Saturday, March 5, 2016

Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt

Full disclosure: I’ve never been a huge Pearl Jam fan. While I respect their music and have heard endlessly about the religious experience that is their live show, Pearl Jam has long remained one of those bands whose albums take up ample real estate on my iPod, but not so much in my actual listening rotation. From my angle, Pearl Jam has followed a very similar career arc to Bruce Springsteen and U2: all three are considered Gods of the live rock concert; all three rose from promising early records to preeminent importance—both sales-wise and in terms of pure musical influence—among the rock ‘n’ roll artists of their time; after strings of beloved records, all three receded from the spotlight in favor of “experimental” music that took them away from their roots and alienated early fans; in the 2000s, all three bounced back from their more derided periods with records that were cited as successful returns to form; and today, all three have lost a bit of their critical gravitas due to dissenters who justifiably call their post-millennial output “safe” or “irrelevant.”

Indeed, Pearl Jam seems like the kind of band I should love. After all, I hold both Springsteen and U2 among my five favorite acts in the history of recorded music, and while Pearl Jam hails from a genre and an era that I don’t care for as much—1990s alternative rock—they still have done plenty to separate themselves from their one-time grunge contemporaries. I like Pearl Jam’s first few records—Ten and Vs. are both classics of their time—and I even have a fondness for their past few “safe” and “irrelevant” records—the barnstorming, back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll of 2006’s Self-Titled renders it a solid, no-frills rock record, while 2009’s much-maligned Backspacer has more than its share of great songs. I’m less taken with the band’s mid-career experimentalism—No Code, Binaural, and Riot Act are admittedly off my personal wavelength—but the band’s catalog still stands as a solid, fully-likable collection of records that I have always respected but never quite loved.

Which makes it all the more surprising how much I have come to adore Pearl Jam’s newest record—their tenth, titled Lightning Bolt—over the past few weeks. As I’ve perused reviews for this album, I’ve come across more than a few remarks about how Lightning Bolt is a safe, solid record that won’t win Pearl Jam any new fans. But as someone who is connecting with this album in a way that I have never really connected with any of Pearl Jam’s work in the past, I think that statement is false. The general argument is that, the further a band gets into their career, the more complacent they become with their fixed fanbase and the less likely they are to challenge that fanbase or to risk alienation in an attempt to earn new fans. And indeed, Lightning Bolt is not risky, at least not in the way that Pearl Jam’s adventurous middle period was. With that said, though, there are still textures of versatility throughout this album’s 12 tracks that I think have been notably absent from the band’s last two, which, while enjoyable, were rarely memorable.

A big reason for the sonic variation is the number of ballads that make the cut this time around. Down-tempo slowburns are more prevalent here than they have ever been on a Pearl Jam record, and while that fact will probably turn off some longtime fans, it makes for a measured, well-paced tracklist that keeps Lightning Bolt compelling for the majority of its near-50-minute runtime. The centerpiece comes with the instant-classic power balladry of “Sirens,” a heartwrenching examination of love, mortality, and infidelity that immediately ranks as one of the band’s finest songs. Vedder’s heartfelt vocal elevates the song beyond token ballad status, but it’s ultimately Mike McCready’s rousing, anthemic guitar solo that earns the song classic status. McCready wrote “Sirens” on his own, with an epic Pink Floyd-esque feel in mind, and the influence radiates through the song’s throwback classic rock aesthetic.

The band’s patent, no-nonsense rock songs are still here, from “Mind Your Manners,” the album’s punk-injected first single, to “Infallible,” which wants desperately to be a climactic main set closer, but which serves instead as the head-bobbing conclusion to this album’s solid but not incredibly diverse first half. The diversity comes instead during Lightning Bolt’s last six songs, beginning with the haunting piano loops of “Pendulum,” and continuing into the surprisingly convincing mix of folk and alt-country that carries the album out. “Sleeping By Myself,” the album’s most blatantly backwoods number, sounds like a mix between classic country and the yearning, guttural folk of Vedder’s solo work on the Into the Wild soundtrack. (Tellingly, it’s a repurposed gem from Vedder’s other recent solo venture, 2011’s Ukelele Songs.)

Meanwhile, “Yellow Moon” is a brooding piece of dusky folk rock that sounds like a b-side from one of the early Counting Crows records, and album closer, “Future Days,” is a gorgeous acoustic lullaby that, along with “Sirens,” stands as Lightning Bolt’s most lingering contribution to the Pearl Jam songbook. “When hurricanes and cyclones raged, when wind turned dirt to dust/When floods they came or tides they raised/Ever closer became us,” Vedder sings on the bridge, over a radiant autumnal blend of acoustic guitars, nostalgic fiddle, and powerful piano chords (courtesy of longtime producer, Brendan O'Brien). It’s the kind of song you can imagine the band playing at the tail end of their eventual farewell gig, and that emotional image makes it the perfect parting gift for their tenth studio record.

Lightning Bolt won’t go down in history as one of Pearl Jam’s best, or even as a great rock record in general. At this point, Pearl Jam would have to completely depart from their roots to score a strong reaction from most publications, and they still might have trouble impressing some of their more cynical critics at a site like Pitchfork. But for a group of guys who are now 22 years on from their debut album and 15 years past their prime as one of the biggest and most important groups in rock ‘n’ roll, Lightning Bolt is a strikingly stellar set of songs that belies the band’s democratic nature. Aside from drummer Matt Cameron, every member of the band gets a solo writing credit here, from the soaring arena feel of McCready’s “Sirens” to the riff-heavy, road trippin’ rock of Vedder’s “Lightning Bolt,” from the claustrophobic intensity of bassist Jeff Ament’s “My Father’s Son” to the rollicking swing of guitarist Stone Gossard’s “Let the Records Play.” The songs aren’t all classics, and there is nothing about Lightning Bolt that replicates the late-career triumph of Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball (or supposedly, of the new Danger Mouse-produced U2 album), but with this record, Pearl Jam finally feel comfortable with their role as elder statesmen of rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s enough to make it the most wholly enjoyable album they’ve made together since Yield.

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