Tuesday, October 15, 2013

album review: 'lightning bolt' by pearl jam

Well, I knew this was only a matter of time. With the onset of 90s nostalgia, I knew it wouldn't be long before one of the iconic genres of the decade would come back. It's also a genre with which I have a, well, let's call it complicated relationship.

Of course, I'm talking about grunge.

It's hard to argue that grunge didn't play a huge role in 90s music and culture, particularly considering its explosive birth in the underground in the late 80s and its eventual mainstream debut in the early 90s, smashing hair metal, synthpop, and whatever was left of the 80s into the dust to be deemed as 'gay' for a good decade to come. Centered around Seattle, grunge led alternative rock into the mainstream to dominate throughout a good portion of the 90s, with some iconic anthems and classic albums... before devolving into post-grunge in the latter half of the decade and ultimately being responsible for allowing acts like Nickelback and Three Days Grace to become popular.

But in all due seriousness, every time I return to grunge, I find both more and less that I like each time. Yes, the riffs can be potent, yes, the anger can sound righteous, yes, it contributed to the rise of the second punk wave in the mainstream and gave critical acclaim to a bunch of acts that would have remained lodged in the underground for decades otherwise... but man, grunge can get pretty damn insufferable at points, particularly lyrically. Perhaps I'm not blinkered by Gen X's nostalgia for grunge, but too much of the genre just doesn't connect with me, mostly because the instrumentation was at best simplistic (drawing from hardcore punk roots crossed with heavy metal) and at worst haphazard and drowned in feedback. And that's not even touching on the lyrics, which were dour, humourless, more pretentious and serious than they had any right to be, and only capable of touching the idea of 'fun' if it was approached ironically. 

So maybe it's not entirely surprising that my favourite of the grunge bands to explode out of Seattle was the one that did the most experimenting and drifted furthest from the traditional grunge sound - which, of course, brings us to Pearl Jam. To me, they've always been a band I've liked but never quite loved, and also yet another act that peaked with their first album Ten (which, despite my hangups with grunge, is awesome). They followed it with Vs. and then decided they were too good to be popular, so they started experimenting with Vitalogy and never went back. It's a shame, then, that their next six albums... well, they weren't bad but they weren't anything all that special or mind-blowing, even with some of the U2-esque bits of experimentation. Out of the selection, I probably like Riot Act the most, but I couldn't help but feel that even on that album that some of the hard rock edge was gone and it wasn't coming back.

Thus, I had some trepidation when going into Pearl Jam's newest release Lightning Bolt. On the heels of the The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here from Alice In Chains - which was basically a heavier version of what they had done before - I had the feeling that Pearl Jam wasn't about to attempt to recreate Ten or Vs.. They were going to make a rock album, not a grunge album, which could be both bad and good: on the one hand, Pearl Jam's experimentation has tended to be interesting, but it has also left the band without a definitive identity besides that of a grunge rock act that isn't really aging gracefully. So, is Lightning Bolt an experiment that bears fruit, or just another grunge rock album that slides into the grey morass of mediocrity?

Well, luckily for us all, it's the former, and dear Christ that's a relief. Not only is Lightning Bolt by Pearl Jam a great album, it might be one of the best, most consistent albums of their career. No, it's not better than Ten, but it might be on par with Vs.. Either way, you shouldn't go into this album with the expectation it's going to be like either of those two albums, or that it's going to be like the slew of albums they put out after Vitalogy, and while some might argue that tonally it's close to their last album Backspacer, one could argue that this album is the most energetic that they've ever sounded in their careers.

Because here's the thing: Lightning Bolt is barely a grunge album, sounding much closer to the upbeat rock stylings of the 70s, with flashes of high-energy punk, surging country rock and accessible, sing-ready choruses that show an accessibility that Pearl Jam used to think they were above. There's a refreshing lack of pretentiousness in this record and it shows across the board, from the near-complete abandon of dour sarcasm and overwrought histrionics, and while I do wish that the production had managed to capture more of the grand stadium-rock stylings that had reflected Pearl Jam at their peak, I get the feeling that's not quite what Pearl Jam was going for on this record. They're opting for something a little smaller, a little more contained, and definitely more upbeat, almost cheerful at points. It turns out that like Trent Reznor back in September, Eddie Vedder and the rest of the band discovered positive emotions and found they were a good fit - who would have thought?

