In Brief: A triumphant “return to form” that manages to not be a rehash of Ten or of their previous “return to form” on the self-titled album. Despite a few slow spots, Lightning Bolt has a surprising amount of instant likeability that doesn’t diminish as you get deeper into the album.
Pearl Jam‘s willingness to experiment with their sound from album to album, or even from song to song, may be both their greatest strength and their most glaring weakness. It’s one of those things that I can’t fault the band for, because it’s enabled them to survive and even flourish long after the endless parade of imitators trying to recapture the sound of Ten has mostly died out. It’s led to unusual songs that rank among my personal favorites by the band, in genres I never would have assumed they’d even touch. But it’s also led to some wildly uneven albums, to the point where even though I have great respect for most of their work, there are few records of theirs that I thoroughly enjoy listening to straight through from front to back. To be fair, I only know most of their discography due to taking a bit of a crash course after their self-titled album first got me into the band in 2006, so I didn’t get to wrestle with difficult records like Vitalogy (frequently cited by some fans as their best work) when they were brand-spankin’ new, without the next album in line begging me to give it a try instead. I found some incredibly intriguing ideas on albums like No Code and Binaural that got mixed reception from their fanbase. But I don’t go back to revisit those albums nearly as often as I do with the self-titled and Ten. Even Backspacer, a record made with the intent to be more concise and embrace the poppier aspects of their sound in ways they’d previously tried to avoid, was a weirdly disjointed album that I had a tough time getting into, despite how it surprised me by containing a few of the best ballads and acoustic songs they’d ever done. It just didn’t gel well with the back-to-basics rockers surrounding those songs, I guess. I don’t really know what I want from the band, to be honest, I just know that I never seem to fully get it from any specific album of theirs.
When the release of their tenth studio album Lightning Bolt was announced, I was intrigued but not necessarily all that excited. I figured I’d go through it a few times, find a few highlights, and gradually forget about the rest of it. Thankfully, I was wrong, because Lightning Bolt is that rare Pearl Jam album that managed to both hook me immediately with a varied set of highly memorable songs, and retain my attention as I dug deeper into the songs and looked for meaning and artistry beneath their superficially appealing elements. Stylistically, it’s as up for trying on different hats as most of their albums seem to be, but the album’s set up to flow incredibly well, despite the fact that it starts with a trio of edgy, angry songs and ends with 12 of the most laid-back minutes of music that Pearl Jam has probably put on an album all in a row like that. Solid singles can be culled from both extremes, as well as the center section of the album which deftly balances melancholy ballads with joyous rockers. Summing it up as a single genre is tough when it draws from influences as diverse as classic rock, punk, blues, and country. I’m not even sure why this album sticks out in my mind as such a cohesive listen when other romps through some of these genres on previous albums have felt like they came from left field. I guess Lightning Bolt is just one of those albums that reigns in the experimentation just enough to make me feel like the group is zooming on in the things they know they can do well, while never feeling predictable or repetitive. You’ll never confuse this for Ten, and while at some moments it could be seen as a companion to their self-titled disc, Lightning Bolt seems like a much more personal and less political record than that one.
It might actually be the personal songwriting that makes it stand out so much. Not that I didn’t love some of the avocado album’s anti-war diatribes, but Eddie Vedder seems to wear his heart on his sleeve here more often than not. It’s always been apparent that Pearl Jam could sprinkle a few songs of the more low-key and heartwarming variety into the midst of even some of their heaviest, most vitriolic albums, but here, I feel like Eddie’s no longer interested in being cryptic just for cryptic’s sake. He still manages to be a compelling songwriter without being a confusing one. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy some of the bizarre word salads on previous releases, but I appreciate the sustained “realness” here, especially since he does it without slipping into love song cliches. You might expect an “elder statesman” sort of band to have gone soft by now, but due to the weighty themes of mortality, arguments over personal beliefs, and familial relationships that haunt this album, even a simple, sentimental phrase can carry a lot of narrative baggage along with it. This gives needed weight to moments where Pearl Jam comes across as surprisingly radio-friendly. Mike McCready‘s soulful guitar soloing adds a ton of class to some of these moments, but Eddie and Stone Gossard‘s work on rhythm guitar also sound like they’re striving for more than just simple hooks and riffs on most occasions. This is a band that no longer fears “catchiness”, but that is also committed to not settling for only that. And while there may be a stray moment that gets a bit too sparse or mellow for my liking, Lightning Bolt still holds up to repeat listens incredibly well, to the point where I’m still quite excited about it several months after its release. If you used to like Pearl Jam but you’ve lapsed, I really hope I can convince you to give them another chance with this one.
