Release Date: Oct 15, 2013
Record label: Monkeywrench
While it’s trite to say that Pearl Jam are the elder statesmen of American alt-rock, such a banal description doesn’t make the assertion any less true. Love them or hate them — and there seems to be no room for indifference — it’s indisputable that they occupy a singular space in rock history, and with 10th studio album Lightning Bolt they secure their place in that upper echelon, rebounding after some divisive releases with one of the finest of their career. Mostly gone are the New Wave and pop-leaning proclivities of predecessor Backspacer, that record’s punchy quality forsaken for back-to-basics rock and moodier, layered atmospherics.
Perhaps it's destined that a band who considered the Who and Neil Young idols would have no quarrel with middle age; nevertheless, the settled nature of Pearl Jam's Lightning Bolt comes as a bit of a jolt. Long ago, Pearl Jam opted out of the rat race, choosing to abandon MTV and album rock radio, ready to take any fans who came their way, and in a way, Lightning Bolt -- their tenth studio album, arriving 22 years after the first -- is a logical extension of that attitude, flirting with insouciance even at its loudest moments. Often, this record seems to ignore the very idea of immediacy; even when the tempos are rushed and the amplifiers are revved up, Pearl Jam never quite seem to be rocking with abandon, choosing to settle into comforting cacophony instead.
Now that Pearl Jam have, for all intents and purposes, been enshrined as one of America's great rock'n'roll bands, they face the question all those previously in their position had to answer: what's left to prove, if not to their fans, at least to themselves? Given that context, Lightning Bolt (the group's first all-original collection since 2009's Backspacer) exceeds whatever expectations there still may have been on Pearl Jam to match their early triumphs. While a group like the Rolling Stones shamelessly chased trends in order to accomplish this, Pearl Jam, since the late '00s, have adopted a rough-and-ready philosophy in their efforts to stay relevant — not rehashing grunge, but going further back into its partial punk rock origins. The trade-off has been a handful of fiery rockers on each of their last few albums, and a great deal of filler seemingly put there to prop up those other tracks.
If this were a relationship, we’d have broken up with Pearl Jam a long time ago. Sure, they thrilled us in the beginning, with that breathless first-love of Ten and Vs, so seductive to a small-town teen, and the spikier misanthropy of Vitalogy - a bit weird, sure, but the nice weird, the interesting weird. We stifled the occasional yawn through No Code because the good times were still so very good and we gushed evangelical over Yield, falling in love anew.
Thing is, the life-blood of Pearl Jam’s best music has been either a combination of tension and angst or outright anger (and sometimes both.) It’s the reason the only truly gripping music they’ve released since Yield was found on their self-titled album from 2006. On Pearl Jam, they were irate at the state of things and it showed. It was their angriest album – musically and lyrically – since Vs.
Here's what Pearl Jam haven't done in the past decade: Broadway musicals, EDM remixes, VMA shucking-and-jiving. And more to the point, they haven't been making suck-ass, faded-glory, pro-forma LPs. Unlikely though it seems, the grunge survivors are now — Bruce Springsteen excepted — America's foremost torchbearers of classic rock. Pearl Jam have become their heroes, but, like Springsteen, clearly do not want to become fat Elvis.
Pearl Jam has been touring relentlessly and producing dependable albums for the last 20 years, but on their tenth full-length studio release, Eddie Vedder and Co. have come to a striking realization: they won't be around forever. Mortality is a pervasive theme, meaning there's a noticeable lack of plaintive uptempo rockers and more sprawling, brooding numbers.
Immune to trends, but also immutable to change, Pearl Jam has made a good vocation of staying carefully in their lane, and their new album, Lightning Bolt, is no exception. After 20-plus years, the band's sound has calcified into a kind of genial sturdiness: highly professional but not necessarily charmless rock n' roll, neither alarming nor enthralling, hitting its marks easily and ably by trafficking in anthemic, arena-ready music designed to evoke melancholy and uplift in roughly equal measure. Though the album's title, artwork, and track names suggest a band attempting to regain its fiery spirit, it's a familiar spark.
Pearl Jam's 10th album might offer little in the way of surprises, but then their last decade of stadium-rock superstardom hasn't been characterised by rampant experimentation. Mind Your Manners is furiously fast, but never loses sight of its memorable tune; the title track and Swallowed Whole both benefit from impassioned Eddie Vedder vocals. It's not an unmitigated triumph, however: Sirens tries to be a lighters-aloft anthem but fails to ignite.
