Pearl Jam: Lightning Bolt (Virgin/EMI)
Recent albums from Pearl Jam have been a mixed bag. Lightning Bolt marks a retreat into guarded optimism and broody soul searching writes Dannii Leivers.
I remember witnessing Pearl Jam’s 2006 headline set at Leeds festival – one of their first festival appearances since nine fans were killed in a stampede during their performance at 2000’s Roskilde. On explaining the band’s long absence from the circuit, frontman Eddie Vedder commented wryly that in the meantime they’d “made some records of very little consequence”. Perhaps he was referring to the muted reaction to their last two albums; the tired, plodding Riot Act and misfiring self-titled – you know, that one with the avocado on the cover. But to be honest it sounded like a man fully aware that his band’s recent output had been shruggingly mediocre.
In the years since 1991’s Ten, Pearl Jam have gone from grunge titans to classic rock godfathers, becoming a steadily less exciting prospect as years go by; dependently predictable and alternating steadfastly between rock by numbers fare and acoustically driven ballads.
2009’s Backspacer managed to almost neatly sidestep this torpor by being the most jovial offering the band had ever released, shaving years off them with giddy hooks and a carefree spirit. In comparison, their tenth album Lightning Bolt sees them retreat back to guarded optimism and broody soul searching. This isn’t to say it’s a tortuous, miserable experience though – far from it. A terrific opening salvo of tracks, speckled in flecks of spit and packing plenty of bite, kicks off with Getaway, the most natural way to begin the album after Backspacer, fast and bouncy with a playful melody buried amid grouchy riffs. The mood changes rapidly however with first single (and best song on the album) Mind Your Manners which rocks hard, nodding back to vicious Vitalogy cut Spin The Black Circle. Snarly and snotty, Vedder breathlessly puts in his most urgent, growling vocal performance since Lukin while guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard thrash out punk riffs and shrieking solos. My Father’s Son follows, predatory and low slung, driven by smouldering guitars and a muscular groove from bassist Jeff Ament, Vedder singing about a son finally escaping his father’s psychopathic tendencies.
Later, Sirens brings with it a change of pace, but not a change in quality. Pearl Jam proved a long time ago they could write songs of breathtakingly graceful beauty (Black, Light Years, Elderly Woman, Indifference, Better Man) and Sirens slots in effortlessly amongst these touchstones in the band’s back catalogue. Swelling and swooning, it bulges with aching and longing, Eddie hanging onto his true love for dear life knowing deep down “this someday will be over” and “nothing lasts forever.”
Unfortunately he could well be talking about Pearl Jam’s energy, which does start to flag about now. The album’s title track has a punchy beat and a catchy chorus as does Infallible, and Vedder’s vocals sound awesome towards the end of the latter. Both are upbeat, enjoyable tracks but there’s nothing new about either of them. And from then on the album begins to meander from one song to the next. Yellow Moon is probably what Vedder himself would class as being “of little consequence”, while the bluesy Let the Records Play is Lightning Bolt’s low point; with a horribly predictable melody, derivative Crampsesque bassline and contrived lyrics: “with the volume up he goes and fills his cup and lets the drummer drum”. After a taut, engaging start, in the space of under four minutes the band have fallen into the very depths of dad rock.
Sleeping By Myself first appeared on Eddie’s solo album Ukulele Songs, his rich, craggy voice contemplating loneliness against delicate, gently finger picked instrumentation. Here it’s been augmented by full band treatment, still a lovely song but now missing that vital emotional charge. Luckily, Future Days makes up for that. It’s no Yellow Ledbetter, but it’s a wonderful album closer, stripped back, and genuinely beautiful, Vedder gripped again with worry about the fragility of life and relationships – “If I ever were to lose you, I’d lose myself.”
We might lament the loss of fiery adrenalin and sense of purpose that fuelled early Pearl Jam records. But given Vitalogy was released almost 20 years ago it’s a bit ridiculous to expect Eddie to still be dangling 30 foot from the crowd at shows. With the band now nearing their fifties, the amount of potency they still display is actually remarkable, but like they say – great song writing never gets old.
All writing by Dannii Leivers. More work by Dannii on Louder Than War can be found at her author’s archive.