Premature Evaluation: Pearl Jam Lightning Bolt
Titles say a lot in Pearl Jam’s discography. Not in the sense that they do with any artist — you know, cluing you into what they’re writing about — but in the sense that the structure of their titles hints at what version of Pearl Jam you’re about to get. For the longest time, they favored short, enigmatic, often single word titles for their albums, sometimes
making up their own borrowing them from obscure medical texts (Vitalogy) or bending a familiar form into an abstract summation of the LP in question (Ten, Vs., No Code, Yield). Unless you count the greatest hits collection Rearviewmirror or a smattering of official live releases, the longest album title they’d had thus far was Backspacer, at a whopping ten letters. That is, until Lightning Bolt, which at fourteen letters is practically a Fiona Apple couplet of a Pearl Jam album name. Not only that, but its words are plain and everyday in a way that none of their album titles have been. There was mystery in No Code and Riot Act. Not so much in Lightning Bolt. It just sounds like any old rock album name, but also a slight one, a record without a defining characteristic or larger resonance. Compared to the opacity of prior releases, it’s a generic name coming off as downright banal.
Though that all might make Lightning Bolt sound like it’s a turning point, it’s more like an end result. The line in the sand was really 2006’s Pearl Jam, the move of self-titling a clear reset button for the band but also so unsettling for fans that they still regularly refer to it as Avocado. That nickname was derived from the self-titled album’s cover, and Pearl Jam’s cover art too has seemed symbolic. Backspacer was plenty slick musically, but maybe the main reason it felt compressed and distant was the cartoons on the cover, as if this set of songs were animated retreads through Pearl Jam’s history, “Amongst the Waves” a less humanized Yield, acoustic ballads like “Just Breathe” and “The End” coloring too cleanly within those lines when this band had written such heart-rending stuff as “Fatal.” I approached Lightning Bolt with similar trepidation. Its cover, its singles’ covers, the video for “Mind Your Manners” — they all had that same cartoon thing going on (given, in a more graphic art style that was not dissimilar from how they’d often rendered tour posters or official bootleg covers in the past). Between the straightforward title and the cover, I went in afraid that it’d be another outing of Pearl Jam performing their vision of “Pearl Jam rocking out again.”
So what kind of Pearl Jam album is Lightning Bolt? To a certain extent, my expectations were accurate. It is very much of a piece with their last two releases, another record where they eschew the art-rock flirtations of ’94-’02 (Vitalogy-Riot Act) and continue to embody a classic rock version of themselves. They’re still more or less interested in sticking to a back-to-basics sound with only the occasional gesture towards experimentation or expanding their sound. The good news is that it works better than it did with either Pearl Jam or Backspacer. When Lightning Bolt is on, it’s some of their best material in the last ten years, its highlights rivaled only by the very best songs on the self-titled album. One pleasant surprise is that it’s dustier than Backspacer, not to the ramshackle and beleaguered levels of Riot Act, but with music that feels a bit more lived in. Another pleasant but double-edged surprise is its departure from its predecessor in quality. Where Backspacer was an exceedingly consistent experience of mid-level Pearl Jam material, Lightning Bolt whiplashes you between its highs and lows, all that good stuff refused the ability to cohere into a unified whole by a few weak links that wreck the album’s pacing.
The album starts off strong, “Getaway” ranking amongst their very best openers and easily amongst the best latter-day Pearl Jam songs. Like the other best moments on Lightning Bolt, it marries the impulses of post-Riot Act Pearl Jam perfectly. Vedder is singing clearer and more melodically, which allows the band to rock when they want, but to do it in a catchy way. Ultimately, this works to their benefit, a nuanced take that suggests their maturity more so than any attempt to still thrash around. Lead single “Mind Your Manners” is sort of guilty of the latter, being the seemingly now-obligatory Vitalogy call-back they do every now and then. It’s likeable, though I’d rather it didn’t take the place of “Whipping” on a setlist.
For me, the unquestionable high of the album is the run that starts with the title track and concludes with “Swallowed Whole.” Both are moments where Pearl Jam writes a Pearl Jam rock song totally effortlessly. “Lightning Bolt” is an early contender with “Getaway” for album standout, and “Swallowed Whole” is, like “Sad” thirteen years before it, a clear signifier of Vedder’s youthful obsession with R.E.M. With some much murkier production, its jangle-rock would be a direct descendent of Murmur. As “Lightning Bolt” and “Swallowed Whole” are two of the best straight-up Pearl Jam rock songs we’ve gotten in a while, they bookend the only two instances of “weird Pearl Jam” on Lightning Bolt. The emphatic groove of the verses in “Infallible” is built around the most interesting sound on the album (guitarist Stone Gossard told me it was some sort of synthesized percussion noise that was then produced to the point where it sort of sounds like a guitar or organ layered with effects). These verses wrap around it in tight, constricted rhythms, peeling open into one of the best choruses on the album. It’s followed by “Pendulum,” which isn’t quite like anything else in Pearl Jam’s catalog. Its spiritual concerns and exoticism seem reminiscent of No Code, but its textures are more twilit, making it perhaps a slightly clearer-eyed cousin to songs like “Of the Girl,” “Nothing As it Seems,” or even “You Are.” We could use more Pearl Jam songs like it.
