Pearl Jam crafts 'Lightning Bolt' as a bold, intricate statement
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
In sorting and later rolling out an album, there are kinds of decisions to be made. Flow, sequence, moods, tempos and transitions are taken into account, as well as which song will lead off the campaign as the single that sets the tone for the record.
With that in mind, Pearl Jam selecting “Mind Your Manners,” as pure a punk track as the band has ever recorded, to introduce the world to Lightning Bolt was a bold statement. This was not a fun piece of pop built to play over commercials. This was a raw, fuming song that called out a nation’s obsession with guns, religion, politics and adhering to the status quo. It’s fast, mean and angry. And it’s meant to leave an impression.
On the album itself, it falls second in the tracklist, just after the opening “Getaway,” another barn-burner that was designed to be blasted down an interstate in the middle of the night. The one-two combo created by these numbers create a dizzying effect on the listener. It’s a frantic pair of songs, and it sets up an album that sees Pearl Jam at their most adventurous in more than a decade, with rock songs, ballads and outright experiments dotting the 47-minutes to create nearly as satisfying a record as they’ve ever made.
Occupying a third-person character on “My Father’s Son” a la “Once” or “Do the Evolution” from years past, Eddie Vedder spins a tale of a man in a vicious downward spiral who’s reeling from years of abuse (mental or otherwise) and left to deal with the consequences alone. It’s backed by spinning guitars and a searing lyric that sounds years past when we might have first heard this. And that aspect, if not necessarily the theme of that exact song, is one that replays itself several times over as Lightning Bolt plays on.
There are a lot of chances taken on this album. This was a record that was not just dashed off and knocked out — the band paced themselves through two distinct sessions over two years, waiting until the songs were there to be worked on rather than slapping together a set of 11 or 12 rockers and scheduling a tour. And the experimentation that that process can breed is apparent on an atmospheric workout like “Pendulum,” which is the rare piano/percussion-driven track in the Pearl Jam catalog. Here, Vedder’s tones are muted and, later, chant-like vocals are double- and triple-tracked to haunting effect. The Spanish-style guitar punches through the darkness, but only in isolated moments.
“Yellow Moon” shares some of the same evocative features as “Pendulum,” and it sets up the closing “Future Days,” which reads as the ballad the band has been trying to write for close to a decade now. It’s guided by Vedder’s acoustic guitar, brought home on Brendan O’Brien’s piano and ends the record as a sleepy car pulling into the driveway after a long journey set up by the frantic “Getaway.” The combination of these two songs to end Lightning Bolt, working in parallax to “Getaway” and “Mind Your Manners,” helps the album feel complete.
Not every decision is a great one, though. Remaking “Sleeping By Myself,” originally a track on Vedder’s solo Ukulele Songs, as a twangy, countrified tune is suspect at best; the song doesn’t gain anything and loses a little of the emotional magic it had. But at the least, it contains another personal story from Vedder, who throughout has spun interesting stories through the lyrics that didn’t seem to exist on the previous Backspacer. The songs work on multiple levels and reveal new intricacies on each listen.
And no song gains more on repeated plays than “Sirens,” the intense ballad that Mike McCready and Vedder crafted together from a riff and a late night in Los Angeles surrounded by the city’s own ambient noise. The song starts with a jangling acoustic refrain and Vedder’s call to “Hear the sirens,” moving from section to section from there and piecing together several scenes and vignettes through moving bridges and a spectacular chorus. It’s all held in place by McCready’s various guitar layers underneath and on top of the song, capped by a solo that would make David Gilmour smile and nod in approval. And Vedder’s voice throughout is stunning.
“Sirens” is the kind of song a band dreams of writing at any point in a career, and for it to come at this juncture of Pearl Jam’s road is nothing short of astonishing. This is a powerhouse that works as the centerpiece on a remarkably strong album. It doesn’t just defy age or the odds, it’s practically unbelievable. More often than not, it showcases Pearl Jam at its best, writing and playing songs with 1994-level fury but tempered by years and experience and craft.
It’s evidence that they’re still capable of creating exciting, vital music. Because of all that, Lightning Bolt is the best kind of statement.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org