PEARL JAM – Dan Newton’s review of “Lightning Bolt”

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When I sat down to listen to “Lightning Bolt” by Pearl Jam on the weekend it hit me just how important this band is to me. That’s right, Pearl Jam are my number one band of all time. Pearl Jam was the first real band that I got into and and is the reason why I started investing in the idea of becoming an artist and a musician. I’ve been listening to them since December 1994 and in the last 19 years of my life my love for them has only increased. No matter what new music I’ve discovered, Pearl Jam has remained as a constant in my life. I’ve been a fan of this band when they were the most popular band in the world right through the middle years where people stopped caring right through to the most recent years and I was proud to help celebrate their 20th year in September 2011. The main reason why I’m still a massive fan of Pearl Jam is because the music they’ve made over the years is still so vital and forward thinking. Regardless of whether they have remained relevant in the eyes of the public or the hipsters are of no concern to me, they’ve made some of the best rock n roll records of the past two decades.

This leads me to the Pearl Jam cynics who for a long time, especially in my twenties, made me doubt my allegiance to Pearl Jam. These cynics still do spook me from time to time and even though I pride myself on being a fairly well-adjusted human being, hearing someone rip apart Pearl Jam or limit them to just their first three albums always frustrates me deeply. A minor first world problem I know but something that still irritates me. I always thought of Pearl Jam as edgy innovators and as hip and forward thinking as they come. Hipster culture in the 2000’s challenged my thoughts on this. A lot of people I met judged me harshly because I listed Pearl Jam as my favourite band. When you have your favourite band attacked you start to get incredibly defensive, especially when you’re trying to combat hipster culture.

My whole issue with it was that they based their opinions on purely being judgemental without even taking the time to investigate the facts. No matter how I feel about hipsters and hipster bands or just music I don’t like regardless of its hipster value, I still take the time to listen to it. I like to know my enemy before I make a judgement. It’s the best possible way to make a valid argument that isn’t based on assumption, because let me tell you, assumption is the lowest form of knowledge to ever exist.

The Pearl Jam that these people were describing was not the Pearl Jam I grew up listening to and loving. There were a lot of misunderstandings in their arguments for them being an irrelevant band. I never wanted these people to like the band or even be fans; I just wanted them to respect Pearl Jam. I think no matter how you feel about a band, the best thing you can do is respect them for what they are trying to do, even if the sound doesn’t resonate with you. I see being judgemental and to assume as being counterproductive to anyone’s evolution and the enemy of equality.

If you want to know why Pearl Jam are the greatest band ever all you need to do is watch the Pearl Jam Twenty Documentary. That’s the best sales pitch for why they are more than the assumptions made by the hipsters. One point I’d like to make before leaving the issue I have with the Pearl Jam cynics comes so beautifully through a quote from Julian Casablancas from the Strokes who is quoted in the Pearl Jam Twenty book as saying the following:

“When I first met Eddie, I feel like I sensed genuine surprise when he learned how much we were influenced by Pearl Jam. People have never understood that about us. They’d always say the Ramones or the Stooges. But my favourite band was always Pearl Jam. People would be like “Huh? I don’t get it.” When we met him and knew every detail about the songs, I think he was a little taken aback. He might have had a bad taste from the wave of Pearl Jam copies that got more diluted.”

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That says it all to me really, and I guess the reason why I’ve departed into this tangent is because I wanted to address the Pearl Jam cynics who’ll no doubt read this and attack my praise for “Lightning Bolt” with a limited amount of ammunition that is either one of the following:

  1. Their only good albums are “Ten,” “VS” and “Vitalogy”
  2. They are boring and middle of the road
  3. They lack any kind of creative evolution
  4. They are only doing it for the money
  5. Why do they still make music, they should break up
  6. Nirvana is better than Pearl Jam
  7. They are a corporate rock machine with no artistic value
  8. Their music is purely for meathead bogans

I may have possibly left a few out but predominately that is the criticism levelled at the band no matter what album cycle they find themselves in and I think it is all such false information but then again as my brother reminded me just the other day as I ranted for the millionth time about how the lack of respect for Pearl Jam made me angry, you’re either in the Pearl Jam world or you not. For those of us deep inside the Pearl Jam universe, we know just how important this band is and for the rest, well it’s just music and a matter of taste.