As much as there’s all this to love on Lightning Bolt, its lesser moments threaten to scuttle the whole experience. I still can’t decide how I ultimately feel about the already-divisive “Sirens.” There are parts that are gorgeous, especially the band making rare use of guitars in a more atmospheric way they’d do well to revisit. Like many fans, there are also parts of it that make me cringe. It’s later when things really go off the rails, though. Right after “Swallowed Whole” closes out the album’s peak, the band goes into “Let the Records Play,” another in the lineage of Backspacer track “Johnny Guitar”: a more workmanlike rock title promises a more workmanlike rock song. In this case, “Let the Records Play” is exactly like it sounds: a borderline cheesy bar-band blues-rock that’s saved only by a decently catchy chorus. After that things slow way down for a full-band rendition of “Sleeping By Myself,” a song that’d previously been released on Vedder’s solo album Ukelele Songs. It’s not bad, but also feels tangential. Closer “Future Days” is also somewhat superfluous, ending Lightning Bolt way too similarly to how “The End” finished Backspacer. The best moment of the troubled final act of Lightning Bolt is “Yellow Moon,” a gorgeous mash-up of Vedder’s Into the Wild work and a classic mid-tempo Pearl Jam song. It has a much clearer identity than “Future Days,” and it refers back to a strain of Vedder’s songwriting I’d still like to see explored more thoroughly.
After spending a decent amount of time with Lightning Bolt, this is more or less where I stand on it: It’s good, sometimes great. I think I’ll revisit it more than the last two, probably much more. But there’s something in the way — it hasn’t really dug into me, and I haven’t really dug into it in the same way I once did with their music. While there are few problems with the music itself, when putting it in context of having followed Avocado and Backspacer, it can raise concerns about where we might be headed with the band.
A certain version of Pearl Jam ended with Riot Act. Since their third record, 1994’s Vitalogy, the band had continuously eschewed their mainstream success in favor of leaning more deliberately alternative, messing with their sound, and, speaking objectively about my favorites albums of theirs, simply making music that sounded uglier. I’m in a certain (but vocal) pseudo-minority of the fanbase that finds Yield, the middle of this process, to be a hidden masterpiece. I’m in a considerably smaller part of the fanbase that loves Riot Act. Sure, that album is all dulled burnt orange hues and wearied midnight wanderings, but even as many fans bemoaned the grayscale of Vedder’s delivery on it (pretty rightfully, though I’d argue it works for many of those songs) ironically it felt like the last moment Pearl Jam really gave us something. Each successive record has felt like some attempt at course correction, or a facsimile of what Pearl Jam imagined people expected them to be. Even when that approach works — as it does on most of Lightning Bolt — it still feels somehow removed from the band we’ve known and loved. They sounded best when they were striving and not always succeeding, their art-rock detours always more interesting than their middle-age rewrites of “Spin the Black Circle.”
The reason I bring this up is because, combined with Backspacer, Lightning Bolt suggests we’re in the midst of a previously unseen version of the band: happy Pearl Jam. As far as these last three straightforward albums go, Avocado still had an anger about it, much of it informed by frustrations with the Bush administration and the ongoing war in Iraq. Its engagement was vital even if its music was at times stale. By the time Backspacer rolled around, though, the band could find hope outside of themselves as well as closer to home. It was the early, fleetingly halcyon days of the Obama administration; many of them were married and having kids. Pearl Jam entered the scene enraged in a specifically youthful way, an approach that appropriately fizzled out and gave way to a mid-career era of questioning and, eventually, somberness. They eventually grew out of that, too. Not only on a personal life level, but as a band — they’re reportedly functioning better than ever, more comfortable with how they work and with each other.
You don’t ever want to begrudge an artist some bit of solace when they’ve found it. We’re just at a point where it’s hard to know — for fans or for the band themselves — what we should expect out of Pearl Jam. This is an artist whose entire being was derived from discomfort in one form or another. Even as the band spent the ’90s going through twists and turns trying to define what sort of band they’d be in the commercial landscape, that searching was the artistic focus. They had grown up out of their early angst, but were still far from being at peace, and I’d argue this era in the band’s life produced their best work. There are many moments on Lightning Bolt that refer to mortality, but the stakes don’t seem like they’re there anymore, even when in reality they’re there quite a bit more as the band members close in on 50. Look, of course we want the band to be in a happy place in their lives. They’ve given us fans more than enough, and they’ve more than earned that for themselves. What’s disconcerting is that even as strong as much of Lightning Bolt is, it’s starting to sound like Pearl Jam on autopilot. All the guitars are still reliably distorted, but its with the crunch of slightly overcooked pizza crust, no longer the abrasiveness of sledgehammers hitting glass upon asphalt. The struggle in Pearl Jam’s music has been mollified.
The end result is an album that sounds brighter than those blurry mid-era Pearl Jam albums, and that can be seen as an improvement in some ways, I suppose. But its lightness can also translate to weightlessness, and Pearl Jam’s never really been an artist that has exploited weightlessness. Quite the opposite, really. Like all their titles before, Lightning Bolt tells you something about the music therein, though it now blatantly announces where others alluded — this album is about punchiness when it rocks, and seeks immediacy in its ballads, even if that means they wind up sounding like the mellow acoustic material any rock band could crank out. That’s fine. Pearl Jam have achieved what they set out to do here, and they’ve got a solid album on their hands. It’s just that I can’t help but still long for the days when the notion of Pearl Jam writing about mortality meant that the music would sound searching, too. Maybe a little messy. I still long for the days when Pearl Jam summed up their albums with a single cipher, but imbued them with the gravity of thousands more.
Stream Lightning Bolt on iTunes now. The album is out 10/15.