On a bouncy rhythm reminiscent of “World Wide Suicide”, though not quite as earworm-y on first listen, the band opens the album in strong form, with a song that’s a bit of a religion rant and also a bit of a cry for tolerance. As upset as Eddie is with people telling him what to believe, it comes from both sides – equal parts “Holy rollers sitting with their backs to the middle” and “Science says we’re making love like the lizards”. While he clearly declares his skepticism here by saying “Sometimes you have to put your faith in no faith”, he takes a step forward from the usual diatribe on this subject and notes that “If you wanna have to pray, it’s alright/We all be thinking with our different brains”. (Truthfully, that line’s a bit painful as written, but I appreciate what he’s trying to say there.) The song’s a reminder that we all could use a break from all the yelling and screaming back and forth over evolution and creation and whatnot, and that he’s willing to “live and let live” as long as the folks who disagree with his views can abide by the cease-fire. Sum it all up with an excellent McCready solo and Eddie’s frustrated wail as the song reaches its climax, and we’re off to a solid start.
2. Mind Your Manners
Eddie’s punk roots come out to play every once in a while on Pearl Jam’s albums, at times sticking out like a sore thumb in the midst of more melodic and/or mellow material, but perhaps that’s the intent. This one’s as ideally placed after “Getaway” as “Comatose” was after “World Wide Suicide” seven years ago, and while some listeners might criticize this album for hitting us with the angry songs right out of the gate and then being comparatively mellow for the rest of the album, I think this particular track would have been jarring anywhere else. Eddie practically barks out the lyrics as he takes on the more stubborn folks who refuse to heed the previous song’s call for tolerance, pointing out the hypocrisy of them asking everyone else to clean up their behavior, when they basically use feeling that they’re right as an excuse to be big jerks. The lyrics are anything but subtle here: “What they’re taking is more than a vow/They’re taking young innocents and then they throw ’em on a burning pile.” While Eddie might lose a bit of his usual clever touch in the anything-but-nuanced urgency of his delivery, I can understand his frustration. The group shouts at the end of the song sum it up best: “Go to Heaven! That’s swell! How you like your living Hell?” When people (such as myself) who believe in the concept of Heaven see it as a far-off place to get whisked away to someday, rather than a state of being that should begin in the here and now, it can cause us to treat the world around us rather carelessly and condescendingly. Mr. Vedder and I may not see eye-to-eye on several things, but I’d rather have intelligent discourse about those sorts of things instead of being one of the causes for rants like these.
3. My Father’s Son
Things get more personal, though no less enraged, on this less-than-kind eulogy to Eddie’s deceased father. He keeps the punk energy from the last song, though he’s doing more singing than shouting here, as the band grinds their way through a sinister, jagged melody that always seems to turn in not-quite-comfortable directions. Eddie not only addresses the cowardice of a man who disappeared early in his life, insinuating that he’s nothing more than a glorified sperm donor, but he also points out the folly of letting his father’s mistakes hold him back as an adult: “From the moment I fail/I call on DNA/Why such betrayal?/I gotta set sail.” He praises his mother, considering her a “work of art”, someone who did the best she could despite the awful circumstances and who deserved much better treatment. (To say that I relate strongly to this one is an understatement – the only difference in my case is that my old man ain’t dead yet, and hopefully that it doesn’t take that for me to move on and rise above the bad example.) There’s a rather strange bridge section in which the band briefly shifts into an odd signature before Jeff Ament‘s slick bass riffing takes Eddie back into his final fit of angst, which contains the album’s only profanity (at least, that I’ve noticed thus far): “Now father, you’re dead and gone/And I’m finally free to be me/Thanks for all your f*cked-up gifts/For which I got no sympathy!” While I prefer for bands to go easy on the Precision F-Strikes, I can think of few occasions more deserving than this one.
The power ballad that shows up next seems like an abrupt shift in tone at first, with the last one nearly going off the rails in its fury, and this one so even-keeled, guided by the unwavering strum of an acoustic guitar. As a result, this song seemed as dubious as some of Pearl Jam’s other less noticeable mid-tempo tracks at first, until I realized that it was as gripping a meditation on aging as a few of the highlights on Backspacer, and also that it just had one of the most heart-rending melodies and gorgeous guitar solos I’ve heard on any Pearl Jam record, ever. To be fair, this is something that they consciously tried to avoid in the old days, so don’t take this as a knock on older songs that were written with completely different goals in mind. They were consciously going for more of an epic throwback to the days of classic rock here, a la Pink Floyd. As this one gets going and Eddie’s strong but vulnerable baritone draws us into his sweet confession of wanting the woman he loves to feel safe and secure even as he shuffles off of this mortal coil, the full band really picks up steam around him, and despite the incredibly full sound provided by three guitarists and honorary band member Boom Gaspar on piano, it never feels trite or overproduced. I’m thrilled to see that this one has done so well as a single, and that Pearl Jam fans seems to have embraced it rather than seeing it as a sellout – which I guess shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, given how moving “Just Breathe” and “Come Back” were on their last two albums.
