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Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt Album Cover
Author's Rating
Vocals 7.5
Musicianship 7.5
Lyrics 7.5
Production 7.5
Creativity 7.5
Lasting Value 7.5
Reviewer Tilt 7.5
Final Verdict: 75%
Member Ratings
Vocals 8
Musicianship 10
Lyrics 7
Production 10
Creativity 5
Lasting Value 5
Reviewer Tilt 7.5
Average: 75%

Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt

Reviewed by: Craig Manning (10/21/13)
Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt
Release Date: October 15, 2013
Record Label:
Monkeywrench, Republic

Full disclosure: I’ve never been a huge Pearl Jam fan. While I respect their music and have heard endlessly about the religious experience that is their live show, Pearl Jam has long remained one of those bands whose albums take up ample real estate on my iPod, but not so much in my actual listening rotation. From my angle, Pearl Jam has followed a very similar career arc to Bruce Springsteen and U2: all three are considered Gods of the live rock concert; all three rose from promising early records to preeminent importance—both sales-wise and in terms of pure musical influence—among the rock ‘n’ roll artists of their time; after strings of beloved records, all three receded from the spotlight in favor of “experimental” music that took them away from their roots and alienated early fans; in the 2000s, all three bounced back from their more derided periods with records that were cited as successful returns to form; and today, all three have lost a bit of their critical gravitas due to dissenters who justifiably call their post-millennial output “safe” or “irrelevant.”

Indeed, Pearl Jam seems like the kind of band I should love. After all, I hold both Springsteen and U2 among my five favorite acts in the history of recorded music, and while Pearl Jam hails from a genre and an era that I don’t care for as much—1990s alternative rock—they still have done plenty to separate themselves from their one-time grunge contemporaries. I like Pearl Jam’s first few records—Ten and Vs. are both classics of their time—and I even have a fondness for their past few “safe” and “irrelevant” records—the barnstorming, back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll of 2006’s Self-Titled renders it a solid, no-frills rock record, while 2009’s much-maligned Backspacer has more than its share of great songs. I’m less taken with the band’s mid-career experimentalism—No Code, Binaural, and Riot Act are admittedly off my personal wavelength—but the band’s catalog still stands as a solid, fully-likable collection of records that I have always respected but never quite loved.

Which makes it all the more surprising how much I have come to adore Pearl Jam’s newest record—their tenth, titled Lightning Bolt—over the past few weeks. As I’ve perused reviews for this album, I’ve come across more than a few remarks about how Lightning Bolt is a safe, solid record that won’t win Pearl Jam any new fans. But as someone who is connecting with this album in a way that I have never really connected with any of Pearl Jam’s work in the past, I think that statement is false. The general argument is that, the further a band gets into their career, the more complacent they become with their fixed fanbase and the less likely they are to challenge that fanbase or to risk alienation in an attempt to earn new fans. And indeed, Lightning Bolt is not risky, at least not in the way that Pearl Jam’s adventurous middle period was. With that said, though, there are still textures of versatility throughout this album’s 12 tracks that I think have been notably absent from the band’s last two, which, while enjoyable, were rarely memorable.

A big reason for the sonic variation is the number of ballads that make the cut this time around. Down-tempo slowburns are more prevalent here than they have ever been on a Pearl Jam record, and while that fact will probably turn off some longtime fans, it makes for a measured, well-paced tracklist that keeps Lightning Bolt compelling for the majority of its near-50-minute runtime. The centerpiece comes with the instant-classic power balladry of “Sirens,” a heartwrenching examination of love, mortality, and infidelity that immediately ranks as one of the band’s finest songs. Vedder’s heartfelt vocal elevates the song beyond token ballad status, but it’s ultimately Mike McCready’s rousing, anthemic guitar solo that earns the song classic status. McCready wrote “Sirens” on his own, with an epic Pink Floyd-esque feel in mind, and the influence radiates through the song’s throwback classic rock aesthetic.

