As a band matures, its catalog assumes a life of its own—and Pearl Jam’s 10th studio entry marks middle age’s comfortable yet itchy peak with layers of caution and enthusiasm.
After 23 years together, Eddie Vedder and co. (with producer Brendan O’Brien) are as compelling and driven as ever, performing with palpable emotional intensity. While introspection and political antipathy fueled previous efforts, Lightning Bolt (out now, Monkeywrench/Republic Records, pearljam.com) is powered by profound love, the fear of loss, and a disdain for hypocrisy. (Surely figuring into this equation is the fact that Vedder and guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard are now dads.) The album opens with an appropriate jolt: chunky chords propel defiant “Getaway;” “Mind Your Manners” sizzles at a frenetic pace; “My Father’s Son” rails against terrible parenting. Through each, Matt Cameron and Jeff Ament’s rhythm section drives surprising tempo changes while Vedder’s verses sprint, rat-a-tat, and soar. There’s more exploration here than in 2009’s brief, seesawing Backspacer. “Let the Records Play” is a raucous, dirty, blues-dipped bouncer. Vedder’s own “Sleeping By Myself” gets a curious near-country cover. Vocal layers (“Infallible”) and hollow guitar wah (“Pendulum”) add atmosphere and depth. As is their trademark, Pearl Jam counterpunches fierceness with elegant balladry. “Future Days” recalls The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me.” And the majestic love song “Sirens” rivals their best work. (When Vedder sings “I study your face/The fear goes away,” you will be moved.)
Lightning Bolt is equal parts adrenaline and oxytocin, a balance befitting midlife’s precarious perspective. It catches Pearl Jam looking both behind and beyond. And if the band’s return to music-video production and its upcoming soundtrack for the World Series is any indication, the view must be inspiring and rejuvenating.