Members of Pearl Jam wrote the band's newest song, 'Crown of Thorns,' featured on the upcoming soundtrack to their documentary '20,' but the tune is actually older than the band itself.

In fact, if the dice had rolled right for Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam might never have existed. MLB formed in Seattle in 1988, featuring unknown young rockers Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and singer Andrew Wood.

Chronologically and artistically, the band existed halfway between pop-metal and grunge. And just as Seattle developed a reputation as the home of the hot new rock sound, it also picked up a rep as a hotbed for heroin.

Wood died of an overdose in 1990, after Mother Love Bone’s ‘Apple’ LP was completed, and after they’d caught the attention of journalist-turned writer-director Cameron Crowe, but before it was released. The players soldiered on, recorded some new demos, added singer Eddie Vedder, and became Pearl Jam. The new group stuck to its own material, but Mother Love Bone retained a cult of its own, including Vedder himself, who had hinted he’d love to perform one of MLB’s songs with Pearl Jam.

Fans speculated what song that might be for years, and 'Crown of Thorns' eventually worked its way into the band’s famously fluid setlists. The tune became Mother Love Bone’s posthumous signature song after Crowe included the double-shot of “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” on the soundtrack to his 1992 movie ‘Singles.’ (He’d also used it in 1989’s ‘Say Anything…’).

Now Pearl Jam’s version is the first release from the soundtrack to ‘Pearl Jam 20,' Crowe’s years-in-the-making documentary about the band. This version was recorded in 2000, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. (The track list hasn’t been released yet, but the two-disc album will feature 29 unreleased tracks.) If this cover is any indication, the soundtrack will be a must-have for longtime fans.

Pearl Jam’s version starts with the cover’s biggest departure from the original. The tip-toeing piano riff has been replaced with a gentle wash of keyboards that's a faint echo of the original melody. However, the rest of the seven-minute runtime is a faithful, moving walk through the song as you know it.

Ament and Gossard are locked in so tight that this version plays like a finished demo. (In fact, its overall feel and sound recall demos from the ‘Vs.’ sessions.) While the mix lacks the polish of an official, touched-up live version, the sound is more than serviceable, and the guitar tone finds a perfect balance between heavy and hypnotic.

Fans argue that Wood was a lyricist on par with Vedder, and this faded story of love, longing and despair finds the late singer at his best. Vedder gives Wood’s words the smallest of tweaks: “It’s a broken kind of feeling / She’ll have to tie me to the ceiling / A bad moon’s coming / Better save your breath / I wanna tell you that I love you / But does it really matter / I just can’t stand to see you draggin’ down again / Again / Again.”

Skeptical listeners often confuse Wood’s hair-metal-era vocals with immaturity as a writer, and Vedder’s deeper intonations give the words extra weight -- though the live performance, with Vedder’s warble turned to 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, lacks the palpable ache of Wood’s rehearsed studio takes. Vedder’s interpretation won’t make you forget the original, but it’ll still leave you with goosebumps. Pearl Jam, for all their greatness, have still never written anything quite like 'Crown of Thorns.'


Listen to Pearl Jam, 'Crown of Thorns'