Review Summary: Like the band themselves, Lightening Bolt has its moments of glory, but ultimately fails to impress.
Crafting a stunning debut album is perhaps the epitome of the double-edged sword. On one hand you have your moment of glory, while one the other every subsequent offering will be compared to the original. In 1991, Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten was released to critical acclaim; its visceral songwriting resulted in a work of abrading emotion unheard of in the alternative rock circles of the time. For Pearl Jam, Ten placed a curse that has yet to be lifted and now, ten albums into their lengthy decline there is every sense that their latest offering is an absolute stinker.
From the outset it is clear that Pearl Jam are immune to current trends; a lack of electronica and an apparent return to their punk roots may seem like commercial suicide, but at times it does pay dividends. 'Mind Your Manners' caged youth and tight percussion section sees Pearl Jam at their most immediate since Vitalogy, while the invigorating 'My Fathers Son,' with its chugging bass line evokes the grandiose mysticism of 'Garden.' Nevertheless, Lightening Bolt is not all crunching powerchords and vented anger, 'Sirens' see’s the band thread a more emotional path where a rare Eddie Vedder falsetto and gentle acoustic fretwork combine to produce a genuinely heartfelt ballad.
So could this be? Could this be the Pearl Jam record that banishes the curse of Ten? Not a chance. Lightening Bolts closing half resembles a ponderous mess of discarded B-sides from music past. 'Infallible’s' criminal lyricism 'keep on locking your doors/ keep on building your floors' screams Nickelback at their most compliant, while 'Swallowed Whole' comes across as little more than a poorly rehashed Led Zeppelin throw away. The closing trio of tracks draws from a variety of nondescript influences, creating a sound alien from their trademark grunge roots. It seems that opening roar has faded into a whimper...
On paper, Lightening Bolt is the perfect alternative rock album for 2013; it opens with a pair of intense rockers, has a generous helping of mid-tempo radio friendly numbers and closes with some soft folk balladry. Though in reality Lightening Bolt finds Pearl Jam with the cruise control switched firmly on, it is too inconstant, too wandering and too generic to stand up against the bands earlier distinctive sound. Yes, it has its moments of youthful genius, but you just wish they would last longer.