Reviewed by: Kathleen Larrick
When a producer has worked with a band for over 20 years, the winning formula has often already been discovered. This “down to a science” approach can easily result in some pretty obvious production choices, holding hostage the progression of a band’s sound and failing to appeal to potential new listeners. I’m sure Brendan O’Brien has a formula or two in captain’s logs from sessions past, but he certainly doesn’t let science get in the way of the artists in his latest collaboration with Pearl Jam, Lightning Bolt.
“Everyone’s a critic,” Eddie Vedder tells us in the opening line of the album. “Getaway” could certainly open itself up to that. Tireless lock-step lyric rhythms and a downright catchy melody smell suspiciously like pop-punk – that is, until you factor in McCready and Gossard’s gritty fuzz guitars and Vedder’s sneering vocals that defined their genre. “Mind Your Manners” takes us back to the quintessential driving rhythm guitar and thematic frustration of the band 20 years ago – then injects that sound with a few CC’s of speed. A look at the music video gives some insight to the inception of this tune. I suppose there are just as many infuriating issues today as there were in the 90s, but our culture’s pace has quickened, and patience is dead.
Good old-fashioned family angst, however – that’s alive and well. Cursing DNA and the genetic nature of mental illness, “My Father’s Son” revisits the disenchantment of youth. As adults, not only do our parents still not understand, we’re also destined to become them. Four tracks in, the album begins to soften with “Sirens”, certainly among the cuddliest tunes of Lightning Bolt. Though exploring mortality and tragedy, the sentiment emerges, “Want you to know that should I go, I always loved you. Held you high above too.”
What begins as a balls-to-the-wall, raucous album progressively tempers with lengthy ballads, vulnerable lyrics and Vedder’s familiar growl. With the exception of the title track and “Let the Records Play”, Lightning Bolt slows to an accessible pace, never at the expense of the edge we’ve come to expect from every Pearl Jam song. They’ll let you in, but don’t worry – you won’t be comfortable. Even throughout the closing love song, a promise of a future, Vedder continues to predict catastrophe with a snarl. Maybe this time, it’s not insurmountable. As the musicians adjust to the green glow of their e-cigarettes, curious listeners and loyal fans are likely to embrace this new stage of Pearl Jam’s evolution.