Monday, October 21, 2013

Pearl Jam Strikes A Lightning Bolt

Eddie Vedder
It's almost impossible to write a review about Pearl Jam without a biased lens. And it is perhaps that biased lens that has pigeonholed Lightning Bolt into any number of assessments that have everything to do with the reviewer (and sometimes the band) and nothing to do with the album.

So let's put everything into perspective and get the obvious out of the way. Lighting Bolt is not the greatest album that Pearl Jam has ever recorded. But Lighting Bolt is light years ahead of most albums.

The album is not an allegory for aging rock bands. Pearl Jam did not put themselves on cruise control. Eddie Vedder is in a different place as a singer-songwriter. And how much you love the album will likely depend upon if you are in the same place.

Lighting Bolt hits a dozen notes, many of them brilliant. 

Sirens is an obvious place to start as one of the first tracks to tease the album. Before Vedder ever added lyrics, Mike McCready wrote it two years ago after he attended a Roger Waters concert. This well-publicized point has driven some Pink Floyd references in reviews, all of which miss the point.

The point is that it is a classic alternative rock take on a power ballad. And as such, it's not a power ballad but a deeply contemplative piece about love and mortality. There is an overwhelming element of grace brought into the track once Vedder put words to it. McCready says he was almost brought to tears.

To get to Sirens, you have to move through the first three tracks. Getaway is all right, a track about tolerance that attempts to power out an opener. My Father's Son is an experimentally oddball track that strains Vedder's vocal ability. And that leaves the second song, Mind Your Manners, which is by far the better track.

It's this thrasher that became the lead single for the album in July. There are two things to take away from it: Vedder's signature smoky voice and Matt Cameron crashing on the drums.

Lightning Bolt almost feels like Pearl Jam rolled itself back an extra decade. It's a catchy track more reminiscent of the arena rock that alternative bands eventually challenged. If it comes across as too pat for a Pearl Jam fan, Infallible will elevate those expectations again. The song, which was co-written by Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament (lyrics by Vedder), layers the instruments to create some splendid melodic depth with darker lyrics tied to fate and temptation. Nobody's perfect.

Other standouts on the album include Pendulum, which was originally written for Backspacer; Sleeping By Myself, which was originally released as a ukulele tune; and Future Days, which catches the band's world weariness in a time capsule. It's a brilliant way to close the album.

Yellow Moon and the other tracks are fine too. The back story that McCready championed Yellow Moon makes it more interesting. The track is clearly unique and most people will be glad that it made the cut. If it would have been cut, it wouldn't have been for the song as much as the tempo. The pace of the album swirls more than it trashes, with Yellow Moon adding to that mystique.

Some might say the album mostly finds the band sitting comfortably far away from its formative years, but I would disagree. The album isn't comfortable as much as conscious of their strengths. At the same time, there are plenty of places the band moves to push out with something more experimental. To be honest, it doesn't always work but it does work more than it doesn't. Risks are like that and I'm glad they still take them.

Lightning Bolt By Pearl Jam Strike 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There are no duds on the album, but there are some tracks that have a hard time keeping up with the best tracks. That isn't because the band isn't trying. It has more to do with stretching their creative legs. Sometimes that works and sometimes it conjures up memories of what one used to expect from alternative rock's favorite baritone. But that, as I mentioned before, has more to do with you then them.

You can find Lightning Bolt by Pearl Jam on Amazon or download the album from iTunes. Lightning Bolt is also at Barnes & Noble. Pearl Jam is currently on tour, working their way east to west across the United States. The band will kick off their world tour in Auckland, New Zealand, in January. Visit Facebook for details.
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