Thursday, 31 October 2013

Music Review: Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt

Pearl Jam recently returned with their tenth studio album in a career spanning four decades.  After the disappointing Backspacer (2009), Lightning Bolt sees the band collect their best elements together to create arguably their most consistent record since their stunning 1991 debut Ten.

Opening track ‘Getaway’ sounds like a more mature take on ‘Brain of J’ (which opened 1998’s Yield) with flashes of the middle moments of 2002’s Riot Act.  As in the better songs on their eponymous effort from 2006, the guitar riffs are edgy, the chorus as catchy as a pop song and the track is beefed up by pounding drums and driving bass.

Eddie Vedder’s gravel-like voice, one of sounds which defined the heyday of grunge in the early 1990s, is back to its best. The former surfer really gets his growl going on ‘Mind Your Manners’, an upbeat number with all the spunk and head-banging know-how of concert staple ‘Spin the Black Circle’ from 1994’s Vitalogy.

Lyrically, there are flourishes too. Take the chorus from ‘My Father’s Son’ which reminds of the reflective, pseudo-scientific mysticism of 2000’s Binaural:

   Can I get a reprieve?
   This gene pool drowning me
   Can I get a release? 
   I'm a volunteer amputee

   From the moment I fail

   I call on DNA
   Why such betrayal?
   Got me tooth and nail

It’s hardly Shaksepeare, but the simplicity of the message and effectiveness of the rhymes is a poetic success.  The last line is replaced in the final chorus with “I gotta set sail” and that is the fitting solution to the problem of biological constraints explored throughout the song. 

One of my biggest grievances with recent Pearl Jam records has been their tendency to produce an excess of soppy, unimaginative ballads where they once composed multi-layered slower songs of great poignancy.  The slower tracks on Lightning Bolt by no means match classics such as ‘Betterman’ or ‘Yellow Ledbetter’, but they are more accomplished and inventive than in recent years.  The guitar solo in ‘Sirens’ is one of the best on the album. 

Elsewhere, ‘Pendulum’ is a remarkably dynamic dirge which reminds at times of The Shadows, while stripped down closers ‘Yellow Moon’ and ‘Future Days’ could have been plucked from Vedder’s highly acclaimed solo Into the Wild soundtrack.

‘Infallible’ is the sort of song that has kept Pearl Jam bands loyal throughout the years.  A funky bassline and moody guitars blend with plinky percussion and Vedder’s sublime vocal melodies to create a triumphant sound that no other band on the planet could replicate.

Pearl Jam really soar on Lightning Bolt when they crank the energy up as high as their ageing limbs will allow, finding their finest groove with the title track and the bluesy ‘Let the Records Play.’ 

There are no bad tracks on Lightning Bolt, unlike many of Pearl Jam’s previous albums.  Deeper into the record, ‘Swallowed Whole’ and ‘Sleeping By Myself’ are tunes which refuse to sit still while offering some of the album’s catchiest choruses.

Although the songs on Lightning Bolt may not have the undeniable potency of legendary rock anthems like ‘Even Flow’ and ‘Alive’, they do exhibit a band now comfortable in its own skin yet still daring enough to tread new ground.  The balance, it seems, has finally been struck and I for one hope there’s plenty more to come from Pearl Jam.

Oxford Road Rating: 

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