Pearl Jam released Lightning Bolt on Tuesday, their 10th studio album and first in four years. The Seattle-based grunge-rockers chart a bit of new territory on Lightning Bolt and take an almost drastic departure from 2009’s effort Backspacer and much of its predecessors.
Whereas Backspacer and 2006’s self-titled Pearl Jam give an almost immediate satisfying listen with mostly quick-paced songs Lightning Bolt as a whole slows the tempo a bit and offers more substance than the sometimes repetitive guitar chords and loud, 1-2 punch crashing percussion oft displayed on previous albums.
The first three tracts do indeed pick-up right where Backspacer left off with “Getaway” resuming the energy from the last album and the single “Mind Your Manners” is so 1980s punk rock you’d swear it was a cover of a TSOL song. “My Father’s Son” displays Jeff Ament’s bass on display almost as much as singer Eddie Vedder’s vocals.
“Sirens” brings on the breaks and is as emotional as Pearl Jam gets. Vedder’s vocals show desperation and angst in a range from his sweet bass tone to a tenor that brushes right on the cracking point and meshes well into the song. Guitarist Mike McCready adds an equally satisfying solo that floats a bit of pop into a well-crafted hard rock sound. As popular as “Sirens” should be, it’s not necessarily the best song on the album.
The title track brings back an element of punk guitar and along with “Swallowed Whole” helps balance the album with enjoyable, catchy beats that should be stellar live. Stuck between the two is “Infallible” that feels like a deep-album cut and “Pendulum” which sounds like tribal rhythms fused with 1960s guitar.
“Let the Records Play” is a fun song with a solid drum cadence throughout with bluesy guitar work. Pearl Jam is clear in their love of the record album but there could be some commentary on display regarding the current music scene of pushing one single after another instead of allowing DJs to simply let the records play. From a band that used to rule the radio waves, you have to wonder what, if any, airplay Lightning Bolt gets.
“Sleeping by Myself” is well, a sleepy lullaby left off of Vedder’s solo album Ukulele Songs and considering that album had 16 songs, really, what was one more – it’s not a Pearl Jam song. “Yellow Moon” likewise is mundane and serves no real purpose to the album other than to fill space. There’s no catchy hook or melody and just simply exists.
The final song and arguably the best, “Final Days” sidelines drummer Matt Cameron and is Vedder at his dreamy, baritone finest. The reflective tone to his vocals and the background acoustic guitar makes you realize exactly why his campfire delivery works so well in rock and roll.
If anything, Lightning Bolt shows Pearl Jam as mere humans. Guitarist Stone Gossard said in an interview with Billboard that the band is now at the age where relationships are 20 and 30 years long, parents are getting older and loved ones are dying – Vedder lost a friend in 2012 to an accidental drowning.
Perhaps the pace and content – faith and mortality – of Lightning Bolt is more reflective of anyone’s response (how about their fan base?) to hitting middle age and slowing down a bit, taking a pause, assessing life and then returning with gusto. Vedder endured a back injury last year that left him with temporary nerve damage requiring rehabilitation. The injury also delayed his solo tour of the United States.
Whatever the future holds, Pearl jam is going nowhere. Vedder admits that music a young man’s game and the band needs to stay young – music allows them to do that. Pearl Jam’s efforts in the 90s to skirt fame took a while but they, along with most other rock acts that have been together for more than two albums, can now take comfort in knowing who they are and march forward with what they know best – making music. Grade: B
Lightning Bolt Tracks:
- Mind Your Manners
- My Father’s Son
- Lightning Bolt
- Swallowed Whole
- Let the Records Play
- Sleeping by Myself
- Yellow Moon
- Future Days