Music review: "Lightning Bolt"

The New York TimesOctober 26, 2013 

Pearl Jam’s 10th album, “Lightning Bolt,” is honest rock.

  • Rock Pearl Jam Lightning Bolt

Pearl Jam brings honest rock

“All the demons used to come round,” Eddie Vedder sings in “Future Days,” the ballad that closes “Lightning Bolt,” Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album. “I’m grateful now they’ve left.” Well, not entirely: Pearl Jam still needs something to brood about.

“Lightning Bolt” is Pearl Jam’s current answer to the open question of how to create honest rock as a grown-up. The music that has made Pearl Jam an arena headliner for two decades is based on churning and seething, on Vedder’s mournfully forthright voice and on tensions that often explode into choruses of desperate affirmation. With songs about self-doubt, loss, abusive relationships and political fury, Pearl Jam’s members have prospered and settled down.

But complacency would undermine Pearl Jam’s music. So Vedder continues to ponder and agonize: this time, often, over mortality and faith. “Go to Heaven, that’s swell/ How you like your living in Hell?,” he taunts in the punky “Mind Your Manners.” He warns humanity against arrogance and shortsightedness in “Infallible,” as the music hints at the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.” The eerie, gorgeous “Pendulum” suspends Vedder’s voice amid echoing keyboards and guitar as he sings about looming despair. But he also finds euphoria, a oneness with Nature and spirit, as major chords peal all around him in “Swallowed Whole.”

“Lightning Bolt” is not as raw or reckless as the music Pearl Jam made in the 1990s; it also trades away the rough-and-ready sound of Pearl Jam’s previous album, “Backspacer” from 2009.

Whether he’s singing a ballad or a rocker, Vedder carefully outlines the melodies, no matter how worked up he gets (and he does). Even when the music goes hurtling forward, in hard-riffing songs such as “Getaway,” “My Father’s Son” and the album’s peak, “Lightning Bolt” itself, what comes across is the teamwork of musicians who have been working in tandem for decades. They’re grown-ups with fewer demons and more polish, but they’re still pushing themselves.

Jon Pareles/New York Times

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