Still flying the flag for independence of thought and movement while stoically avoiding getting bogged down in the music-biz bullshit that so plainly jars with their earnest motives, Pearl Jam have always been admirable, even when their music has fallen some way short of exciting. Pleasingly, Lightning Bolt finds the Seattle quintet in a more bullish and spiky mood than usual, as exemplified by the furious, spittle-spraying punk rush of Mind Your Manners. On the similarly urgent My Father's Son, they pull off the neat trick of sounding like Fugazi and UFO at the same time, as Eddie Vedder delivers one of his most intense performances to date.
It’s been four years since the release of Pearl Jam’s last studio record, but it’s not like they’ve been far from view. In the interim, we’ve seen reissues of their two best albums (1993’s Vs. and 1994’s Vitalogy), three live collections, a slew of side-project activity, and a 20th-anniversary world tour capped by the release of Cameron Crowe’s documentary Pearl Jam Twenty.
Having already braved the elements a few months ago during An Evening with Pearl Jam at Wrigley Field, Consequence of Sound’s Matt Melis recently sat down in equally friendly confines with staff writers Justin Gerber and Ryan Bray to chat about the band’s new record, Lightning Bolt. Matt Melis: Pearl Jam is one of those bands you feel married to as a fan. It’s a long-term relationship that has its ups and downs over the years.
When Pearl Jam hit cruise control for their career is debatable, and it should be said that it beats the alternative that most bands eventually succumb to—namely, irrelevance. Pearl Jam have successfully built a core audience that will appreciate every album they put out, and the band manages to land the occasional wide hit to keep casual fans and detractors from forgetting about their existence, or even viewing them as a touring act whose creative period has long passed. 1998’s Yield is a good marker in time to note the shift in Pearl Jam.
It feels impossible that ‘In Utero’ is already two decades old, but even more unthinkable is that Nirvana contemporaries Pearl Jam are still trotting out their turgid rock blub-fests. The quintet’s 10th album tries to experiment with prog-lite (‘Yellow Moon’) and jangle pop (‘Sleeping By Myself’) and delivers some punky four-chorders (‘Mind Your Manners’). But there’s something very ‘mopey American teenager’ about ‘Lightning Bolt’, and if Eddie Vedder didn’t have the rest of his band in tow he would just sound like a loon at the back of the bus.
“All the demons used to come round,” Eddie Vedder sings in “Future Days,” the ballad that closes “Lightning Bolt,” Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album. “I’m grateful now they’ve left.” Well, not entirely: Pearl Jam still needs something to brood about. “Lightning Bolt.
There comes a point in a band’s career — say, 22 years after its mega-selling debut — when the metric by which a new album’s success or failure is measured isn’t the quality of the material, exactly, so much as the degree to which that band can stave off its own exhaustion. On album number 10, Pearl Jam has plenty of spark left, opening with the determined “Getaway” and the punkish fire of “Mind Your Manners” before the smart change of pace of the anthemic “Sirens. ” A few songs recall the dense eclecticism of “Vitalogy,” while others echo the Who’s solidity of purpose; with its stringy guitar lines, back-and-forth tension-driving riff, and a terrific, song-catapulting solo, “Swallowed Whole” (a modern gloss on “Pure and Easy”) touches a lot of wires together and crackles.
Pearl Jam Lightning Bolt (Monkeywrench/Republic) Has Eddie Vedder outgrown Pearl Jam? Primary composer of the Seattle quintet's previous LP, 2009 ramrod Backspacer, the frontman wrote half of 10th studio album Lightning Bolt, and it's the better half. Both the singer's pummeling opener "Getaway" and the title strike recall the 23-year-old group's raw sophomore disc, Vs., the band having grown more Dischord-ant in middle age. And yet, it's the balladic side ("Sirens," the echoing "Pendulum") that stands out in this storm.
The World Series has begun. And with it, the forty-eight (!) songs from their back catalogue that Pearl Jam licensed to FOX Sports to use during the broadcast. Pearl Jam have never attempted to hide their love of America’s pastime, from palling around with pitcher/rocker “Black” Jack McDowell in the mid-‘90s to a recent gig at Wrigley Field that, much like an actual baseball game, was beset with epic rain delays.
Remember the Eddie Vedder who used to swing like Tarzan from festival scaffolding and don George Bush masks at shows in the middle of the Panhandles? The early Pearl Jam albums that would echo op-eds about dissidents and high school massacre-ists? The ballsy five-man army who aired the dirty laundry of the Grammy Awards and Ticketmaster—and got away with it? Yeah… how about we have them back, please. On their tenth album, the former Seattle grunge mongers have come a long way from Ten, the debut that changed everything (if you believe Time Magazine)—but that’s not necessarily a good thing. All that “vitalogy” is seemingly gone from these latest 12 tracks, the passion replaced by an internal comfortability of old bandmates who, like graying married couples, feel they don’t have to really try to impress each other anymore.