Pearl Jam returns with strong ‘Lightning Bolt’
Published: Thursday, October 24, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 24, 2013 08:10
For bands who have had long and successful careers, there comes a point when any new albums will inevitably be compared to their earlier works. This leaves these groups with a choice — should they continue to mine the same exact sounds that made them so successful in the first place, or should they try to evolve into new territory? Thankfully, on “Lightning Bolt” — their most recent release — Pearl Jam forgoes the former option and instead leans, albeit slightly, toward the latter. While it may not be wildly experimental or a huge change from their trademark style, their 10th studio album finds Pearl Jam comfortably easing into a role — like influences Neil Young, The Who and Bruce Springsteen — as elder statesmen of rock.
Although Pearl Jam can now be counted in the same company as these other rock legends, this rise in rank hasn’t pacified them in any way — indeed, front man Eddie Vedder still has plenty to rage about these days. This is evident immediately in the opening track “Getaway,” which opens with a martial beat from drummer Matt Cameron before the dual guitars of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard launch into a driving riff that propels the song. Vedder’s vocals shine on the track, alternating between snarling and earnestness, with biting lines like “Sometimes you find yourself / having to put all your faith / in no faith / mine is mine, and yours won’t take its place.” This anger continues on “Mind Your Manners,” where Vedder rails against hypocrisy over a punkish track that echoes the band’s classic “Spin the Black Circle” (1994).
After this opening one-two punch, the band mellows out for the rest of the album to varying degrees of success. Musicianship-wise, the group sounds fantastic, honing more than two decades of experience playing with each other to become a well-oiled machine. They also explore interesting musical territory on a few songs, apparent in the twists and turns of “Infallible” and the off-kilter time signature and echoes of album highlight “Pendulum.” Even though many reviews have noted that this album sees Pearl Jam examining their own mortality, this isn’t really new ground for a band that explored some very dark subject matter on “Vs” (1993) and “Vitalogy” (1994). Themes of death creep in throughout the album, especially when Vedder sings about topics like “tempting fate” and “future days” — but listeners ultimately get the sense they’ve heard this before.
This feeling ends up being both the main strength and weakness of “Lightning Bolt.” On one hand, it’s an extremely well-done album and gets better with repeated listens. But this is mainly because the album is Pearl Jam’s equivalent of musical comfort food — the band sticks with a similar pattern seen on their previous two albums, “Backspacer” (2009) and “Pearl Jam” (2006). There are some upbeat numbers, slower songs and a ballad or two — all delivered in the same manner, with each album containing a few outstanding tracks. A band doesn’t need to constantly reinvent itself to stay relevant, but one can’t help but wish that Vedder and company decided to be a little more adventurous in this endeavor.
While Pearl Jam may no longer be known for their recent albums, much of their acclaim stems from their ability to put on an incendiary live show. Considered among the best live acts on the road today, it is in this setting where the songs on “Lightning Bolt” truly excel. Over two nights this past weekend at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Pearl Jam imbued the new tracks with an energy that made them feel right at home next to the rest of the band’s impressive catalogue. The title track crackled with intensity in a way it doesn’t on the album, followed directly by “Mind Your Manners,” which created a striking knockout combination. And in the more down tempo portions of the concerts, the anthem-like “Sirens” and “Yellow Moon” soared, their oversized choruses making perfect sense in a large arena setting. Perhaps the true power of “Lightning Bolt” was best exemplified by the stunning “Pendulum,” of which Pearl Jam delivered a haunting performance. In each case, the band breathed new life into the “Lightning Bolt” tracks that made them stand out more — and, in most cases, sound better — than their studio-recorded counterparts.
So while “Lightning Bolt” isn’t revolutionary, and may not be the next Pearl Jam classic, it’s a respectable next entry in this band’s lengthy career — even if it does, at times, play it safe. Although there are some gems on this album, the band has already proven that these songs truly come to life where it matters most — on the live stage.