By Adam Theisen, For the Daily
Published October 16, 2013
While most middle-aged artists are expected to just tour behind their old hits and put minimal effort into new albums, Pearl Jam continues to work hard to make every new release significant. The band is far removed from its early 1990’s-megastar glory days, but it still keeps up a devoted fanbase through its top-notch live shows and generally solid studio albums. After following up early success with an experimental (and some would say self-sabotaging) mid-career interlude, Pearl Jam has put out a series of back-to-basics, rock ‘n’ roll records, of which Lightning Bolt is the latest.
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Firstly, Lightning Bolt does not feel like an album that was recorded in 2013. The band’s love for vinyl and classic rock shines through in the guitar-heavy, riff-driven tracks, and while the anachronistic style can be off-putting for listeners wanting something more forward-thinking, those searching for old-time rock ‘n’ roll will find nothing better. Pearl Jam is still a master at crafting rock songs and executing them perfectly.
Despite its members now being in their late forties, the band sounds like it has found the fountain of youth on the first half of Lightning Bolt. Guitar solos command attention and every song sounds tightly focused. Lead single “Mind Your Manners” swaggers with punk rock energy and immediately shows that singer Eddie Vedder sounds just as he did in the old days.
“Sirens,” the mid-tempo second single, falls short of the platinum standard set by classic Pearl Jam ballads like “Black” because of its generic production and lack of subtlety, but the band saves it simply because at this point in its career, its musicianship and songwriting chops are impeccable. Even when one part of a song falters, the experience and talent of the musicians keeps the whole ship from sinking.
After two songs in the middle of the album that drag on for too long and immediately drop from memory, the second half of Lightning Bolt contains quieter, more reflective songs. The acoustic guitar plays a much larger role on this half, and the tracks seem to be influenced by Vedder’s solo project, Ukulele Songs. His strong, invigorated voice fills the music with joy.
Though the second half features a less immediate style and therefore makes somewhat less of an impression, loose, relaxed tracks like “Swallowed Whole” and the folky “Sleeping by Myself,” as well as syrupy sweet closer “Future Days,” highlight it. Arguably the best song on the album, “Future Days” feels destined to be a first-dance song for newlyweds, as Vedder looks forward to what will come with his lover, blissfully uncaring about any impending troubles.
“I got my own way to relate!” Vedder proclaims on the first track of Lightning Bolt, declaring to the listener that Pearl Jam has nothing to prove to anybody besides themselves. The band is at a point in its career where it can just do what it enjoys, and the results of this mindset are fantastic. Pearl Jam remains firmly outside of any clear time period or trend, and even two decades removed from its most well-known songs, the band has an uncanny ability to recapture the energy of its early days without sounding old or repetitive.
Lightning Bolt doesn’t revolutionize the genre, but its variety of different tones will engage those simply looking for an entertaining rock record. Longtime fans of the band will love this album, and even listeners who haven’t paid attention to Pearl Jam since the 1990’s will find themselves pleasantly surprised by the strength of the songs and by how well the band has matured.