It’s funny to think that as of Lightning Bolt‘s release, we’ve had records from Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and now Pearl Jam within a year of each other after the latter spent over a decade as grunge’s Last Man Standing. Each group got here through different means: Soundgarden are on their reunion album, AiC 2.0 finally stepped out of Layne’s shadow, and Pearl Jam are simply on album ten. Despite the varying paths to 2012/2013, each album is the first in the given band’s “dependable veteran” era.
For Pearl Jam, this means confirming the “back to rock” trend started with the ramshackle but somewhat stooge-y Pearl Jam in 2006, and continued with the polished and poppy Backspacer in 2009. Of the three, Lightning Bolt is firmly in the middle as far as quality goes; it has the largest sound and most ideas of the three and is more refined than the self-titled, but doesn’t have Backspacer‘s precision, either. This album is Pearl Jam at their most arena-ready, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve eased on the emotion or the tension in their music.
The first four songs on Lightning Bolt create it’s best suite of tracks. Opener “Getaway” has plenty of power in Matt Cameron’s drumming and Stone Gossard’s muscular riffs and Eddie Vedder has a desperate edge in his vocals that adds urgency to the song’s chorus, especially in the closing minute of the song where everyone’s playing their heart out. First single “Mind Your Manners” is the album’s designated punk track with Vedder at his raspiest while delivering politically charged lyrics over a Dead Kennedy’s style riff. It’s an explosive track that’s been called Lightning Bolt‘s “Spin the Black Circle”, but strikes me more as its “Brain of J”. “My Father’s Son”, meanwhile, is an excellent workout between bassist Jeff Ament and Cameron. It’s Pearl Jam working their artier side, but an interesting listen that gives the album a bit of depth.
Capping off this run is album highlight “Sirens”, one of the band’s outright best ballads and an instant classic. “Sirens” won’t break any new ground, but as a sprawling, heartfelt song imbued with gorgeous guitar work and Vedder at his most earnest (and some of his highest vocals), it’s the kind of “lighters in the air” arena ballad that lesser bands have spent careers trying to write. “Sirens” works so well because it’s a classic Pearl Jam song updated to where the band is in their history; it’s earnest with more than a few classic rock nods, but is also free of the reactionary self-consciousness that dogged the band until Backspacer.
Pearl Jam have also reached the point of their career where, as a fan, an album is more about finding some great new tracks to add to the catalog than making end-to-end masterpieces. In that regard, Lightning Bolt does its job quite well: outside of the aforementioned tracks, the album is consistently enjoyable and occasionally great. Mostly acoustic and folksy “Sleeping By Myself” is charming, and bolstered by textured electric guitars. The Matt Cameron-Jeff Ament-Stone Gossard rhythm section (frequently cited as one of the best in big name rock) gives “Infallible” a lumbering might that the band hasn’t explored before, and there’s a grinding paranoia to the song’s triumphant chorus that makes it memorable. Tender closing ballad “Future Days” doesn’t hit as hard as “Sirens”, but is lovely all the same.
But that isn’t to say that Lightning Bolt isn’t entirely without blemish. The title track, “Yellow Moon”, and to an extent “Swallowed Whole” are rank and file Pearl Jam songs without much to differentiate themselves from the pack. “Let the Records Play”, a “Johnny Guitar” style rock tribute, sounds like a set-list closer by a bar band whose best song is an “Even Flow” cover. “Pendulum” is an experimental tom-tom and piano heavy texture piece that’s not even four minutes long, but feels much longer. None of these are bad, but they aren’t going to appear outside of the current tour, either.
But, ultimately, Lightning Bolt is a keeper. It’s enjoyable as a whole, and has a few stellar high points for a band making headway into their third decade of existence. As always, the instrumentation is wonderful, Vedder’s voice continues to improve with age, and there’s a warmth here that isn’t present on other PJ records–these intangibles help compensate for the album’s occasional slip-ups. Pearl Jam are aware they’re no longer the last man standing, but they’re not just standing, they’re still pushing forward. Four stars out of five.
tl;dr: Ten albums in, and Lightning Bolt still sounds vital, 4/5.