5. Lightning Bolt
The title track is just pure, undistilled fun. I don’t say that sort of thing about Pearl Jam songs very often – while many of them are a blast to listen to, most of them have got angst up the wazoo if you really listen to the lyrics. For all I know, this one could have started as an angry rant about a destructive woman who Eddie got really messed up over, but what he ended up writing feels like more of a homage to a mystifying force of nature, as if he accepts that he’ll never capture this lightning in a bottle. The band has whipped up an irresistibly upbeat performance here that once again makes great use of Gaspar’s piano, as it rings out over the bright, energetic guitar melody, like something you’d hear on a jukebox in a lively roadhouse or play with the top down on a carefree roadtrip through the Pacific Northwest. Even when Eddie gets so excited that his wavering voice breaks out into full-on screams near the end, the mood is one of awe and not anger. I should point out yet another excellent dual guitar attack by McCready and Gossard, but on this album, if I stopped to describe every sweet riff or solo, we’d honestly be here all day.
Mid-tempo jangle pop is something that oughta work well for Pearl Jam, given how well they pulled off gleefully upbeat jangle-pop on the last track, but this one… I don’t know, it’s sort of awkward. Gaspar’s circus-like organ riff sets us up for something whimsical, but the stilted rhythm sort of holds the song back, and Eddie’s lyrics about the hubris of the stubborn human brain, while thoughtfully written, are a bit too serious to play well in this context. The band does manage to lock into an acceptably head-bobbing groove by the time the song is over, but I find myself wishing this song would more openly embrace its oddball status, perhaps by demonstrating some sort of wry or self-deprecating humor. As grim as Eddie can sometimes be, I know he’s also capable of these things.
If Lightning Bolt were a home-cooked meal, I suppose it would be a tasty course overall, but its middle section would be a bit undercooked. Because this is one of those songs that feels more like an extended mood than a fully fleshed out thought. It’s the most abstract thing on the album, which I guess won’t seem all that strange to folks who managed to digest all of the weirdness on every album from Vitalogy up through Binaural, and I don’t dislike it for being different – the distant, murky keyboards and rumbling bass are actually appealing at first, until I start to realize that all of the brooding isn’t really going anywhere. Eddie sings of feeling lost and adrift here, not knowing what to believe: “Understand what we don’t know/This might pass, this might last, this may grow/Easy come and easy go/Easy left me a long time ago.” While these thought are a compelling springboard for further discussion, the song kind of gets swallowed in its own ambiance, not really offering much in the way of climax or payoff. Which would be fine as a transitional piece between songs that more fully fleshed out the existential quandary, but the next song kind of jolts us out of the trance.
8. Swallowed Whole
Now I don’t necessarily mind the jolt here, because as this one gets revved up with its up-tempo acoustic riff and what might just be the world’s happiest lyrics ever written about drowning, I’m easily swept up in the motion of it. I’ll consider this another one of Eddie’s “surfing” songs, since they seem to have become a fixture on PJ’s recent albums – while the sport is never specifically referenced here, it’s as clear as it was in “Big Wave” and “Amongst the Waves” that he feels most at home when he’s defying death at the maw of a huge breaker. Wave-riding is to him what hiking is to me, I guess – a chance to retreat from the noise of humanity and just be at one with nature. This joyous tune is interesting in that its punchy verse is much more of a hook than its comparatively laid-back chorus – but then, maybe I’ve got those sections labeled backwards and he’s just choosing to start the song with a chorus that changes its lyrics each time. No matter debating about such trivialities when there’s another delicious guitar solo lurking just around the corner, though.
9. Let the Records Play
As the grimy riff that starts off this song kicks in to a shuffling rhythm, it starts to sound like what my admittedly pop and rock-oriented brain considers to be “the blues” – it’s probably not really the blues, but it’s pretty darn good for an approximation played by the elder statesmen of alternative rock. The subject matter will feel familiar here to anyone who still treasures the now 20-year-old “Spin the Black Circle”, as this song re-states with laid-back, soulful fervor what that one did with frantic urgency. There is really no deeper message to this one than the simple notion that putting on a good record helps you to forget the day’s troubles and give the wounds a little time to heal. It’s accompanied by a drink and perhaps a smoke here, but not in a reckless, raising hell kind of way – you get the sense that a guy’s got an entire den or garage set aside for just this purpose, perhaps a place where he can knock a few billiard balls into their pockets with the boys, or perhaps where he can just unwind alone and reminisce. I love the slinky bounce of Matt Cameron‘s drums here, as well as the contributions of all three guitarists – I can never tell whose axe is whose without watching clips of the band playing live, but I appreciate the diversity of styles explored by all three axe-men on this disc.
