BY SELENA FRAGASSI
Remember the Eddie Vedder who used to swing like Tarzan from festival scaffolding and don George Bush masks at shows in the middle of the Panhandles? The early Pearl Jam albums that would echo op-eds about dissidents and high school massacre-ists? The ballsy five-man army who aired the dirty laundry of the Grammy Awards and Ticketmaster—and got away with it? Yeah… how about we have them back, please.
On their tenth album, the former Seattle grunge mongers have come a long way from Ten, the debut that changed everything (if you believe Time Magazine)—but that’s not necessarily a good thing. All that “vitalogy” is seemingly gone from these latest 12 tracks, the passion replaced by an internal comfortability of old bandmates who, like graying married couples, feel they don’t have to really try to impress each other anymore. One little problem: What about the rest of us?
We waited four years for the much anticipated album Lightning Bolt—quelled only by Cameron Crowe’s 2011 documentary celebrating the band’s 20th anniversary—but finding anything electric about this material is as likely as being hit by one. The problem is that Pearl Jam at this point is just repeating itself—or others. Formulaic opener “Getaway” is just a “Worldwide Suicide” redux; it’s followed by the pogoing “Mind Your Manners,” which has the same Ramones/Fugazi punk split of “Do the Evolution.” Third track “My Father’s Son” shows Vedder is still getting over daddy issues (hi, “Alive”). Later, the rambling guitar work of “Swallowed Whole” sounds like the road work of classic rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers while “Sleeping By Myself,” while more contemporary, sounds like it could be a drowsy Band of Horses or Wilco B-side.
There are a few standouts on the album, though mostly for the unchained guitar work of Mike McCready who continues to be the band’s phoenix. The title track benefits from his hard rock pedagogy while emotional ballads “Sirens” and “Yellow Moon,” clearly influenced by Vedder’s solo work on Into the Wild, further bleed with the guitarist’s deep cuts. Moody narrative “Pendulum” is by far Lightning Bolt’s pinnacle track and most sensitive, a tribunal of tambourines and congas casting shadows over guilt-heavy strumming patterns.
Shifting styles have never disavowed the interest or loyalty for the band—one of the only that still has an active fan club who stood by when they tuned it down on No Code and Yield and even stayed the course bewildered by Binaural. But with the advent of change should not come the death of risk, especially for a band that started out by providing a musical “alternative.” Should there be an eleventh album, let’s just hope the band finds its rebirth instead of being the midwives to a new status quo.