Album Preview: Pearl Jam's 'Lightning Bolt'

Clash gets an early listen in, comes away impressed…

Pearl Jam represent one of the most consistent and successful rock bands active today – and a first listen to ‘Lightning Bolt’, the Seattle quintet’s new album, further confirms this status. Still standing, never once bowing to the dreaded ‘hiatus’, the Eddie Vedder-fronted outfit is in as rude health today as it was back in the ‘90s.

The reasoning behind the band’s longevity is based in qualitative terms, surely. But it’s probable that Pearl Jam’s members have always sought to satisfy their own musical cravings, following instincts over any fleeting trends. Across the course of the band’s career, kick-started with 1991’s ‘Ten’ LP, they’ve regularly integrated new sounds into their grunge foundations, such as softer, folk-like styles akin to the work of Neil Young

Each shade of the band’s varied palette has had its time in the spotlight. ‘Thumbing My Way’, from 2002’s ‘Riot Act’, telegraphs Vedder’s subsequent ‘Into The Wild’ soundtrack work. Likewise, 2000’s ‘Soon Forget’ finds the frontman previewing his ‘Ukulele Songs’ LP of 2011 by presenting said instrument to the fore.

Great songwriters rarely lose their touch, whatever the shifting of bandmates – and Pearl Jam has welcomed five different drummers over the years. ‘Lightning Bolt’, released on October 14th via Monkeywrench/Republic, vividly portrays the differing tangents this band can take its signature sound on.

Opener ‘Getaway’ is immediately striking, its fierce riff self-assured with arena-shaking confidence. Guitarist Mike McCready’s solos reflect this band’s classic rock roots, while the vigorous beats from (also of) Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron are breathtaking.

The following ‘Mind Your Manners’ continues this all-guns-blazing approach. The guitar here is more barbed than the previous cut, with a real heavy metal feel. The adrenaline begins to surge. ‘My Father’s Son’ ensures it doesn’t dissipate, its primal punk-cum-garage momentum indicative of a band truly locked into their flow.

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Pearl Jam, 'Mind Your Manners'

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Track four, ‘Sirens’, is the first step into Pearl Jam’s refined acoustic territory. At its beginning there’s just Vedder with a single guitar, before McCready ups the track’s intensity and the vocals rise in unison. It’s an all-out affair.

The title-track finds those two words, “lightning bolt”, howled during its chorus. It’s remarkably similar, in a good way, to ‘Animal’, a number from 1993’s second LP, ‘Vs.’. So far, ‘Lightning Bolt’ feels like a live set taken into a studio, such is its pace.

‘Infallible’ – another rougher-edged song, the fifth of its kind so far – is a hard-grunge affair which finds Vedder hitting every note with real precision, like a spear fisherman not missing a single strike. It’s a wonder how this man’s voice has sustained across the years – he sounds every bit as strong here as he did on ‘Ten’ and ‘Vs.’, what feels like a lifetime ago (and, for some fans, probably is).

And then, something completely different, as ‘Pendulum’ sounds unlike anything these men have recorded previously. It’s a bleak piece, reverbed guitar bringing a real sense of desolation to proceedings. A tambourine comes in, and an adagio bassline furthers the song’s atmospheric, experimental sound.

‘Swallowed Whole’ is similar to ‘Sirens’ – it begins quietly but builds to a rocking climax. A swaggering bass dominates the mix on ‘Let The Records Play’, the track’s jam-like qualities crystallising a very ‘90s sound, albeit one mixed with the raw garage of Iggy And The Stooges

‘Sleeping By Myself’ is taken from ‘Ukulele Songs’, but further developed here, as you’d expect from a full-band version. The emotion of the original remains, though, with a great connection between the lyrics and melodic backing. The penultimate ‘Yellow Moon’, too, manages to convey this fluency between each member’s role, the despair-soaked vocals reflecting the lead guitar’s tone.

Closer ‘Future Days’ is the first time on ‘Lightning Bolt’ where the lyrics are completely positive, perhaps expressing the contentment these men have found in middle age, with families beside them. They’re happy, and this folk-like number comprises a fine bookend to this tenth studio album.

Words: Cai Trefor

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Mike McCready on the song 'Mind Your Manners'

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‘Lightning Bolt’ is released on October 14th. Check out an extensive video interview with Pearl Jam exclusively on Clash.

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