Review Summary: Pearl Jam's latest is an effective rumination on mortality and being grateful for what you have, with an unusually aggression eschewing second half which may surprise you.
I am a Pearl Jam fan. 'Ten' was the first album that truly spoke to the (13 year old) me, the first album that showed me music could be 'for me', and that certain bands and albums could be identifiably mine. Now I have an insatiable appetite for new music in many different genres and I consider myself a passionate music fan. Through my experiments and changes in taste, however, I have retained an abiding love of Pearl Jam. I have followed their career obsessively, through the height of their popularity (Vs., Vitalogy, which is my favorite PJ album), their experimental stage (No Code), through their later career (Yield, Binaural and on). I took their DIY and "Under no circumstances sell out" ethic to heart. To this day I can't stand bands licensing songs to adverts or cross promoting albums with mobile phones (I’m looking at you Jay-Z). In summation, my attachment to this band will allow me to forgive any minor miss-steps.
This is not to say that I can't be objective, a subtle change in songwriting style around the time of Yield always jarred with me a little and some albums definitely have problems, self-titled/Avocado has some issues for me, as does Backspacer. Awkward, seemingly out of place bridges and middle 8s seem to appear frequently, though I can usually find something to like in every Pearl Jam song.
Now that you are aware of my starting position, I will attempt to objectively rate the new album 'Lightning Bolt'.
The new album begins in customary Pearl Jam fashion with an opening salvo of aggressive Rockers, the first of which 'Getaway' really works. Fast, aggressive and melodic, with an interesting set of lyrics concerning freedom of (and, more importantly, from) religion. The next song and first single 'Mind Your Manners' is less successful. Despite deploying an excellent chorus and lyrical themes of surveillance culture, which could be distilled as; 'We are listening to everything you do, but should you leak any information we deem secret we will crucify you, so mind your manners'. Musically the song is reminiscent of 'Spin the black circle', but, whereas that song sought and achieved an authentic punk aesthetic, 'Manners' seems to be trying it on. Trying too hard. The third in the opening trio 'My Father's Son' overcomes a slightly awkward vocal melody in the verse to reveal an excellent chorus featuring Vedder spitting lyrics concerning the curse of one's DNA, and the possibility of subsequently overcoming it.
Next, the title track's unusual structure gives it freshness despite its rather lethargic chord progression in the chorus. It's unusually placed peaks and troughs combined with a furious mid song Mcready solo should ensure this becomes a popular live staple.
So far, so late period Pearl Jam, but here is where the album really opens up into a variety of styles and interesting directions. It’s also the point at which we must discuss the elephant in the room, the epic 'power ballad' 'Sirens'. Pearl Jam are no strangers to an effecting ballad (Black, Elderly Woman, Nothing Man, Come Back etc.) but Sirens appears to have split fandom like no other. Perhaps its sentimental lyrics and immediately accessible melody are a step too far for the more grunge/punk leaning section of Pearl Jam fans. Art is less moving when you are aware of your heart strings being pulled and is much more moving when you are simply reacting naturally to something. Personally, despite initially reacting in horror (I found myself preying that Simon Cowell doesn't hear it, lest a 15 year old karaoke singer butchers it), it has grown on me immensely. I am a father and a husband myself (Since the last album Vedder has gotten married and now has two daughters), which admittedly, has softened my resistance to sentimentality, but I find the line "It's a fragile thing this life we lead, If I think too much I can get overwhelmed by the grace by which we live our lives, with death over our shoulder" a highly effective rumination on the fact that despite the appearance of things looking up in life (a child will do that to you), life is cruel and everything can go wrong in an instant. Perhaps I am just identifying with a fellow pessimist/worrier. In addition to all this Vedder's voice is in excellent form, a warm, thick, baritone, still immensely powerful despite 20 odd years of abuse.
Speaking of Vedder's singing styIe, I have never understood the flack PJ receive for 'inspiring' the glut of inferior ‘grunge’ bands featuring singers with low end voices who were frantically snapped up by every record company following the early 90s mega success of Nevermind and Ten (An accusation which, strangely, is never leveled at Kurt Cobain). Blaming Eddie Vedder for the existence of Scott Stapp is like blaming the Beatles for 1D.
Anyway, I digress, following the divisive sirens are the fantastically pretty 'Infallible' (perhaps my favorite song of this set), the atmospheric 'Pendulum' (A meditative experiment which turned out an unqualified success), the swampy, blues rock stomper of 'Let the Records play' featuring a simple bluesy riff which has Stone Gossard’s rhythmic style all over it. 'Swallowed Whole' reminds me of songs such as 'Given To Fly' by which I mean it aims to be a sky scraping epic but falls short due to the effort involved. Of the final trio 'Yellow Moon' is an extremely pretty highlight sandwiched between another two highly sentimental and positive sounding acoustic based ballads. The updated 'Sleeping by Myself' (From Vedder's solo Uke album) benefits immensely from the input of the rest of the band. ‘Future Days’, despite being underwhelming in its recent live debut, is another effecting piece of sentimentality/declaration of Love for a wife/family. Both are excellent additions to the cannon and round off what is essentially an album concerned with mortality and appreciating what you have.
In conclusion, many will dislike the 'softening' of Vedder and Co on the latter half of the album. I would call it growing old gracefully. After all, who wants to see a 50 year old screaming about his angst? By doing what they have always done and staying true to themselves and what they are experiencing in their lives Pearl Jam has produced another honest, engaging and surprisingly upbeat album. Their best since Yield. Listen to it, feel better.