Album review: Pearl Jam, 'Lightning Bolt'


pearl jam, lightning bolt
Cover of Pearl Jam's new album, 'Lightning Bolt'. (@ 2013 Republic Records.)

One of Pearl Jam's defining characteristics is that they have wedged themselves into their own corner of American rock music. While this place is both safe and predictable, it's also enviable in that their identity is secure. If they wished, they could settle in as a legacy act or continue to record a new album every three years; either way, they can rest assured that their spot in the canon will remain unaltered.

Pearl Jam's new album, Lightning Bolt, is more of the same. Depending on your history with the band, this statement could be construed as a compliment, a reassurance or a condemnation by faint praise. For a band on their tenth studio album, it's easy to dig up the hoary cliché that no one expects them to reinvent the wheel, but really, did Pearl Jam ever reinvent the wheel? While devotees will dissect the merits of Vitalogy versus Vs. versus Yield, they have never been a band to impose radical stylistic shifts from record to record. There's no easily discernible outliers like Nebraska or Automatic for the People in their catalogue, instead subsisting on a steady stream of "rock" albums that come out every few years, reliably go gold, and give them an excuse to tour. So while the prospect of Pearl Jam throwing us a curveball may sound enticing, it's frankly not something we would have any reason to expect.

The record begins with the driving, 1-2 punch of "Getaway" and "Mind Your Manners," both of which will surely become the requisite "new standards" of their live set. The power ballad "Sirens" may also become a live staple. I've seen "Sirens" described as treacly, overblown, and like an outtake from the Armageddon soundtrack, all of which is technically accurate, though its emotional sincerity gives it points for sentimentality alone. Even if folks have got out of the habit of bringing lighters to rock shows, "Sirens" will give them an excuse to remember!

After starting with urgency, Lightning Bolt gradually recedes into a series of unmemorable tracks; Eddie Vedder and company know as well as we do that once the album's support dates are over, we'll never hear most of these songs again. In 20+ years of work, Pearl Jam have amassed an impressive roster of classics, whether they be singles or live standards, but like their alt-rock contemporaries Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers, their album tracks have never felt like a vital cog in their machine. Fans will have their favorites, of course, but casual PJ listeners have little to draw them in, aside from the heavily played singles. This has worked against the band for years, and sadly, continues on Lightning Bolt.

I wanted to open this review with a variation on the old "I'd Rather Be Fishing" bumper sticker: "I'd Rather Be Reviewing Arcade Fire." In four albums, Arcade Fire have far surpassed the artistic scope and variety that Pearl Jam possessed even at their mid-'90s commercial peak. Every moment of the Arcade Fire pulses with creativity and thinking outside the box; even the (relative) failures of the new AF album are stunning in their adventurousness. It's apparent that Arcade Fire made sure that every second of their new record was at least interesting, which makes it all the more bewildering that Pearl Jam, supposed elder statesmen, seemed content with cranking out some fun rawk songs and hitting the road.

Have you heard the album? What do you think of it? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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