Pearl Jam's 'Lightning Bolt' Brings Just Enough Thunder

6
Lightning Bolt
Critical Mass
Release Date: October 15, 2013
Label: Monkeywrench/Republic

by Rob Harvilla

It is silly and reductive to think this way, but still: Pearl Jam's debut album, Ten, is older today than the Who's Tommy was the year Ten came out. That's "22 years old" and "1991," respectively. You are old; they are older. "Alternative" long ago became classic rock, but our boys are singular in having survived that harrowing transition intact — no lineup-culling tragedies, no spectacular implosions, no indefinite hiatuses, no embarrassing debacles, unless Eddie Vedder releasing a full album of ukulele songs counts. They're still alive [20-minute guitar solo]. They are also eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016. Do not bet against them.

While you wait, behold the first new PJ record in four years — the longest they ever go between studio adventures. (Most likely you've completely forgotten about a few of these suckers — probably the avocado one, for example.) Lightning Bolt strikes neatly between 2013's two big 20th-anniversary Nirvana encomiums, sharing absolutely no DNA with the scabrous In Utero and only glancing at Unplugged in New York's blood-on-the-frets catharsis. It's far from an implosion, far from spectacular. The Who song it most closely resembles is post-senescence, tear-jerking piano ballad "Real Good Looking Boy," which in a troll-ier mood I might be tempted to declare is my favorite Who song, but I won't raise a ruckus if they won't.

And they won't. We do start off tough, as is 21st-century Pearl Jam's wont: grouchy guitars, Vedder's surfin'-on-a-minivan snarls, a general air of "Spin the Black Circle"-style eight-car-garage ardor. But that air is dissipating: The crabbiest tune here, "Mind Your Manners," nonetheless mostly does, and 2009's Backspacer barked louder and bit harder overall.

But if the true aim here is merely to sneak a couple songs into the band's four-hour, arena-packing set lists — destined for immortality on, like, 175 more live albums — than prepare to either fire up your iPhone cigarette-lighter app or hit the bathroom during "Sirens," Lightning Bolt's workmanlike MVP, a nearly six-minute power ballad that piles on the pathos: gentle acoustic strums leading to "November Rain"-style, jump-through-the-wedding-cake, guitar heroism, sensitive grunts leading to yearning falsetto, deep-thought Eddie-isms like, "It's a fragile thing, this life we lead," leading nowhere in particular. A bit goopy, but there's a "Silent Lucidity" in these dudes yet. The title track, too, is a fine midlife-crisis-Camaro jam with the same lightly rousing, foxy-lady-as-force-of-nature charm as the Hold Steady's "Hurricane J."

From there we get a little too gentle: The back half largely bends to Vedder's wistful, wimpy wiles; the portrait in his attic is slowly turning into Jack Johnson. Graceful slogs and vegan-Chinese-restaurant fortune-cookie koans for days: "By thinking we're infallible / We are tempting fate instead," "Moon changing shape and shade / As we all do under its gaze," "What lies beyond the grave might be welcome change," etc. (Big whoop is that this is Pearl Jam's mortality record; if so, Vedder's ideal last exit rips off the end of Point Break.) Delicate, wispy closer "Future Days" (not a Can cover) finally succumbs entirely, lovely but slight, the Cat Stevens blimp puttering sweetly across the horizon. It makes you feel you're a real good-looking boy. They're aging more gracefully than Billy Corgan or Jay Z, at least. Swaddled in flannel they came to us; swaddled in flannel they shall depart. See you at the show.

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