The band’s patent, no-nonsense rock songs are still here, from “Mind Your Manners,” the album’s punk-injected first single, to “Infallible,” which wants desperately to be a climactic main set closer, but which serves instead as the head-bobbing conclusion to this album’s solid but not incredibly diverse first half. The diversity comes instead during Lightning Bolt’s last six songs, beginning with the haunting piano loops of “Pendulum,” and continuing into the surprisingly convincing mix of folk and alt-country that carries the album out. “Sleeping By Myself,” the album’s most blatantly backwoods number, sounds like a mix between classic country and the yearning, guttural folk of Vedder’s solo work on the Into the Wild soundtrack. (Tellingly, it’s a repurposed gem from Vedder’s other recent solo venture, 2011’s Ukelele Songs.)

Meanwhile, “Yellow Moon” is a brooding piece of dusky folk rock that sounds like a b-side from one of the early Counting Crows records, and album closer, “Future Days,” is a gorgeous acoustic lullaby that, along with “Sirens,” stands as Lightning Bolt’s most lingering contribution to the Pearl Jam songbook. “When hurricanes and cyclones raged, when wind turned dirt to dust/When floods they came or tides they raised/Ever closer became us,” Vedder sings on the bridge, over a radiant autumnal blend of acoustic guitars, nostalgic fiddle, and powerful piano chords (courtesy of longtime producer, Brendan O'Brien). It’s the kind of song you can imagine the band playing at the tail end of their eventual farewell gig, and that emotional image makes it the perfect parting gift for their tenth studio record.

Lightning Bolt won’t go down in history as one of Pearl Jam’s best, or even as a great rock record in general. At this point, Pearl Jam would have to completely depart from their roots to score a strong reaction from most publications, and they still might have trouble impressing some of their more cynical critics at a site like Pitchfork. But for a group of guys who are now 22 years on from their debut album and 15 years past their prime as one of the biggest and most important groups in rock ‘n’ roll, Lightning Bolt is a strikingly stellar set of songs that belies the band’s democratic nature. Aside from drummer Matt Cameron, every member of the band gets a solo writing credit here, from the soaring arena feel of McCready’s “Sirens” to the riff-heavy, road trippin’ rock of Vedder’s “Lightning Bolt,” from the claustrophobic intensity of bassist Jeff Ament’s “My Father’s Son” to the rollicking swing of guitarist Stone Gossard’s “Let the Records Play.” The songs aren’t all classics, and there is nothing about Lightning Bolt that replicates the late-career triumph of Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball (or supposedly, of the new Danger Mouse-produced U2 album), but with this record, Pearl Jam finally feel comfortable with their role as elder statesmen of rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s enough to make it the most wholly enjoyable album they’ve made together since Yield.

7.5/10

Additional InformationPearl Jam Is...
Eddie Vedder: Vocals, Guitar, Ukelele

Mike McCready: Lead Guitar, Six String Bass
Stone Gossard: Guitar
Matt Cameron: Drums, Background Vocals
Jeff Ament: Bass, Background Vocals

Tracklist:
01. Getaway
02. Mind Your Manners
03. My Father's Son
04. Sirens
05. Lightning Bolt
06. Infallible
07. Pendulum
08. Swallowed Whole
09. Let The Records Play
10. Sleepy By Myself
11. Yellow Moon
12. Future Days
Produced by Brendan O'Brien
 