On instrumentation, I have few complaints - you can tell this is a band that has been playing with each other for decades and there's a free-flowing ease to their compositions that belies that. It helps matters that the album has a blisteringly quick pace, and yet still takes the time for guitar solos and the occasional bits of tight showmanship that I really dug. Sure, elements are simplistic, but Pearl Jam shows how to make those tight chords work wonders. If I'm going to nitpick, I would have liked to see more of the punk speed and flair that shows up in 'Mind Your Manners' spread throughout the rest of the album, but that's minor, and the few forays into country rock (notably on 'Let The Records Play') are definitely strong enough to merit their inclusion - although if we're looking a straightforward rock direction, the title track takes a turn on a 'Natural Disaster'-esque (a song by the Zac Brown Band) path and it works stunningly well. A bigger issue is that that songs like 'My Father's Son', 'Sirens', 'Pendulum' (to a lesser extent, though, the lyrics are surprisingly forward-looking) and 'Yellow Moon' are melancholy moments that do slow the momentum of this album, and tonally, they don't quite do as much as other, stronger tracks. Don't get me wrong, none of these are bad, but they are a bit less memorable.

So let's come to the lyrics, where the devil-may-care attitude that inspired songs like 'Mind Your Manners' seems to have taken deeper root throughout the album. Outside of a rather prominent anti-religious fervor that fills tracks like 'Mind Your Manners' and 'Infallible', this album seems most concerned with putting aside the past and going forward to new horizons and new possibilities. Starting with 'Getaway', a self-assured middle-finger to those who would dictate a creative direction to Pearl Jam, all throughout the record we get track after track of Pearl Jam reasserting that they're going to do things their own away and they'll put aside any obstacles, be them family ('My Father's Son') or failed/failing relationships ('Sirens' and 'Sleeping Alone Tonight'). Importantly, Pearl Jam ends the album with 'Future Days', a hopeful track where Vedder hopes to pull his significant other on the trail with him, a trail where he's weathered everything they can throw at him and yet he remains. It helps matters that Vedder is on fire on these tracks, showing plenty of expressive passion and is able to sell bare-faced optimism, which honestly, his voice proves to be a better-than-expected fit (albeit there are moments where the vocal production isn't quite as clean as it should be).

If I'm going to raise any larger nitpicks surrounding the lyrical content, it'd be the material is a little less complex than the emotionally resonant songs that Pearl Jam is known for at their best. The closest this album comes to 'Jeremy' or 'Daughter' or 'Better Man' is probably 'Infallible', a song that musically sounds unlike the majority of Pearl Jam's output, but lyrically serves to dissect our human desires to get into a comfort zone and how it gives us a false confidence. It's a surprisingly nuanced song and one could easily say that it applies on a deeper level to Pearl Jam's previous albums, some of which were designed to cater to said fanbase by not innovating to the same degree. But really, when straightforward optimism is delivered so well and with as much enthusiasm as Pearl Jam brings to the table... well, it's infectious, and given my own preferences, I'd take this over yet another dour grunge repeat any day!

So yeah, Pearl Jam's Lightning Bolt might barely be a grunge album, but goddamn it if it isn't a great rock album. Unlike so many of their peers, Pearl Jam seem to have finally discovered a sense of upbeat fun with enough instrumental prowess and solid, hook-loaded music to back it up. It's not quite perfect - some songs could have been trimmed a bit ('Sirens') and I would have preferred the lyrics to have a little more heft, but I'm not going to complain about what we got here. It's an 8/10 from me, easily, and it gets a recommendation. If you're a fan of Pearl Jam - hell, even if you're not and you just want some good old-fashioned rock music, check this album out, you won't regret it.

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