchstone, having sold 9.4 million copies in the United States. But Pearl Jam grew famously uneasy with its sudden success, refusing to compromise its integrity in exchange for enduring mass popularity. No videos. No endorsements. A bare minimum of media interaction.

Instead, the band released a series of increasingly experimental albums that shook off nearly all but its most devoted fans. Even at Pearl Jam's no-two-the-same concerts, 10-minute jams, obscure B-sides and covers were given equal importance as the hits. As guitarist Stone Gossard notes, "We've gone through a period of rejecting what comes the most easy for us and trying for something beyond that."

But on the band's new self-titled eighth album, Pearl Jam sounds more at home in its skin than ever. The 13-track set probes the human toll of the post-Sept. 11 world via a rich tapestry of characters and narrators set to some of the band's best songwriting in years. The album arrives May 2 via J Records, Pearl Jam's first for the label after ending its career-long association with Epic in 2003.

Stepping back from the unvarnished, anti-President Bush sentiments of 2002's "Riot Act" and the 2004 Vote for Change tour, the new set finds Vedder re-embracing the storytelling of classics like "Alive" and "Black." For a time, the artist considered using segues and narration to tie the project together under a single concept, but ultimately he says a less-structured theme "just fell right into place without even thinking about it."

"Through telling stories, you may be able to transmit an emotion or a feeling or an observation of modern reality rather than editorializing, which we've seen plenty of these days," Vedder says, adding that writing from perspectives other than his own was "a right that I'd forgotten that I had."

Vedder credits both his discovery of the ukulele and his close friendship with the late Johnny Ramone for inspiring him to dig deep for evocative vocal melodies. "There was something about that little instrument that taught me more about melody than anything or anyone else, excluding Johnny," he says. "Maybe he was sitting on my shoulder on this record and saying, 'Is that great? Make it great.'"

Gossard, guitarist Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron have also upped the musical ante on standouts like the breathless punk of "Comatose," the gripping rocker "Life Wasted," the brooding, psychedelic closer "Inside Job" and "Come Back," an R&B-drenched love song that builds to an anthemic finish. "This record feels like a coming together again in terms of accepting our natural strengths and also incorporating the best of our experiments," Gossard says.

That recipe has revitalized Pearl Jam at modern rock radio, a format it dominated in the early 1990s alongside Seattle brethren Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. First single "World Wide Suicide" became the fastest-charting song of the group's career, reaching No. 1 on Billboard's Modern Rock chart in just two weeks.

In another unusual move, the song was made available for free download a week ahead of its radio-add date via Pearl Jam's Web site and its myspace.com page. Several stations also began spinning album track "Unemployable," the B-side to the "World Wide Suicide" single on iTunes.

Asked why he thinks the track has exploded out of the gate, Gossard replies, "It sounds very raw. The hook is really immediate. Plus, everybody can relate to the concept of the world seeming very out of control." "For me, if it takes the end of the world to save the world, then so be it. I love that juxtaposition," Ament adds.

CHAMPIONING THE BAND

By all accounts, Pearl Jam needed a fresh start following the expiration of its Epic deal. The relationship deteriorated over a protracted time period, beginning with the 1997 departure of the band's A&R man, Michael Goldstone.

"Not having that one person in the trenches every day was a big factor," Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis says. Sony Music Label Group U.S president "Michele Anthony is not in the trenches every day. She loved the band and she's awesome, but she's not going department to department just about Pearl Jam."

"I don't know if any label could have kept up with us because of the way things evolved," Vedder admits. "If right at the outset we were selling 10 million records, and years down the road we were selling 1 million, and we were fine with it, I can understand why they'd feel a little crazy when they wanted to achieve past successes."

According to J Records VP of marketing/A&R Matt Shay, who spent four years helping run Gossard's now-defunct Loosegroove imprint, the label began inquiring about Pearl Jam's availability as far back as 2001. After a long series of meetings, the band proposed a trial partnership between J and its own Ten Club label for the summer 2004 release of "Live at Benaroya Hall," which has sold 168,000 copies.

Once a formal agreement was in place, J executives left Pearl Jam alone for more than a year while the band finished the album. "J was open to our style from the get-go," Gossard says. " We didn't play them much music until it was basically done, and they were pleased. They weren't expecting us to do something that was unnatural for us."

When it came time to put together a promotional and marketing campaign, communication was key. "What has worked for us is having a lot of dialogue with them about what we thought were really important, top-line things for the band to get the music out there," Shay says, citing an April 15 appearance on "Saturday Night Live" (the band's first since 1994) and a May 4 visit to "Late Show With David Letterman" as examples.

It was also paramount for J to continue working with the band's Ten Club fan organization, which oversees Pearl Jam's official bootleg program. Since 2000, the band has sold 1.8 million copies of physical bootleg CDs in the United States; thousands more have been downloaded since the initiative went all-digital last year.

Ten Club head Tim Bierman says fans who pre-order the new set through pearljam.com will receive a bonus disc of the band's Dec. 31, 1992, opening set for Keith Richards in New York as well as a special code that allows for a full download of "Pearl Jam" at 12:01 a.m. EDT on street date.

Additional pre-order campaigns are rolling out with iTunes, amazon.com and Best Buy, with each retailer receiving an exclusive behind-the-scenes or rehearsal clip shot by photographer Danny Clinch. Pearl Jam also performed the new songs for "Sessions@AOL," which will begin streaming the week of release.

In a move aimed to strengthen its ties with the independent retail community, the band will release the seven-song EP "Live at Easy Street" exclusively through the Coalition of Independent Music Stores' Junket Boy imprint on June 20. As a teaser, fans who purchase "Pearl Jam" at CIMS outlets will receive a free download card for a cover of X's "The New World" with John Doe taken from the EP, CIMS president Don Van Cleave says.

Band and label declined to reveal specifics about their deal going forward, but Shay says, "The key to the deal is that it gives the band freedom and control of its career. They have a big hand in approving everything we do as a partnership, and it's a true partnership."

ROADSHOW ROYALTIES

Even as its record sales eroded, Pearl Jam remained a concert juggernaut, grossing $36 million from 68 shows reported to Billboard Boxscore since 2003. Ament is particularly excited to feature the new songs on the band's world tour, which begins May 9 in Toronto and features a series of co-headlining dates with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in July. Opening acts include My Morning Jacket, Sonic Youth and Robert Pollard.

"We've actually rehearsed more for this tour than we've ever rehearsed in our lives," he says. "Matt is singing a lot of the vocal harmonies, and he's just killing it. The benefit of playing in a Kiss cover band when you're 12 is that you learn to sing!"

Following a one-off April 20 show in London, Pearl Jam's first European tour in six years will get under way in August. It encompasses the group's maiden festival gigs since June 30, 2000, when nine fans were killed during a crowd surge at the beginning of its set at Denmark's Roskilde Festival.

"It seems like an era to trust that we're aware enough to get through those bigger shows," Gossard says. "We have a heightened awareness of what needs to happen every night so people are as safe as they can possibly be."

Once the itinerary wraps in November in Australia, the band will choose between additional roadwork in 2007, or starting a new album. From Pearl Jam's perspective, emerging from a period of uncertainty with an album its members love was the best of all possible outcomes at this stage.

"We're going to make better and better records as we get older, especially considering this one kind of rocks harder," Gossard says with a tinge of bemusement. "Why should we be rocking harder now? Isn't this when we're supposed to ease into the whole Pink Floyd groove?"

Click here to read Stone Gossard and Eddie Vedder's thoughts about some of their favorite songs from the new album.