Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pearl Jam ponders their mortality on 10th studio album Lightning Bolt

Even when Pearl Jam is down, they're never out.  The former grunge ragers saw their star dimming after a string of middling releases culminating in the early 2000s, but have been the beneficiaries of a full blown renaissance following the release of their 2006 self-titled album. In an age where many bands today rely on heavy helpings of studio trickery, Pearl Jam presents one of the most convincing arguments for pure guitar rock. For the most part, Lightning Bolt sticks to the blueprint established on 2009's Backspacer and the self-titled, but throws minor curveballs here and there.

The lyrical topics sees Vedder keying in on questions of religion vs. science, God, nature, and his own mortality. Ravishing opener "Getaway" tackles these issues head on, with Vedder seemingly turning his back on religion as he declares that you sometimes must put faith in no faith. Jeff Ament's bass often finds itself buried under layers of guitars, but here it gets plenty of breathing room and provides the backbone for one of the album's crunchiest and most melodic rockers. "Mind Your Manners," meanwhile, is a callback to the band's early grunge days with its blistering, grimy guitar and punk rock influence. With speed an intensity rivaling that of "Spin the Black Circle" from 1994's Vitalogy, it's sure to be a favorite with the headbangers.

The concept of self-examination is another of Lightning Bolt's defining themes, and nowhere does this come across greater than on the striking ballad "Sirens." This piece is custom designed to tug on your heartstrings, as Vedder reflects on his own mortality while hearing police sirens blare through the street late at night and ponders the ramifications of leaving his family behind. At times he raises into near falsetto, and sounds as though he's about to get teary eyed himself as he sings of dancing with laughter with the ever after. The theme of death and tombstones crop up more than once on Lightning Bolt, but never is the concept painted in more dynamic brushstrokes than what we see here.

Yet with all this discussion of Vedder, it's easy to get away from the varied instrumentation that makes up Lightning Bolt's colorful patchwork. Guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard are once again in fine form. The title track features some of the band's tightest and most focused playing to date, presenting a passionate, stripped down, and immediate approach as waves of churning riffs and solos cascade out of your earbuds. "Mind Your Manners," meanwhile, features a bridge that cuts through the muck and grime to deliver a sky high stanza, before giving way into a methodical and highly calculated solo.

There are also some great moments of experimentation to be found dotting the album's second half. There is an ever so minor southwestern vibe that creeps up here and there, but is most pronounced on "Let the Records Play," a grooving tune packed with smoky blues solos and a beat that could have been ripped directly from a ZZ Top song. It's not tough to imagine this playing at some backwater blues club frequented by the likes of Quentin Tarantino. Elsewhere, "Pendulum" develops at a slow, mellow pace and transfixes the listener's attention with a stunning sense of hypnotism. But it dissipates as quickly as it appeared, leaving you with a feeling of coldness and desolation.

For all intents and purposes, Pearl Jam's 10th studio album is a fine achievement. The biggest drawback is that it often finds the band retreading similar musical territory they've been over numerous times. Once again, the band opens with a high intensity, raging rocker, closes with an acoustic ballad and packs a bevy of mostly familiar tunes and tempos in between.  "Sleeping By Myself" and "Future Days," aren't necessarily complaint worthy, but it sounds like the same type of low energy terrain we've covered before. It's good question as to where the band will go from here, but it's a question they can afford to put off for an album or two. Pearl Jam is still continuing to put out more than a handful of thought provoking hits, and that should be more than enough for fans at the moment.

Score: 76/100

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