Displaying posts 1 - 15 of 17
07:34 AM on 10/21/13
#2
suicidesaints
A Million F@$% Diamonds
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I too have just been a casual PJ fan over the years, but I've heard about 4 songs off this record so far, and I'm probably gonna go pick it up based on those tracks. I think the last PJ album I bought was Vitalogy so...
07:48 AM on 10/21/13
#3
jpd19125
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i liked this a lot
08:22 AM on 10/21/13
#4
phaynes1
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Don't understand how you can call wrecking ball a late-career triumph and this anything but. This is their best since yield. Completely revitalizes the band with an energy they haven't had in over a decade.
08:51 AM on 10/21/13
#5
Craig Manning
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Don't understand how you can call wrecking ball a late-career triumph and this anything but. This is their best since yield. Completely revitalizes the band with an energy they haven't had in over a decade.
Mostly because I think this is several notches below Wrecking Ball. With that album, Springsteen not only sounded more lively than he had in twenty years, he also had something vital to say again (a huge difference between Wrecking Ball and its predecessor) and was saying it by blending a wide array of musical styles, some of which he'd never attempted before. This album is good, but I don't think it's on the same level.
09:01 AM on 10/21/13
#6
phaynes1
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Mostly because I think this is several notches below Wrecking Ball. With that album, Springsteen not only sounded more lively than he had in twenty years, he also had something vital to say again (a huge difference between Wrecking Ball and its predecessor) and was saying it by blending a wide array of musical styles, some of which he'd never attempted before. This album is good, but I don't think it's on the same level.
Couldn't disagree more. Really found little to nothing to take away from that album. Eh, different tastes.
09:38 AM on 10/21/13
#7
Craig Manning
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Couldn't disagree more. Really found little to nothing to take away from that album. Eh, different tastes.
Yeah, not that big of a surprise we differ on this. You are obviously a bigger PJ fan than I am, and Springsteen is my favorite artist, so I'm biased toward him. If I had to pick a parallel for this album in Bruce's catalog, it would be Magic though: a very good, very nostalgic late career gem that probably isn't anyone's favorite record, but one that most people at least respect and like to a certain degree.
12:49 PM on 10/21/13
#8
An H Chord
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Love this record. I can't wait to see them tonight!
02:06 PM on 10/21/13
#9
ugman_2000
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I'm really digging this album & I definitley think it's their best out of their more recent stuff (not to say I haven't enjoyed PJs 00's outputs) I need to listen to it more to form a proper opinion on it though.

I'd suggest if you like the slowburners on this Craig that you re-visit Riot Act. I personally think RA is hugely underated & it's all pretty much slow burners (probably the reason why a lot of people didn't take to it as much at the time).
03:41 PM on 10/21/13
Craig Manning
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I'm really digging this album & I definitley think it's their best out of their more recent stuff (not to say I haven't enjoyed PJs 00's outputs) I need to listen to it more to form a proper opinion on it though.

I'd suggest if you like the slowburners on this Craig that you re-visit Riot Act. I personally think RA is hugely underated & it's all pretty much slow burners (probably the reason why a lot of people didn't take to it as much at the time).

I'll give it another listen. It's been awhile, but I'm going through all of their stuff again this week, so I'll get there soon.
04:49 PM on 10/21/13
crutchfield
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I wish I "got it" when it comes to PJ...I just don't and I find everything about them painfully boring. Just in case you all wondered.
08:36 PM on 10/21/13
khare905
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Good review. I'm in a similar boat on PJ being on my iPod but not getting the necessary playtime. The reason for me was that it was only the early albums that felt strong start to finish. I'll go as far into their discography as Vitalogy and then can't listen to a full album. Lightning Bolt changes that. Your review makes it sound better than a 7.5, which I'm in complete agreement with.
09:41 PM on 10/21/13
camperfrequency
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Great review! I've never been a huge Pearl Jam fan, but ever since playing Even Flow on Guitar Hero 3 (I think), I've loved Pearl Jam. I bought Backspacer the day it came out. It was my first Pearl Jam album and I love it. Since then, I've downloaded their back catalog and Ten and Vs. have become two of my favorite albums ever. They're just good, old fashioned, in your face rock records.

Can't wait to get my hands on this album.
10:55 AM on 10/22/13
CellarGhosts
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Don't understand how you can call wrecking ball a late-career triumph and this anything but. This is their best since yield. Completely revitalizes the band with an energy they haven't had in over a decade.
man I dunno, I still say Riot Act and Pearl Jam are pretty fucking great albums too but we'll see how I feel after a few more months with this one. That said, I still think it's great, definitely a top ten of the year for me.
10:44 PM on 10/25/13
Sloth7
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I'm going to show my age here, but I spent my teenage years loving Pearl Jam, and one of their most classic shows ever played (back in the 90's), I am happy to say I saw live.

They've been my favorite band since, and it's always a treat to see them release new music, and Lightning Bolt is a fun, all-out rock record.

Also, if you've never seen them live, do yourself a favor and do it when they're around next. They have the gift of making make a huge arena concert feel like an intimate club show.
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