This rather lengthy tangent leads me to my review of “Lightning Bolt” the bands tenth album. I’ve purposely left it a while to review this album because I didn’t want the initial jolt of excitement to affect how I reviewed the music contained within. I never have any real expectation of a Pearl Jam album beyond it just helping move the sound forward. Since the year 2000 the band has released some of their best work with the amazing trilogy of “Binaural,” “Riot Act” and “Self-Titled” showcasing a band still interested in creative evolution. The bands ninth album 2009’s “Backspacer” was a wonderful full stop to a decade of relentless touring and interesting creative pursuits musically. On “Backspacer” the band stripped back their sound to its rawest components and delivered a quick dose of rock n roll that also saw a couple of Vedder penned ballads thrown in to balance it all out. As a fan it was an incredibly satisfying experience but really did signal the end of an era.

I can’t speak for other Pearl Jam fans but I know for myself that after “Backspacer” I felt like the band would chase a new kind of re-invention to firmly open up their third decade as a band. The history of Pearl Jam is full of re-invention albums that allow for a new kind of consistency and intensity to birth. From 1991 it was the classic and world conquering trilogy of “Ten,” “VS” and “Vitalogy” and then from 1996 to 1999 the band settled into a different gear with “No Code” and “Yield” with the 2000’s era of “Binaural,” “Riot Act,” “Self-Titled” and “Backspacer” pushing forward all that was special about the bands early days with a new desire for pushing that sound further into the future. Each of these eras contains a “turning point” album which is as follows:

  • Vitalogy
  • No Code
  • Binaural

What these three albums represent was the band demonstrating a new sound that would imbed itself in the dynamics of subsequent releases and give a template for how the band would evolve creatively. I can’t really say whether it was planned that way but as a fan that is certainly how it felt and that is how Pearl Jam’s new album “Lightning Bolt” feels. This album is a new turning point that is helping establish the way forward for a band 22 years deep into their career. It has the same potent creative drive that “Vitalogy,” “No Code” and “Binaural” had but hidden inside it is a new kind of maturity and intensity that has once again pushed the dynamics of the Pearl Jam sound to new levels.

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Unlike most artists who last as long as Pearl Jam, “Lightning Bolt” is not an exercise in nostalgia and any link to past albums is purely because their sound is so distinct and sits in a genre all of its own. That’s the thrill of Pearl Jam, through the familiar warm tones of the sound they make you always are met with a level of emotional comfort. You initially know and find your place within it but the journey to being comfortable within a new album made by the band is not an instant experience. The familiarity hooks you but all the new twists and turns throw you and challenge you. That is why it can take weeks for a new Pearl Jam album to sink in and after spending a long time with “Lightning Bolt” it was a very joyous and fucking beautiful moment when it finally hit me how amazing this record is.

There is no one particular song that makes this album better than the others; it is how it all sits as one consistent piece. The overall mood of “Lightning Bolt” is quite a reflective one and weirdly updates the confusion and subtle rage of “No Code” with the focus being heavily on mortality. Reading a lot the lyrics it is clear that Ed Vedder has been musing on Death quite a bit. These aren’t all death anthems but now that he is a family man Vedder has new kinds of angst and fear and it’s nice to see his lyrics evolve to the point where they also reflect your modern fears as well. There is nothing more thrilling than an artist who grows with you.

