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Now into their third decade, Pearl Jam are providing the soundtrack to more than just one generation. They’ve found a unique formula to continue their success, providing a consistency and longevity often unseen in the music industry. With Lightning Bolt, the upcoming tenth studio album by the lads from Seattle, they show they haven’t broken the mould just yet.
Did they need to? Well, no. If you have something that works, stick to it. Once again Pearl Jam find a way to blend fast motion power tracks and soulful ballads with heartfelt lyrics in an eloquent mix. That unmistakable Eddie Vedder voice reigns throughout the album and feels like an old pair of well-worn jeans.
The album was produced by long-time Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien and follows up 2009's Backspacer, the longest hiatus between albums for the quintet. As we know, Vedder was busy producing his own album Ukulele Songs and the band spent much of the last two years celebrating their 20th anniversary and the release of documentary/soundtrack PJ20. So it’s surprising they even had time to record an album.
Much like other Pearl Jam albums before it, Lightning Bolt is a tale in two halves. Opening track Getaway kicks off the album with the proverbial bang you would expect. It’s upbeat, guitar-driven and familiar.
Slipping straight into Mind Your Manners, the first single off the album. It’s a fluid movement, and doesn’t stray too far from the uptempo path. Listening to an interview with guitarist Mike McCready, this riff was his take on a hard-edged Dead Kennedys sound, and one that works beautifully on this track. Think Spin the Black Circle from Vitalogy, like Circle this song is probably the heaviest track on the album too.
The second single Sirens has a characteristically Pearl Jam tone and feel. I read this track described as “too fluffy and middle-aged sounding.” I’m over 30 and I’ve been listening to this band for a good portion of my life, and if this is what middle-aged music is like, it’s fine with me. Great track and one you can go back to again and again. Likely the single that will get the most universal attention.
My Father’s Son feels slightly lost between light and dark, never conquering either, while title track Lightning Bolt could have easily been a first or second single.
The journey into the second act of the album begins with Infallible. It showcases a slightly alternate sound, but the album truly, and quit suddenly, goes in a whole new direction on Pendulum – on first listen, it held little interest, but this is a song that will grow on you. It will definitely take more than one listen.
Let the Records Play is a welcome surprise. You could pull up a stool at the local saloon to its tangy, blues-driven opening riff. In fact, you can ignore the vocals in this song entirely and just enjoy the massive solos (yes, plural).
The latter quarter of the album shows the introspective and quieter side of the band. Sleeping By Myself, originally a ukulele track taken directly from Vedder’s solo album, gets the full band makeover and loses none of its sincerity. It’s followed with the gentle Yellow Moon.
We end with Future Days, a piano-driven track set in contrast to the clamourous start of the album. This feels more like a Vedder solo track, a nice change of pace and a fitting finish to a diverse album.
So what’s the verdict? Well that’s complicated. Lightning Bolt is, for all intents and purposes, representative of everything we love about Pearl Jam, with something for every type of fan contained within. While there’s nothing revolutionary, it’s unlikely to upset old fans, and may just garner a couple of new ones. Solid and simple in its execution.