10. Sleeping By Myself
And hey, speaking of diversity, how about a little country song to help chase down those sorrows? No? Suit yourself, then. It’s not like it’s a twangy country song or anything – it’s got more of a lightly bouncy folk/rock lilt to it, I guess, but it’s still worlds away from the angst you might have expected from classic pearl Jam. I guess astute listeners were prepared for this one, since it already made an appearance on Eddie’s solo record, Ukulele Songs, and sure enough, he reprises his role on the uke here. I’ll be honest and say that it’s easy to miss the highlights when it’s just track after track of Eddie all by his lonesome on that instrument – I had listened to his solo album, but neither this song nor the excellent “Without You” had really registered at first. Then Natalie Maines went and recorded a beautiful rendition of “Without You”, and what the full band has done with this one gives it a similar effect. It just ain’t the same without it reaching full gallop, the other guys chiming in on background vocals, and the electric guitars beautifully accenting all the twists and turns of one of Eddie’s most convincingly melancholy tunes. As in a great many country songs, he plays the role of a man who finds out his woman’s been two-timing him, so he confronts the issue and quickly finds himself alone, apparently because she has chosen the other man. He’s a bit of a sad sack here, but also a determined survivor, acknowledging that no longer having her to wake up to every morning really hurts, but he’ll continue waking up alone every day because there’s still something to live for and something to learn from the situation.
11. Yellow Moon
The other underbaked moment on the album is up next, and it’s a pity, because after one of the band’s most wonderful mellow tunes, the album could have used one last little shot in the arm before its pensive finale. Instead, we get this weird little song that just sort of falls through the cracks, interrupting the lineup of solid performances preceding it by way of an oddball rhythm that just seems like it’s forcing itself to be strange by cutting itself off early, rather than being strange in some organic and admirable way. I’m normally a big fan of unorthodox time signatures, so it says something that I happen to find this one jarring – it’s because I can imagine in my mind’s eye how well it would flow if they’d just left its laid-back rhythm of 6/8 alone (which they revert back to when it gets to the chorus, which is unfortunately bogged down by Eddie’s warbling turning the words “Yellow moon on the rise” into near-gibberish). I’ll give the guitarists credit – they figured out how to wring some beautiful solos out of the unorthodox rhythm, and perhaps I’d appreciate this one more if it was simply a jam session left as a B-side. As a song with actual lyrics, it doesn’t really hang together well, and since the last quarter of the album is mellow overall, this one tends to drag down people’s initial impressions of the much better songs surrounding it.
12. Future Days
A sparse acoustic ballad is probably not how you would expect a Pearl Jam record to end, though they’ve done this well enough before with No Code‘s “Around the Bend” and Bakcspacer‘s “The End”. Like the latter, this one is concerned with mortality, though in this case it’s more about what aspects of a couple’s love for each other will live on in their descendants and the other people whose lives they touched after they are dead and gone. I’m making it sound cheesier than how Eddie presents it – because he is a gifted lyricist and I am not. Still, it’s definitely on the mushier end of the spectrum and it may disappoint listeners who have been itching for some full-on rock action for nearly 15 minutes now, so I’m not gonna pretend this will be a universal favorite. Since the emphasis is more on pensive finger-picking, delicate string accompaniment, and a bit of piano, this could have almost been a candidate for an Eddie Vedder solo album not called Ukulele Songs. But it’s effective for what it is. As the last notes of piano fade out, I’m reassured that if one of Eddie’s children were to write a song for him someday after he had passed on, that song would be absolutely nothing like “My Father’s Son”.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Mind Your Manners $1.25
My Father’s Son $1.50
Lightning Bolt $1.75
Swallowed Whole $1.25
Let the Records Play $1.50
Sleeping By Myself $2
Yellow Moon $.50
Future Days $1
Eddie Vedder: Lead vocals, rhythm guitar, ukulele
Mike McCready: Lead guitar, backing vocals
Stone Gossard: Rhythm and lead guitar, bass, backing vocals
Jeff Ament: Bass, backing vocals
Matt Cameron: Drums, backing vocals
Kenneth “Boom” Gaspar: Organ, piano, keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: