Time and tide wait for no one. The one piece of advice that resonates the most as the sands of time run out on each of us. It is probably the cruelest certainty we face. Still, if it’s something that is absolutely out of our control, why worry?
We change with time and once you’ve been doing the rounds in a specific job, like in a band, you can reach a moment where you start to phone it in. There’s also a moment where your audience no longer identify with what you’re writing and move away (ideally) or bitch endlessly at the drop of the hat (see Stone Temple Pilots’ comments section after any update – poor dudes can’t get a break.)
After Yield, I felt a disconnect with Pearl Jam. I enjoyed Yield, but something seemed to be missing from their previous effort, No Code (check my gushing piece here.) Still, I didn’t want to be that guy who complains to all four winds that “they used to be better before” and I kept buying their albums, either due to a completist urge and as a reminder that keeping an open mind might lead to better judgements than knee jerk reactions.
With that said, Binaural, Avocado (aka the self titled one) and Backspacer weren’t much to my liking. Riot Act, however, made a good impression and a couple of songs moved permanently into my “Loved Songs” list.
With that said, Lightning Bolt is a very pleasant surprise. Has the band stopped being as fierce as the guttural musings of Vs. (their angriest album)? Sure, but a forty year old trying to be as angry and raucous as a twentysomething is more of a midlife crisis than a “I will never sell out!” person. Pearl Jam know who they are, they acknowledge their age and instead of swimming against the riptide, they go along with it, exploring with wide eyes the vicissitudes of age.
Mind you, this is not a ballad album. Mike McCready recently joked that they are a “Dad Band” and my usual joker self would like to add the “Dad Rock Band”, but that’s me.
The pace of Lightning Bolt is somewhere between the mellower parts of No Code and Riot Act. ‘Getaway’ feels a bit vanilla but actually goes for that Pearl Jam build-up, with Eddie Vedder’s vocals being a major point. ‘Mind your manners’ might feel like a slowed down version of ‘Spin the black circle’, but whatever it lacks in speed it makes up in urgency, having an energy that ‘My father’s son’ doesn’t quite achieve, but still pines for.
‘Sirens’ confused me when I heard it for the first time. I thought about a thousand 80s ballads, but couldn’t find one to actually compare in equal grounds. Then realised that this little track is gorgeous, one of the poppiest moments of their career. A very well crafted pop, though, and that’s always welcomed with open arms. If you need a dose of rock, ‘Lightning Bolt’ is there, with a full bravado solo that highlights why Pearl Jam’s McCready and Gossard are beasts of the trade. I assume that detour for Moonlander helped dish out some great guitar ideas.
‘Infallible’ is an interesting track. Slightly Britpop (at least in the verses), it’s another lovely pop track. And then comes a suckerpunch in the form of ‘Pendulum’. When Pearl Jam dab into solemn, introspective tracks, they always show a great side not many people consider when doing these written pieces and as a fan, I welcome this track, as it offers both an extra shade of Pearl Jam and a place for Jeff Ament to do some sterling bass work while Matt Cameron’s sparse drumming adds an ethereal sense. Rest assured: this is one of the best tracks of Lightning Bolt.
‘Swallowed Whole’ and ‘Let The Records’ play are Pearl Jam having fun, with the former following the blueprint the rockier tracks of this album have followed whilst the latter embracing a dirty blues approach. ‘Sleeping by myself’ is Pearl Jam pulling a Son Volt/Ryan Adams on us; an ukulele trip through country music might jar some, but let’s remember: this is a band that pulled off having an accordion-heavy track about insects (or were they?)
‘Yellow Moon’ is dad rock. This is not bad, like I said before, Pearl Jam are acting the age and if they are honest about it, so be it. ‘Future Days’ is a quiet ending, and you can imagine the band finishing the recording of this album with that introspective wink and wry smile.
Listen to Lightning Bolt with an open mind. No band will ever sound the same 20 years down the line. There’s a sense of honesty and acceptance in Lightning Bolt, like a dad that once played in the local haunts and now plays with his kids in the back garden, smiling in the knowledge that once they are finished, he’ll have a Jack and coke and jam for a while in his “man cave”. Heck, he might even get the band together for a couple of gigs.
Words: Sam J. Valdés López