Eddie Vedder and Co must occasionally stroke their chins and ponder at the ludicrous nature of perception.
When they first emerged in the early nineties, they were unceremoniously lumped under the term ‘grunge’ and thrown out as the vanguard of the movement. And yet, were they ever truly grunge? Even the most casual of listens to their debut record ‘Ten’ reveals a group and a sound more in thrall to the classic rock leanings of the people whom they would later develop genuine friendships (your Pete Townsends, Neil Youngs, Tom Pettys etc) than the primitive fuzzed-up sounds of their so-called peers.
Of course, from there, they also went on to unsuccessfully tackle the corporate greed of Ticketmaster, fighting for their fans and for their own principles. As an ironic twist of this moral stand, they have ever since been labelled ‘sell-outs’ by legions of bitter bystanders for the faintest of leanings towards the mainstream.
Tthis trend continued when ‘Sirens’ was released last month. Within minutes, missives were dispatched like electronic missiles over the net complaining that Pearl Jam had ‘lost it’ once more and betrayed their roots yet again.
The full album, ‘Lightning Bolt’, from which that track was lifted is nowavailable for dissection.
‘Everyone’s a critic looking back up the river’ Vedder barks on the opener, ‘Getaway’. The track offers a firm introduction to Pearl Jam in 2013, propelled and fed by Jeff Ament’s intricate bass line, which gives what could have been an otherwise generic rocker a memorable hook and bite. It’s a punchy opening gambit and a satisfying start.
‘Mind Your Manners’ follows. Opening with a groove that suggests ‘Go’, it ends up with an already much commented-upon ‘Spin The Black Circle’ thrash as it uncoils for the vocal. It is urgent, if a little forgettable.
Ament once again sits prominently for ‘My Father’s Son’. In fact, his bass is at its highest in the mix for years. And he’s on fire. His punctuated bass line here swings and rolls with vigour. It rolls out its catchy lick like a stuttering and intoxicated cousin to ‘Rats’ from ‘Vs’. It is a standout track and a nice precursor for what follows. Back to the aforementioned ‘Sirens’. The group are reportedly proud of this composition. Rightly so. It begins with a plaintive strum and builds gradually towards out-and-out catharsis; an exultant celebration in sound and lyrics. It’s commercial. Unashamedly so, but it’s also lustrous, dynamic and downrightbeautiful.
By the time we reach ‘Swallowed Whole’, the group have unpacked their best approximation of the Byrds. This is present in the winding arpeggios that mark the opening few minutes before the tune erupts into that fully impassioned signature Pearl Jam bluster. Yet it pares down again, and this is one of the biggest successes of ‘Lightning Bolt’. Whereas, previously, the band have been guilty of finding a mood for a song and then sticking to it, many of the tracks here ebb and flow in a thoughtfully ambitious way.
They have rarely sounded so diverse, atmospheric and, to any pejoratively-minded critics, this interesting. There’s an ambition here that is at its most far-reaching, certainly since ‘Riot Act’ but maybe even ‘No Code’.
Special mention must also go to the guitar solos. They are a revelation. Not for their technical wizardry, but through their sheer economy, inventiveness and application. These are the most consistently interesting on any Pearl Jam record to date.
It’s not all wonderful. The title track is efficient, but it also feels slightly inconsequential and forced. It is the song that most resembles their patchy last record, ‘Backspacer’, and sits in a self-conscious fashion right in the middle of the album.
There is a distinct slowing of the pace for the final few tracks, with ‘Sleeping By Myself’, ‘Yellow Moon’ and ‘Future Days’ all offering afolky feel that feels close in spirit to Vedder’s solo work, which is no bad thing.
For the Pearl Jam purist, this may not be as exciting a record as their self-titled 2006 album or that of their first three LPs.
However, they wear their years well. ‘Lightning Bolt’ showcases a group still relevant, still passionate, still with something to say and arguably more dynamic and purposeful than ever. In an age seemingly bereft of musical giants, they demand to be cherished more than ever.