Pearl Jam: Lightning Bolt
Enveloped in the power-chord crunch of “Getaway,” the explosive kick-off to Pearl Jam’s tenth studio album, it’s tempting to take the album title literally. And, for awhile, Lightning Bolt’s seismic classic-rock aggression isn’t a fluke, opening with a pile-driving trio (“Getaway,” the thrash-y “Mind Your Manners,”
the psychedelic rumble of “My Father’s Son”) that ranks among the hardest-hitting in the band’s songbook.
But this is a lightning bolt of emotion, not simply volume, balancing breakneck aggression with unprecedented sensitivity. Frontman Eddie Vedder remains
a rare rock poet, conjuring vivid imagery while wrestling lovers, politicians and some unreachable higher power. “I caught myself believing that I needed God,” he snarls on “Mind Your Manners,” chasing his anxieties with sedatives and rallying for individuality. Two decades-plus into one of rock’s most storied catalogs, no lyricist tickles the intellect quite like this guy.
As always, the reliable Brendan O’Brien lends a shiny polish to every hi-hat swoosh and stinging guitar lead—but, occasionally, that sheen is a distraction. The soulful, slowburning “Infallible” is drained of precious energy and tension; the purring organs, the splashy cymbals—it’s all smooth edges and clean lines. You can feel Pearl Jam pushing against that prettiness throughout: The bluesy grumble of “Let the Records Play” would have benefited from a bit more snarl in the rhythm section and a bit more bite in the cross-fire wahwah attack of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard. “Sirens” is a slightly awkward lighter-waving arena-rocker, built on an acoustic strum similar to “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”
But those minor blemishes decorate a crucial big picture: Even on their tenth album, Pearl Jam are still evolving. A good example is “Sleeping By Myself,”
which revisits a solo track from Vedder’s Ukelele Songs, revamping a breezy, George Harrison-styled pop gem via distorted muscle. Then, there’s “Future Days,” which closes the album on an intimate high: “If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself,” Vedder sings, backed by swirling gospel piano
and weeping violin. “I believe, and I believe ‘cause I can see/ Our future days, days of you and me.” There was a day—not too long ago—when this kind of
unguarded sweetness would have seemed preposterous for these rock gods. But this is a different Pearl Jam—and, just maybe, a better one.