Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Pearl Jam’s ‘Lightning Bolt’ lacks implied energy

By Jackson Maxwell

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At this point in their careers, Pearl Jam doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. They’ve been one of America’s biggest rock institutions for over 20 years now, and have put out nine studio albums, proving they have far more staying power than most of their early ‘90s alternative rock peers. Over the last 10 years however, the band’s studio output hasn’t been able to shake a sense of rigid formality.

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Aside from the occasional highlight, Pearl Jam’s last four albums have been experiments in new sounds, going back to old strengths and attempting to push musical boundaries. On these albums they have never fully fallen flat or failed, but they haven’t really been triumphant in any way either. The band just hasn’t had any real creative spark in many years; no sense of occasion or excitement. Unfortunately on “Lightning Bolt,” the band’s 10th album, which came out on Oct. 15, this sense of flatness remains. Some tracks are strong, some aren’t, but in the end the album just flows as a completely straight line; the bad weighing in evenly with the good.

The twelve tracks here can be fairly easily split into two halves. The album’s opening one-two punch of gritty hard-rock doesn’t hit with any impact whatsoever. “Getaway” is startlingly generic, while “Mind Your Manners” just sounds a little ridiculous. The latter was an attempt by guitarist Mike McCready at writing “a really hard-edge type Dead Kennedys-sounding song,” he claimed on the Pearl Jam YouTube page.

To say the ultra-serious arena-rockers sound a little out of their comfort zone attempting to emulate the sarcasm-laced hardcore of the Dead Kennedys is an understatement. The album also closes with four exceedingly flat tracks. On “Let the Records Play” the band goes all-out with bluesy/classic-rock/‘70s vinyl nostalgia. It’s a painful reminder that the band will likely soon be considered classic rock. “Sleeping By Myself,” “Yellow Moon” and “Future Days” end the record with three straight doses of overly sentimental balladry. While “Sleeping By Myself” and “Yellow Moon” do have a couple of endearing qualities, closer “Future Days” makes Pearl Jam sound like a bad country band.

Pearl Jam, the hard-rock band who burst into the world’s consciousness with incredibly raw songs about depression, suicide and domestic turmoil, doing a saccharine, Top 40 radio-ready ballad with piano and strings: it looks terrible on paper, and doesn’t work any better in reality, ending the album on a very low note.

But sandwiched between the album’s dreary opening and closing statements are a few faint reminders as to why some people still consider Pearl Jam to be a relevant force in today’s music. Father-son issues are certainly not new subject matter for front man Eddie Vedder, but “My Father’s Son” is musically engaging enough to be the album’s first solid track. Slower tracks “Pendulum” and “Infallible,” while a bit long, feature strong vocal performances from Vedder and the band’s rhythm section of bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron.

The hard-rocking title track “Lightning Bolt” moves with a real sense of urgency, a rare occurrence in an album that just can never seem to get any sort of momentum going. The near six-minute ballad, “Sirens,” turns out to be the album’s one real shining light. The chorus has a powerful hook that is delivered with a fierce intensity by Vedder. For a few minutes it sounds like the Pearl Jam of 1993, rather than 2013, is playing. But this little burst of energy is far too little to save a mostly bland, inconsequential album.

Pearl Jam can likely keep going for as long as they please. They will still sell out arenas, and sell hundreds of thousands of this and each of their subsequent albums. But the idea that the band is still a creative force doesn’t hold much traction at all given their recent output. In a way, it would almost be better if the band made a truly bad album, rather than continuing this now five-album long streak of shrug-inducing material. And while Pearl Jam remains one of the most easily accessible and likable bands in mainstream rock, “Lightning Bolt” shows that the chances of them making more relevant music in their career seem to be growing impossibly small.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected]

1 Comment

One Response to “Pearl Jam’s ‘Lightning Bolt’ lacks implied energy”

  1. The Mike on October 22nd, 2013 1:56 pm

    Some good and not so good with this “review.” I have been reading a lot of the reviews on Lightning Bolt – and a lot of the same quotes are being used, it seems like no one is giving it the time of day, one quick listen and pushing out a review. The question you should be asking is: What are we expecting from a band that is near the age of 50?? Does anyone remember The Who’s album or the Stones album when they were 50? I sure dont. But Pearl Jams will be number 1 in the US. Is this album going to change music like TEN or VS. did? Probably not. Does it deliver relevant alternative music that is original with great lyrics, nasty guitar solos, and a great rhythm? 100% it does. Its not Pearl Jam’s job to change or save Rock and Roll: They did that already from the hair bands. If you want to be critical of today’s rock, look to our youth (the Strokes, Killers, Kings of Leon, Jack White) And whoever else is out there – – they are the ones whom keep letting us down. Rock and Roll is dying, Pearl Jam and the Foo are only going to be relevant so many more years…but if PJ keeps pumping out records like this – Rock stands a chance to live on. TEN part 2 is not going to happen – once you realize that and actually do a review on a band that has already given us everything they have and still come out with a badass rock album, you will write something that someone will agree with.

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