Pearl Jam strikes lightly on 'Lightning Bolt'
What else do they have left to achieve? Twenty years on, Pearl Jam occupy a unique space in 2013's musical landscape. They're far too dyed in the wool to experiment in a significant way. They don't need to be cool—that ship sailed long ago. So why are Pearl Jam still here?
If Lightning Bolt holds any answers, it's because they are here to remind the intervening year's "rock stars" that rock and roll doesn’t need saving. Pearl Jam as an aesthetic are the puritan’s rock band. But on their tenth album, despite all their best efforts, it appears as if even their usual bag of tricks is jaded.
Pearl Jam have done neither anything significant or horrible since 1993. This album, as well as being their 10th release, and in their 20th anniversary year of being a band, finds them also being one of the most inoffensive bands in the world.
They never attracted the disdain that their younger, mutated spawn Creed or Nickelback have; yet they have lacked the enduring legacy that their former contemporaries Nirvana and Sonic Youth forever hold up their sleeves. Their crime? They became an institution.
So does this automatically make Pearl Jam irrelevant? Not entirely. But If the band proves anything on Lightning Bolt's opening song 'Getaway' it’s that the band still have blind faith in their formula. Mike McCready’s guitar goes all Hendrix, Eddie Vedder protests against ‘the man’ bringing him down, and if that sounds like it also describes 98% of their back catalogue it's because it does.
'Mind Your Manners' borrows a riff from Muse’s 'Stockholm Syndrome', it’s frantic, positively punk rock edge making it clear that if there are two things that have not dulled over the twenty years, they are Vedder's ability to shout vivaciously into a microphone and Mike’s ability to shred a guitar neck to wood chips.
After 'My Father’s Son', a song where Jeff Ament’s bass is the only instrument of note, the release from such a breakneck opening is found in 'Sirens'. A languid balled, Matt Cameron’s drums sound like they're from The Joshua Tree; the stadium-rock vibe becoming irritating and fails to match the production of the rest of the album. The late '80s piano chords do them no favours.
A saving grace arrives in the form of the title track, with an urgency (and a healthy workout for McCready’s fingers) making it a highlight of the album. But after so many pearls of wisdom throughout the years, you expect a little better from Vedder than, “she’s a lightning bolt!”
This is emblematic of Lightning Bolt being struck with the same curse of 2009’s Backspacer; either the musicianship is fantastic and the lyrics are shit or it’s the other way around. An utterly maddening listen for fans who knows how good both can be.
Musically, 'Infallible' is the most interesting idea they have on the album, truncated in a deliberate and beautifully jarring way, and yet Eddie tempers it with “yeah, yeahs” and talking about “tempting fate”. 'Let The Records Play' has a fantastic melody and an excellent solo, coupled with the most naff lyrics about letting drummers drum and letting records play. 'Sleeping By Myself' is cute, but thankfully 'Yellow Moon' does better, a wonderfully natural song, harking back to the full-bodied sound textures of Yield. But then again: 'Future Days', a beautifully written and performed song—one of the album's best—is hampered by over-zealous production.
One of the principal reasons Pearl Jam have hung on this long is because their worst was never that bad, every album has provided at least one or two songs worthy of inclusion on the numerous Greatest Hits that will follow their inevitable retirement. Are they close to that end? Who knows? The passion on Lightning Bolt is evident, but they can only go on with dignity for so long.
So if you are a diehard fan and you’ve skipped to the end of this review, the answer is no, the album doesn’t have a song as haunting as 'Indifference' or 'Immortality' on it. It doesn’t have a call to arms sing-along like 'Not For You' or 'Breath'. If you’re after a genius Eddie Vedder in the 21st century, get yourself a copy of the soundtrack for Into The Wild and move along quietly. Pearl Jam has aged gracefully, but there comes a point when even the graceful ones might wonder what they have left to offer.