Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt Review
Posted by David Hayter on 10.15.2013
Pearl Jam's 10th studio album sees the band writing music that feels purpose built for their next multi-national arena tour.
Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt
1. "Getaway" 2. "Mind Your Manners" 3. "My Father's Son" 4. "Sirens" 5. "Lightning Bolt" 6. "Infallible" 7. "Pendulum" 8. "Swallowed Whole" 9. "Let The Records Play" 10. "Sleeping By Myself" 11. "Yellow Moon" 12. "Future Days"
The third phase of Pearl Jam’s illustrious career (which can reasonably be defined as the period after the band’s 2006 move to J Records) saw the grunge stars become defined more by their ferocious live shows and less by their studio output. Driven by the nostalgia of pre-crash years, the great American bands of the 80s and 90s found the selves in high demand allover the world as festivals scrambled to find bankable headline acts. Unlike so many of their peers, Pearl Jam not only introduced themselves to a new generation of fans, but substantially increased their following. In the wake of the grand tours of 2005/6 the word was out: when Pearl Jam come to town, they not only headline festivals, they sell out arenas.
What made Pearl Jam’s continued dominance remarkable, beyond the anti-MTV/Ticketmaster years, was not their sustained appeal, but the band’s refusal to become a nostalgic memorial to their former glories. They toured their new material faithfully, all the while enhancing an already imperious live reputation. Live shows have always been an important part of Pearl Jam’s legacy (just take one look at the farcical number of live CDs they’ve put out), but Lightning Bolt is their first studio album that feels entirely subservient to their live show.
Rather than being driven by a grand new direction, a barbed lyrical assault, or even the fury of Vedder’s vocal, this album feels constructed from top to bottom to be played live. This approach certainly has its benefits. The album is tuneful in the extreme; full of big space filling solos and packed with “you only need to hear it once to get it” sentiments. Lightning Bolt flies out of the gate, but it’s more bubblegum than brutality as Eddie Vedder bobs his way through “Getaway”: a middle tempo single-in-waiting that has the buoyancy of The Offspring and a hint of Rise Against severity. It’s fun stuff; as Jeff Ament’s bass grooves and Matt Cameron’s drum breaks coyly court one another.
“My Father’s Son” feels like Pearl Jam redux, a remarkably placid return to the quintessential themes of paternal scarring and bedroom dreams of escape. The arrangement is frustratingly predictable but, thankfully, Eddie seems to be having a whale of a time ripping into each lyric with both relish and control as the band attempts to summons the slightest dash of Queens Of The Stone Age style sexual murk. If it weren’t for “Mind Your Manners”, with its raucous clatter and flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants vocals, Lightning Bolt would feel altogether too, well, mannered.
“Sirens” is practically neutered; it’s the kind of soppy lighter (scratch that) smart phone waving anthem that feels so indistinct it could have been made any run of the mill Pearl Jam imitator. The mechanics are no doubt impeccable. The track glides with all the assured precision of autopilot, but therein lies the problem: where touching lyrical quirks and desperate pleas should lie, broad brush stroke sentiment pervades. Either a devastating lyric or a mind-bending arrangement was required, instead Pearl Jam stood defiantly in the middle of the road.
Even when Pearl Jam’s music seems specifically targeted at a certain set of acoustics rather than forming deep lasting connections, they still prove remarkably efficient. “Lightning Bolt” builds joyously towards its hip shaking, fast driving, chorus and solo combination. It’s the kind of shrewd single that contains a the kind of virtuosity missing from modern arena rock, without forgoing an insistent hook. Edge and challenge might be in short supply, but Pearl Jam rarely let the listener linger long without delivering the next charming pop song. “Swallowed Whole” has the airy lightness of R.E.M and (yet another) wonderful lead vocal, “Let The Records Play” is shticky in the extreme but heartily engaging, and “Sleeping By Myself” (a survivor from Eddie’s solo LP) exhibits a delicacy and sense of star-crossed whimsy often missing from Pearl Jam’s catalog.
The ballads largely falter, “Yellow Moon” and “Future Days” make for a meandering and colorless finale, but Eddie summons of the old magic on “Pendulum”. The track thoughtfully swirls and shimmers around pitter-patter percussion as Eddie delivers a vocal that is simultaneously coarse and fragile. At their best, Pearl Jam always managed to sound like a beaten runt: dangerous, untrusting, likely to snap at any moment, but clearly vulnerable and unafraid to whimper.
Lightning Bolt sees Pearl Jam positioned almost exactly where U2 found themselves in the early 2000s. Bono and co. were still bigger than Jesus, but their (arguably) failed attempts to conquer new ground had left the band battered and battle weary. They retreated to the safety of the arena rock formula, still delivering big pop songs and touching ballads with great regularity, but no longer striving to shake their listeners to their very core. Similarly, Pearl Jam find themselves tinkering at the fringes; still adding feathers to their bow, still writing good, well produced material, but not threatening to turn the world on its head.
This is the work of a comfortable and clinically precise band who are clearly happy with their lot in the life - and that’s fine, good in fact, but not awfully exciting. Lightning Bolt will no doubt sound great with 20,000 voices at its back, but on record, it’s unabashedly so-so.
The 411: Lightning Bolt is full of well crafted, engaging, material. There's plenty of virtuosity on display, particularly from Eddie Vedder who attacks almost every track with real gusto, but Pearl Jam muster few thrills. "Pendulum" is genuinely wrenching, but it's the exception on an album full of ready made arena rock and serviceable balladry. Pearl Jam are too shrewd to release a bad album at this point, but this highly competent and routinely enjoyable LP, is missing one important element: fire in its belly.