Of the slew of ’90s/alt/grunge acts releasing albums of late, Pearl Jam is pretty much the only one which boasts a steady line-up and a consistent timeline of releases dating back to their debut.
They’re late to the party if you choose to compare the most recent release dates, but they’ve been omnipresent for the last two decades. This could work either for, or against them; on the one hand the members’ experience and familiarity with each other may contribute to the album’s cohesion, but on the other hand they may be missing some youthful exuberance and simply going through the motions… 20 years is a long time and Lightning Bolt is their 10th album…
The good news is that the phrase “going through the motions” won’t be mentioned too often in relation to this record, if ever. The band sounds invigorated and driven, the vocals of Eddie Vedder in particular convey an energy and emotion that can’t be faked. The band members (all original I might add) seem to be having as much fun as they did when they released ‘Ten’ all those years ago…. or when they gleefully boycotted Ticketmaster…
Besides Vedder’s tuneful vocal warble, nothing much on Lightning Bolt bears resemblance to their early ’90s “grunge” works. They’ve continually grown and evolved over the interceding years and have become quite simply an accomplished rock band which now sits somewhere between Neil Young, U2 and Bruce Springsteen. High praise indeed, and well deserved. However, that’s not to say this album is an unequaled masterpiece…
It’s a good effort, but not earth shattering. There are some breathtaking highlights for sure, but there are also some pretty humdrum moments. The first single “Mind your Manners” while initially sounding tough and uncompromising, on further inspection reveals itself to be a pretty watered down attempt at hardcore punk… like a limp Bad Religion. Yeah… don’t do that please. I’m not sure the terms “hardcore punk” and “Pearl Jam” ought to be used in the same sentence.
There’s a bit of filler material, which isn’t terrible but is far from inspiring. “Sirens”, “Infallible” and “Future Days” are all reasonable, and along with “Mind Your Manners” serve to merely flesh out the disc… which is still relatively concise at 47 minutes so at least they haven’t attempted to strangle every last available second out of it.
However, there are very few (if any) albums that are utter genius from start to finish, and Lightning Bolt boasts some super-impressive highlights. Following the irritating “Mind Your Manners” is the far more interesting (although it bears some weird similarities to Soundgarden’s “Dust”) and angular new-wave-esque sound of “My Father’s Son”. Yes, more like this please.
“Swallowed Whole” is one of the tracks which showcases Vedder’s vocal prowess. It features a strummed acoustic guitar line, an eminently singable (if you’re a great singer…. I can picture drunken karaoke participants murdering it!) chorus and a tasteful guitar solo from Mike McReady. Actually the latter is an element that’s effectively utilized but not overdone on the record… it takes a few listens to appreciate it, but it’s there.
“Sleeping by Myself” is a quieter track but it’s also one of the album’s strongest. Great vocal harmonies, inventive chord progressions (which give it a sombre alt-country feel), and another evocative guitar solo make a lasting impression upon the listener and it really showcases the band’s softer side.
But the winner is…(drum roll please)…. the title track! Yeah, easily the album’s best song, it contains everything great about Pearl Jam. Infectious riffing, driving beats, melodic inflections and a magnificent vocal performance from Vedder that could shatter glass. This is an epic track that soars high above the rest of the album and is truly one of the band’s finest moments to date. Brilliant.
Overall this album is strong. It didn’t necessarily have to be, the band’s name alone is a huge money-spinner; they could crap on a cd and people would still buy it (Lulu anyone?), but after all these years they’re still driven and creative enough to put out a record which confirms their status as a truly great band. It’s not a masterpiece but it’s good enough and long time fans & newcomers alike should be more than happy with it.