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Present Tense, No Code, 1996 – A Simple Analysis

Christian Elliott
Christian Elliott

Thanks for reading. Christian Elliott – Boring, Regular, Person.

Recently, I’ve been obsessed with this song. It started off by just stumbling across it on Spotify, where I’ve been essentially living off an intravenus of the grunge and early 2000s rock I recall hearing in my dad’s ‘97 Dodge Grand Caravan. Prior to hearing this particular tune, I had added Better Man to my playlist, which I also really enjoy. I found that I loved the story Pearl Jam told in those lyrics. Better Man is about a woman who married someone she no longer knows – someone that has soured her love for him – and how she can now only dream of the life she could have had. It’s a sad, somber message, and a warning to husbands and wives alike. It’s a deep message about life.

Present Tense is no exception to this trend, either. I think it’s this seriousness of their lyrics that attract me a lot. They don’t shy away from talking about hard things – things no one really has any answers to, but which we all wonder about nevertheless.

Before I go further, I must ask emplore something of you. Without the audio of this song to aid in your experience, my analysis of its lyrics are hollow. The depth comes from the sounds and the emotions they, along with the words, evoke in your soul. My recommendation is to put some headphones on and listen to the song. Listen once (make sure you listen to it all – the outro will reward you), listen again, then read the lyrics below, and finally listen one more time. Of course, I appreciate you listening a single time through, but that’s my thorough recommendation. Here’s a YouTube link for your convenience, and here are the lyrics:

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 gettin’ something out of this all encompassing trip?

You can spend your time alone re-digesting past regrets oh…

Or you can come to terms and realize

You’re the only one who can forgive yourself oh yeah…

Makes much more sense to live in the present tense…

Have you ideas on how this life ends?

Checked your hands and studied the lines?

Have you the belief that the road ahead ascends off into the light?

Seems that needlessly it’s gettin’ harder

To find an approach and a way to live…

Are we gettin’ something out of this all-encompassing trip?

You can spend your time alone re-digesting past regrets, oh…

Or you can come to terms and realize…

You’re the only one who cannot forgive yourself, oh…

A-makes much more sense to live in the present tense…

In the first line you can immediately hear the reflective and sincere tone. The speaker asks if a tree branch inspires the listener. Usually a tree branch isn’t that inspiring in our day-to-day lives, but here the message is clear: it’s yearning for the light, and the speaker explicitly tells us to follow that example. After this, the lyrics ask us to reflect a little on our own life, and what we’re getting out of it.

Most of us, at some point or another, have done things we regret. Personally, the theme of regret in this song hits me hard. I’ve got many deep regrets. I’ve done countless things that have hurt people, and this fact leaves me resentful of myself, restless, and permanently remorseful. And rightly so. But Pearl Jam doesn’t leave it there. They continue to indirectly reference time and the fact that there’s nothing you can do to change the past except try to move on. Moving on by accepting and learning from your mistakes, is the only way to really heal.

These thoughts seem to be at the forefront of the speaker’s mind in this song. It seems to me that it’s about the struggle and desire to do so – to leave your past self behind and grow again. This isn’t always possible, but trying is the important part – to deliberately seek the sun’s rays, even when you seem to be covered in darkness.

That’s about it for my take-away. I also get chills when the bass comes in at the end, along with the angelic high notes on the electric guitar. Too good. Thanks for reading.