While performing recently in Philadelphia, it came to Eddie Vedder’s attention that the evening carried special significance. It was Pearl Jam’s 23rd anniversary. The audience sang “Happy Birthday” to the band and Vedder offered gracious thanks for the unwavering support from the fans over the many years. The band is on the road in support of their tenth studio album, Lightning Bolt, selling out arenas across the US as they’ve almost always done. Not much has changed for the band over the last decade of their career as they’ve settled into middle age, and in some ways, reached the peak of their powers. They’ve built an impressively large, loyal fan-base, hundreds of thousands strong. They release albums and tour when they want and how they want. They do no more press than they want, and usually with hand-picked longtime friends. They pursue side-projects and outside collaborations at their whim… So what does this rare level of freedom offer creatively? Well, something in the middle.
Lightning Bolt divides easily into two halves. It flies out of the gate with aggressive rockers like “Getaway” and the first single, “Mind Your Manners,” which showcases some of the most frantic, crunchy guitar riffs since Vitalogy‘s “Spin the Black Circle.” The snarky stomp of “Infallible” is outclassed only by the barroom brawl looming on the edges of “Let the Records Play.” The title track is a danceable rock ode to an overwhelming woman and “My Father’s Son” is Vedder’s most literal autobiography in years, possibly since “Alive,” the last time he addressed the difficulties in his upbringing. Vedder’s lyrical style on these songs has become almost stream-of-consciousness. He stays thematically en pointe, but works to cram so many ideas into each song they risk being weighed down by their wordiness. Awkward phrasing can also arise when there’s too much to say in a three-minute song.
The second half is dedicated to ballads. Once upon a time, a Pearl Jam album would include one or two memorable ballads (eg, “Immortality,” “Indifference,” “Elderly Woman” etc.) that strengthened the whole set. In recent years, Pearl Jam’s skill in this gentler arena has garnered them more attention and praise than any other songs, from the unexpected Number 1 hit “Last Kiss” in 1999 to “Just Breathe,” a soothing exhale from 2009’s Backspacer. Lightning Bolt is no different with four ballads and one dirge– most of which are among the best tracks. “Sleeping By Myself” is a fleshed out version of the sweet ditty originally released on Vedder’s Ukulele Songs. “Yellow Moon” and “Future Days” are romantic meditations on time spent with loved ones. “Pendulum,” possibly the breakout song of the album and frequent show opener, is a minor-key mood piece that sticks to its darkness and benefits from Vedder’s parsimonious lyrical treatment to achieve an expansive emptiness that haunts.
Like all Pearl Jam albums since 1998’s Yield, Lightning Bolt can be a mixed bag. Overall, it’s a solid rock album by a band that owns its game. They’ve been doing it long enough, and at a high enough caliber, they could craft tight songs in their sleep. So, it seems reasonable to wonder what they could achieve wide awake. This is not to say they’re careless or not trying. Pearl Jam has built their reputation on their sense of integrity and just how much they care. This is a curiosity to hear Pearl Jam outside their comfort zone.
Lightning Bolt is dedicated to “Uncle Neil,” presumably Young. What if Pearl Jam followed a bit further in his footsteps? Experimented? Put out a noise album, an electronic album, a swing album (OK, well, maybe not that.) Wrote a rock opera a la The Who? Fans might not like it much, but any artist owes his or her fans nothing more than their truth. To limit their creative output to a single standard deviation from their previous work benefits no one. After 23 years of consistently good work, things can get a little boring. So get weird. Take risks. Be free to fail. One hot mess might be just the lightning bolt Pearl Jam needs to keep things interesting.