While it’s trite to say that Pearl Jam are the elder statesmen of American alt-rock, such a banal description doesn’t make the assertion any less true. Love them or hate them — and there seems to be no room for indifference — it’s indisputable that they occupy a singular space in rock history, and with 10th studio album Lightning Bolt they secure their place in that upper echelon, rebounding after some divisive releases with one of the finest of their career.
Mostly gone are the New Wave and pop-leaning proclivities of predecessor Backspacer, that record’s punchy quality forsaken for back-to-basics rock and moodier, layered atmospherics. The record finds Pearl Jam comfortable in themselves again, assured in their legacy. If Backspacer marked the end of an identity crisis, Lightning Bolt is Pearl Jam thriving in their persona, building on what worked in the past without trying to copy it while adding new elements to the mix. “Mature” is a word one could level at them, and it fits, but the group understands the term as a verb, an ongoing process of change, rather than a finite noun. The hallmarks of Jeff Ament’s rumbling low-end and Stone Gossard’s structures remain as identifiable as ever, and the record overflows with Mike McCready’s animal-roaring solos, but showing the greatest continued progression is Eddie Vedder’s voice and the often overlooked contributions of keyboardist Boom Gaspar. The former’s vocals are more nuanced and supple than before, the warm timbre having an increased talent for evoking myriad moods, while the latter’s keys are what give some of the tunes their most memorable attribute (check out “Infallible”, a cut cautioning man’s hubris that goes from foreboding in the verses to hopeful in the chorus due largely to Gaspar’s textures).
The album is also laudable for being the group’s most balanced in its approach to optimism and pessimism. Some of the record’s darkest tunes — “My Father’s Son”, “Pendulum” and “Sleeping By Myself” — are tempered with some of its most comforting or downright fun in the title track, “Let the Records Play” and “Swallowed Whole”. Making it all the more compelling is that frequently it’s the same source inspiring such contradictory perceptions, specifically that of grappling with everything’s inherent impermanence. “Pendulum”, for instance is a somber tune haunted in its fatalism with an tonality rivaling classics “Indifference” and “Immortality”, Vedder delivering such lines as “We are here and then we go / My shadow left me long ago.” Coming on its heels is the contrast of “Swallowed Whole”, a tune of joyous freedom where the calm makes drowning seem a welcome cap to a state of bliss. Some might say this duality indicates a lack of focus on Pearl Jam’s part, but more accurately, it simulates the oscillating moods of the human experience.
These opposing views attain synergy in “Sirens”, a ballad with a grandeur worthy of Pink Floyd or the Who. The tune is romantic but at times laced with a dread exemplified by the minor piano chords. Its narrative expresses this dichotomy as well, seemingly told from the point of view of a condemned man who finds a reason for living in the being of another and, in that, attains the peace necessary to face his forecasted demise. “I pull you close, so much to lose / Knowing that nothing lasts forever,” Vedder sings with acceptance and appreciation, rather than the fiery indignation he might have emoted in his younger days.
That said, “Sirens” does not denote an uncontested resignation; Pearl Jam still rocks plenty hard, albeit more with their riffs and hammering percussion than melodies. Opener “Getaway” is a lumbering mid-tempo chugger that builds to a sonic detonation with Vedder howling affirmations of individuality and the value of personal integrity. Single “Mind Your Manners” is one of the most aggressive punk tracks the band’s recorded in recent years, or ever, and “My Father’s Son” finds Vedder regaining some rage as he rails against genetic predisposition. The titular track is another in the band’s odes to surfing, and is similar to “Force of Nature” in its depicting a woman in mythical proportions comparable to natural elements, or vice versa.
The majority of the album’s slower cuts wrap the piece, which creates some unevenness, as the closing songs get monotonous in their united balladry. “Sleeping By Myself” is a superior reworking of a song from Vedder’s second solo LP, Ukulele Songs, losing none of its sensitivity in a full-band setting. “Yellow Moon” is *the record’s weakest track, a forgettable number that’s exclusion would have made the album stronger as a whole. Lightning Bolt does end on a high note, however, with “Future Days”, a rustic folk entry complete with aching violin and sparse piano notes. Cementing the theme of ephemerality, the tune has the aura of Mule Variations-era Tom Waits, feeling like watching a sunset from a rural porch late in life and choosing to cherish the relatively limited number of days left rather than bemoan their dwindling amount.
That Pearl Jam can craft such a fine record at this stage in their storied career is astounding. Years on, Lightning Bolt is sure to rank among one of the high points of the group’s discography, standing as an example of their ability to burrow down and hone all of their strengths to a fever pitch.