It’s been more than four years since Pearl Jam laid their 9th studio album “Backspacer” upon the world. Since that time, they’ve toured extensively, released a documentary, and involved themselves in a variety of side projects. Scattered throughout this, famed producer Brendan O’Brien put in a lot of work to get all five members in a studio and 100% focused on recording their 10th album “Lightning Bolt.”
Pearl Jam was in no hurry as they slowly put into to place their collaborative creative process in numerous sessions throughout 2011 to 2013. Bassist Jeff Ament has been quoted as saying in a recent interview that “Sometimes it’s better to wait until you have something to say.”
Love them or hate them, Pearl Jam have continued to make records and sell out arenas worldwide for 23 years and counting and their music is aging like the finest wine in southern Italy. Each record, from their multi-million selling debut “Ten” to their 2006 self-titled “Pearl Jam” and beyond has its own sound and its own mood. This formula is what sustains Pearl Jam as one of the most creative forces in music still today. Regardless of that fact, there are always those that complain every time they hear the words Pearl Jam because the new record doesn’t sound like Ten or why can’t they just make something like they used to? The same band can’t make the same record over and over you hipster-doofus Pitchfork reading folks. Those are the bands that don’t last. Anyway, for those people out there Pearl Jam did in fact re-release a perfectly re-mastered version of “Ten” in 2009. I highly recommend picking it up if you want to hear the same album again.
Did “The White Album” sound anything like “Meet the Beatles” did? OK I rest my case.
Pearl Jam’s “Lightning Bolt” is due out October 15th and is available for pre-order on their official website as well as iTunes. A track-by-track overview paints a very revealing picture of songwriting that not only points out the hypocrisy of organized religion, but also embraces the fragility of life, our own mortality, the preciousness of relationships, and of course simply playing records.
Pearl Jam tends to open live shows with a slow or mellow tune but tend to open albums with the volume turned to 11 (Thanks to Spinal Tap). “Getaway” could just as easily have been a Ramones song. It’s not so punk-rock fast that you get lost, but just the right speed to jump up and down. The vocals mirror the bass-line melody and match perfectly. It’s a great attention grabber and head-bobber to open the album. “Sometimes you have to put all your faith into no faith.”
“Mind Your Manners”
It’s the balls to the wall lead single and sounds like the Dead Kennedys are coming straight for you to cover Black Flag’s “TV Party.” Pearl always throws in a classic punk-inspired song into every album and this one is one of the best they’ve ever done of this type. It’s filled with anger and the lyric “I caught myself believing that I needed God.” If you think Eddie Vedder ran out of things to be angry about, you’re sorely mistaken.
“My Father’s Son”
This is a strange track to be placed so early in the song sequence and is a little out of place because it sounds a little like a B-side. Although great lyrically and contains a great bridge (that is a break from the odd chord progressions of the rest of the song). It’s about being free to be your own person after the departure of an abusive person close to you. A great idea with an interesting subject, but oddly executed.
The first time I heard this track when it was released as a single I had absolutely no words. It’s clearly the best song on the album and is a beautiful serenade that shows the sincerity of Vedder’s songwriting. It’s a song written by a man who now has something to lose since he is now a father when he could care less in years before. Overwhelmed by love, he sees how quickly lives can end in an instant; however he can’t live his life in fear of that. If critics of the song can’t understand those simple points and feel something, I feel sorry for them.
Perfectly placed after the emotional rollercoaster of “Sirens,” “Lightning Bolt” is the stadium anthem you knew was coming from the moment you pressed play (or dropped the needle). It’s a fast build-up and great melody that culminates into an almost Springsteen-esque big ending. Pearl Jam debuted the song live this past July at Wrigley Field in Chicago, IL to a very responsive crowd. I expect this to be a live staple for Pearl Jam for many years to come.
This track could easily have been the lead-single instead of “Mind Your Manners” if Pearl Jam really wanted to get quirky with like they did in the “No Code” days. It’s what you would have if blues singers knew how to write melodic lyrics. Kind of blues, kind of pop, and with a vocal delivery better than Waffle House at 3am. “You think you were infallible, but you’re tempting fate instead” is a strong lyric that says a lot about how well we prepare ourselves for something great but possibly lean toward screwing it up in the end.
This track is a solemn, yet somewhat brooding centerpiece in the record. “My Shadow left me long ago” is a lyric to me that shows that the person writing the lyrics has changed from who he used to be and possibly feels alone due to that fact.
As the album picks back up the tempo for act 2, we get “Swallowed Whole.” This is the song that you play in the car and drive faster and faster. It’s driven by up-beat eighth notes on an acoustic guitar. It changes keys quickly like “Lightning Bolt” and contains the signature Mike McCready solo that fans have grown to know and love. It’s a song where I hear hope and looking forward to the future.
“Let the Records Play”
Some songs are just a good time. This is one of those. One minute you think this is going Stevie Ray-Vaughn then the next minute it goes So-Cal with a surfboard. The song continues the upswing that started with the previous track and continues to drive hope and something you may not be used to from Pearl Jam; they actually can be a lot of fun.
“Sleeping By Myself”
This is a re-worked tracked from lead-singer Eddie Vedder’s solo album “Ukulele Songs.” There have been grumblings from fans since the track listing was released. I have to say I was apprehensive about it as well. Then I heard it and changed my mind immediately. This quirky little tune is one of the high points on the album and historically will be looked at as one of the songs that really made this album unique as a whole. Ever heard of surf country? Me neither until today, and it’s awesome.
“Lightning Bolt” begins to slow back down for the finish as all Pearl Jam’s albums do. It contains one of the best lead guitar solos on the album, though not long. “The colors turn grey, the black and white fade, yellow moon on the rise.” As a slower song fading into the night, it sets the stage well for the final track.
In the tradition of ending an album with somewhat of a lullaby, “Future Days” holds true to that formula. “The hurricanes and cyclones rage, the winds turn dirt into dust; the floods they came and they tides they raised. Ever closer became us.” It’s a beautiful love letter to the perseverance of a relationship that can be applied to anything be it father/son, mother/daughter, husband/wife, you name it. Well done Ed, well done.
“Lightning Bolt” is easily the best rock record so far in 2013 and the best since the Gaslight Anthem’s “Handwritten” in 2012. As Pearl Jam’s music continues to grow and evolve we may see some of their songs getting less complex musically but much more complex melodically. It’s an even trade. Eddie Vedder caught lyrical fire with this record from start to finish which is what ‘makes’ it in my opinion. It makes it easy to give this record 4 out of 5 stars.
Dustin M Pardue