The album plays out in three very dramatic acts. The first act consists of “Getaway,” “Mind Your Manners” and “My Father’s Son” all of which illustrate that Pearl Jam intensity and knack for combining powerful rock music with anti-establishment punk rock in order to drag you into the album quite quickly. It is an amazing rush that beautifully segues into the second act of “Sirens,” “Lightning Bolt,” “Infallible,” “Pendulum” and “Swallowed Whole” which balance out the intensity with some more experimental twists and turns. The mechanical swagger of “Infallible” (as my cousin Kieran pointed out) has a similar thread to a song like “Tremor Christ” (from Vitalogy) whilst “Sirens” and “Pendulum” are two of the essential “must listen to” tracks as they unfold with an emotional glory and level of reflection that Pearl Jam specialise in. These two tracks are truly life affirming stuff and “Sirens” in particular has the capacity (and has on many an occasion since its release) to move me to tears.

The title track “Lightning Bolt” is the best argument for why Pearl Jam is such a great band. It is an angsty modern fuck you song that just sounds good in a speeding automobile when you’re trying to escape every inch of your life.  One of my favourite moments happens at the end of act two and comes in the form of “Swallowed Whole” which is one of the best songs R.E.M. never wrote. A Vedder penned track, it’s as if he managed to sum up what was so important about R.E.M. in one song and it’s the glorious movement of chords that echo Peter Buck that make it such a satisfying experience in audio. The third and final act of the album sees the band erupt with a blues rock anthem in “Let The Records Play” and settle into more reflective spiritual terrain with the balladry of “Sleeping By Myself,” “Yellow Moon” and “Future Days.” These final three songs transport me back to the healing power of 1998’s “Yield” and plunge you deeper into those reflections on your own mortality. It is the perfect end to a flawless modern rock record.

When the record finishes you want to press play again and again and again. There is some truly powerful magic inside “Lightning Bolt” and considering I’ve spent so long listening to Pearl Jam it excites me that they still turn me on so much when I listen to them, that they have never not delivered and considering I’m a soon to be a 30 year old man there seems to be less and less I can rely on as my human experience begins to be tortured by disappointment and the disgusting behaviour of the society I have to exist within. It’s moments like these that I need something to both calm me and inspire me and to remind me that there is still good air to breathe. I find it to be an achievement that Pearl Jam are still that band for me and that they still triumph over any other artist I adore and love and as I write this I once again marvel at the 19 year relationship I’ve had with the band and I can’t wait for the next 19 years of music from Pearl Jam.

There is one thing I want most in life and one thing that I fear above all else. The main thing I want is love and for someone to love me in that unconditional way that leads to the whole “husband, wife, children, family” experience. The main thing I fear above all else is death. My thoughts are constantly plagued with fascination over the troubling knowledge that one day I will cease to exist. It is this fear of death that drives me to find the meaning in everything because my mind just can’t rationalise a pointless existence and although I am well-adjusted enough to see the beauty and failure of spirituality and scientific thought one thing I always deduct from these areas of knowledge is that it all essentially highlights a god shaped hole we are all trying to fill and that we all have our death coping mechanisms. It’s no secret that music means more to me than anything and through music I’ve managed to find some kind of portal to higher dimensions. Regardless of where I find myself in this life, Pearl Jam will always be my spiritual leaders and although they are just human beings like me they have a special kind of magic inside of them that heals and their new album “Lightning Bolt” is merely an evolution of the spiritual teachings of Ed Vedder, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron.

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The best way for me to sum up why Pearl Jam and their new album “Lighting Bolt” are so important to not only to me but to millions of other people, is to list this quote from Ed Vedder which comes from the Pearl Jam 20 book:

“We set out to make music to satisfy ourselves. Something we would have not imagined is that people have made friendships, shared ideas, and shared their humanity with each other through the music. They’ve become husbands and wives and best friends. That’s all outside of us. All we did was play music. The fact that it has all happened is semi-overwhelming and humbling.”

This always makes me emotional when I read that quote.

Thank you Pearl Jam for saving my life for the past 19 years and thank you for making “Lightning Bolt” another truly fantastic record.

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10 Cassette tapes out of 10

By: Dan Newton

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