Now in their 23rd year as a band, Pearl Jam (already known as the bastions the so-called “softer side” of grunge music) are now facing the paradox of having “elder statesmen” status within a genre once relegated to the young. (Let’s face it—grunge is so mid-nineties.) That said, the band are now at the crossroads to which nearly all bands of their caliber and legacy arrive: do they try to keep making “young” music in an attempt to hold up the façade of their godlike eternal virility; or do they act their age and allow their sound to mature?
With their tenth studio release Lightning Bolt, ironically, it seems they tried to accomplish both—but the latter option won out in the end.
Let’s be clear—on its own merits, this is an excellent rock album, full of the stuff rockers like: searing guitar work, gritty vocals, (mostly) driving rhythms, and at least presentable lyricism. It also has some of the stuff that critics like, namely, musical prowess. Even within a genre known for its raw, unkempt sound, PJ are remarkably precise and musical. So from that aspect, Lightning Bold is far from a misstep; it’s a solid addition to the band’s discography, and a continuation of their trek toward a much-deserved pedestal in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (for which they will be eligible in 2016).
And yet, I simply couldn’t help but chuckle at the polarity on this album between the we’re-still-young and we’re-getting-older extremes. Lightning Bolt, in fact, only truly lives up to its name in the first three tracks. The second of the three, lead single “Mind Your Manners,” is by far the album’s most energetic cut, expending gobs of punk-infused energy in its two-and-a-half minutes.
But after those three songs comes what may be the album’s most polarizing track, “Sirens”—meaning fans will either love it or hate it. An out-of-character pop/rock ballad, it’s the closest thing Pearl Jam have ever come to a 1980s Bryan Adams-esque film soundtrack love theme, except with more raw honesty than sappy sentiment.
And this is where I chuckled. “Sirens” is a fine cut on its own, but taken in context with the opening tracks, it sort of plays as though Eddie Vedder and the crew started off like, “See? We’re middle agers and we can still rawk! Guys, check out this amazing guitar riff…oh, man, I gotta sit down!”
From that point, the album never really regains the energy spent in the first three tracks, but instead finds itself in a happy, comfortable middle ground. The title track and “Infallible” pick up the pace a bit; “Pendulum” ventures back into ballad territory, only a bit less poppy and more brooding; and PJ spits out another burst of energy on “Swallowed Whole” and “Let the Records Play” before resigning to a mellower vein on the album’s final three cuts.
And so, if it’s a choice between a revived grunge sound and a more mature classic sound, Pearl Jam inevitably leans toward the latter on Lightning Bolt. They prove their point in the album’s early cuts, but act more their age from that point forward. And that’s not a bad thing—it’s entirely appropriate. Held up to their earlier work, it would be a stretch to call this a masterpiece, but it certainly keeps their momentum alive. Pearl Jam may be slowing down a little, but they aren’t going anywhere.