Pearl Jam's 10th album comfortably motors down the middle of the road, play-ready for classic-rock radio.
Pearl Jam Lightning Bolt (Monkeywrench / Republic) ⋆⋆⋆
Had anyone in 1991 been predicting events 20 years thence, there would have been one certainty: that the sticky, bear-like baritone of Eddie Vedder would be deeper, rounder and more subtle with the weight of two decades’ life experience.
That, like the promise of Pearl Jam’s angular, angry songs, has remained disappointingly unfulfilled. The voice is still good, the songs still solid, the lyrics still sincere, but the middle-aged Pearl Jam are as unremarkable as the 20-something version was vital. And, perhaps thanks to the flood of poor Vedder imitators, the voice rarely thrills as it once did.
Their 10th album, Lightning Bolt, is perfectly acceptable. There are some decent songs on it. It very comfortably motors down the middle of the road, play-ready for classic-rock radio, and many will be happy with this – after all, the elder-statesman status of the band has been thoroughly established, thanks to its longevity and, of course, the excellent Cameron Crowe documentary Pearl Jam Twenty (2011). And as Vedder and co have aged and mellowed, so have the fans, no longer the restless, rebellious youth of their heyday.
Among the angry post-punk-by-numbers rants (Mind Your Manners, Getaway) and the straightforward rock of Lightning Bolt and Sirens (the star track) are a couple of the ballads that so suit Vedder’s pensive lyrics and layered vocals – the mesmeric Pendulum and mystical Yellow Moon, among them.
A diversion into glam rock, with Let the Records Play, is surprisingly enjoyable, a rollicking, unselfconscious indulgence in the simple joy of rock ‘n’ roll. Elsewhere, though, an Americana-tinged folksiness veers into the sentimentality that always waits just over sincerity’s horizon.
The chirpy acoustic guitar of Sleeping By Myself feels dated, while the closing track, Future Days, with its echoey organ and raw fiddle, is perilously close to Coldplay-style portentousness. Throw a tin whistle on there and you’ve got sound- track fodder for a lush prairie drama – risky, given the accusations of overproduction that have dogged Pearl Jam since their first album.
Yet there is something to be said for this uncomplicated, unchallenging production. Lightning Bolt feels like a mid-career album, and that’s what it will probably turn out to be. They are after all, to quote their most famous song, still alive. Perhaps the next album will see them kicking.