Review: Pearl Jam Reignite The Fire With Dynamic ‘Lightning Bolt’

Pearl Jam returns with their strongest album in over a decade.

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud

“I found my place, and it's alright,” Eddie Vedder declares on "Getaway," the danceable lead track from Pearl Jam's tenth album Lightning Bolt. “I got my own way to believe.” And now, at last, the rock veterans have given us a new way to believe in them.

Through marriage, children, loss and the ever-intensifying complexity of our modern world, the sounds on Lightning Bolt are evidence of considerable change having taken place in Pearl Jam members' worlds since their last release. 2009's Backspacer was saturated with delicate mortality, songs like "The End," "Unthought Known" and "Just Breathe," constructing a sense of vulnerability and a midlife reassessment of value and fragility. This inevitably curtailed the momentum of spirit, nudging us more toward quiet reflective introspection, despite its high-energy rock runs ("Johnny Guitar," "Got Some," the easy cheese of "The Fixer," etc).

The band's message has been distilled as their musicianship has blossomed fractally. A two-year recording process allowed for a slow germination of ideas, with the Seattle quintet letting the formula marinate through a two-part studio stretch. With a magnificent gravity, Lightning Bolt carries a less wearisome weight than its predecessor, and reinvigorates the spirit we felt dimming or adrift in Backspacer. With the exception of the naked heartbreak of "Sleeping By Myself," we're not mired in literalism this time around, and rather than dwelling, a frangible waiting for the lost love to return, Vedder's lyrical angles are now set on honest assessment of damage ("Pendulum") and a rekindling of soul with a steadier confidence, a more determined destiny.

Opened by Matt Cameron's insistent percussive bursts in step with a jittering aggressive riff, the sardonic punkish snap of "Mind Your Manners" is a genetic split from the visceral fury that informed "Animal" and its kin. While the fire still burns, the Dead Kennedys stylistic streak speaks more loudly than the spiteful slap at structures of power and faith.

Its melodic inventiveness is only a hint of what's to come, with the jutting burst of "My Father's Son" riding the thick color of doubled bass over a minimal guitar as Vedder takes sharp and surprising vocal turns. As the chorus ends, we're pulled in deliciously unsettling directions when Ed's "Got me tooth and nail" angles upward in melody as the band quickly descends. The bridge at 1:39 is a momentary break through the clouds while flying through a storm framed by Cameron's punching percussion. And when it careens back into the fray at 2:08, Vedder comes entirely unhinged, a jeering and sarcastic fit against genetic dysfunction.

"Sirens" is as dynamic as anything the band has produced, with emphasizing piano chords pounding a framework around a mix of electric & acoustics guitars. The song is an Ibogaine bath of the soul, a rejuvenation of spirit, connecting the constellations in a chaotic sky. It's among Vedder’s best lyrical work in a decade, marrying earnest emotion of the present tense with a poetic spirit that doesn’t drown in melodrama. 

”All things change,” Ed acknowledges in pained falsetto, too familiar with what's grinding in the gears of reality. But like us all, he wants that one constant, one star to stay the course by. “Let this remain,” he pleads. He knows there is a way to be found. He’s asking for her help in finding it. 

Mike McCready's solo isn't a new gear with the high-reaching optimistic zeal he's all but trademarked, but a thread pulled out of an already unraveling heart, more akin to "Nothing As It Seems". It's not a celebration, it's a declaration; a desire to hold the ring through the highest seas, which we happen to be in the midst of. When it comes on the radio, the voices in the car go quiet. Its profundity of connection grows in accordance with miles on the heart.

The surprises are continuous throughout Lightning Bolt, with a consistency that challenges the Rock veterans' familiar musical architecture. There's a distinctly Glen Ballard feel to the ominous cuts of "Infallible" that give way to Motown-level soul striding. In keeping with the fragility of existence, "Pendulum" illustrates a mortality of heart, an escalating purgatory amidst a minimal instrumental echo and clean percussion keeping the vessel afloat. "We are here and then we go… my shadow left me long ago…" and a fall into silence. It's freefall from a failed leap of faith, a freezing pre-dawn spell of solitude, stuck in thought among the lifeless chill. "This might pass, this might last… this may grow," Vedder acknowledges. "Easy come and easy go / easy left me a long time ago…." emanating a heartbreaking depth of damage, he fades into echoes of a jangling, sparse guitar line and submerged bassline before a haunting exit.

Naturally, it's not a Pearl Jam record without the sun rising again, a brighter balance if not outright redemption. The Into The Wild fire of "Swallowed Whole" follows and fits the bill, while the bolt of lightning Vedder lamented having to let go in "Nothingman" is in full flesh on the title track, love in fifth gear. She is rejuvenating, reinvigorating, a fountain of truth within the heart that anyone who's felt the true strike of love can attest to: it's a key to unlocking the shackles of life we're anchored by daily. A soul, given to fly, takes flight once more.

They kick out and have a straightforward blues run through the roller-rink Dad-rock of "Let The Records Play," an odd-couple pairing with the full-band treatment of Vedder's "Sleeping By Myself," a track so heartbreaking one has to lose themselves in the prettiness of the acoustic strum. In the second verse, you'll have to skip ahead before the double vocal on "I believe in nothing but the pain and I can't see this turning out right" if you expect to get out of it unscathed. Fair warning.

A Jeff Ament composition, "Yellow Moon"'s hymnal beauty is a marriage of the ethereal beauty of "Thin Air" and the delicate romantic mysticism of "Of the Girl". It's a special 11th-hour offering, and arguably a more concisely appropriate closer than the acoustic lullaby of "Future Days". It's the kind of track that leaves you swaying without realizing it, Ament's hand as a hypnotist of soulful optimism fully shown once more.

Lightning Bolt is the experimenting, declarative passion project we've been waiting for from Pearl Jam since 2002's Riot Act. It's a fantastic show of evolution and honing of strengths for a band over two decades into their run, acting as if they're just settling in for the long haul. 

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