Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lightning Bolt


The longest wait between new Pearl Jam albums is over four years, from 2009's Backspacer to this year's Lightning Bolt. I like how the band went back to 'old-school' tactics to market their new album; they got four famous people, their close friends, to interview them -- Aussie surfing champion, Mark Richards, comedy filmmaker Judd Apatow, actress and alternative musician Carrie Brownstein, and ex-NFL player Steve Gleason. This turned out to be a somewhat of a revelation, especially for us fans, who get a deeper understanding of the band's creative process whie making Lightning Bolt, among many other subjects. This album was made over a span of two years plus, and in between there were all the solo projects and short periods of touring, and of course PJ20. This is how the band works now, and it's better this way, instead of banging it out in the studio for a few weeks straight. And just like the Yield and Binaural sessions, each member brought their own ideas and demos into the studio before recording. My verdict after five listens is Lightning Bolt is an excellent, mature piece of work that once again proves that PJ's best days are far from over. I prefer it over Backspacer, as the band moves further away from their comfort zone, making music that is more adventurous and layered. The production is better too. Eddie Vedder's songwriting is downright amazing, and he's singing better than ever. Mortality is the overlying theme, but it's a record that also urges us to live our lives to the fullest, at the same time knowing we have responsibilities to ourselves and loved ones.

1. Getaway - Pearl Jam are one of the few mainstream rock bands today still determined to make an 'album' album, which is much more than putting a bunch of songs together. Opening tracks are important. This is a gripping, bass-driven angry lament about close-minded groups of people, specifically the religious fundamentalists, who aggressively impose their beliefs on others and meanwhile, the narrator is trying to fight and break free and just wants his beliefs to be respected and to be left alone. I love the line, "sometimes you find yourself having to put all your faith in no faith", and coming from Ed, this could sound like a very atheistic point of view, but to me it says a lot about the cruel world we live in today. Because sometimes the only thing you really can do is believe in yourself and hope for the best.

2. Mind Your Manners - The transition from Getaway into this couldn't be more perfect. Released to the world back in July, it has finally found its place on the album, and it still has me riled up and energized. Initially I kept hearing Spin The Black Circle and Comatose, but now I hear Go every time. I'm beginning to understand the lyrics in the bridge/chorus ("self-realized and metaphysically redeemed..."); it's an obvious extension of Getaway, and even Faithfull. We have to rise up to meet the challenges of the world, making it a better place for future generations. It's a call to action to do something RIGHT NOW and not just sit idle, minding your manners like everyone else, and wait for heaven to come.

3. My Father's Son - This is where the album starts to get interesting. A weird tune, by PJ standards. Eddie's in pissed off mode again, singing (and yelling) as if he were his younger self twenty years ago, about the screwed-up life he's living thanks to daddy and abandonment issues. This is some of the most profound, angry lyrics Ed has written. It's tense, not only in the words, but also in the music, as Jeff Ament's sick bass playing and Ed's vocals are going head to head with each other. The bridge is interesting; it sounds so cheery, like you're listening to a completely different song. Oh, and good to finally have Eddie drop the F bomb; it's been a while.

4. Sirens - My initial thought was this seems to be oddly placed as the forth track on the album, especially after you had three fast, aggressive, short ones. It's like the momentum died of all of a sudden. Perhaps the pacing would've been better if it had switched places with the title track. I've already said what I wanted to say in my mini-review a few posts down. I still don't dig Mike McCready's solo though. He's been absolutely stellar throughout the whole record except on the Sirens solo. Ed uses the sound of sirens to symbolize impending death. It's simple and genius. We hear sirens wailing from far away, and as they get closer we may experience a brief moment of dread, and as they fade away into the distance our fear is alleviated. This is a love song for the ages, and it's a reminder to not take those close to us for granted.

5. Lightning Bolt - Mike said something in one of the recent interviews (I think with Mark Richards) that this will become a staple in the band's future live shows for years to come, and I have to agree with him. It's anthemic, it's uplifting, it's plain awesome. With words written in the style reminisicent of Force Of Nature and Hard Sun (not written by Vedder) it starts out with muted guitar strumming almost like Unthought Known (but much quicker tempo), the music takes off and soars high before you know it. And I like the 180 turn as the short chorus comes in...."You gotta know you'll never let her go / She's a lightning bolt". It's a pretty standard rock song, but they throw a few curve-balls by eschewing traditional song structure. The final buildup leading into the outro is perhaps the best moment on the album.

6. Infallible - One of my favorite tracks here. Finely crafted. The groove reminds me of Tremor Christ, and yet again Jeff totally kills it on his bass. The synth also drives the song, recalling You Are (remember that underrated tune from Riot Act?). It's another funny one -- the melody and words in the verses emit a rather brooding, gloomy mood and then come chorus time, it's all hopeful and inspiring. I like songs that work on several levels, and while this is easily interpreted as people of high authority turning their backs on the world's problems, it could also be about a waning relationship between two people. I guess it's human nature for us to want to avoid our imperfections and not face them head on.

7. Pendulum - Supposedly the oldest song of the bunch, recorded during the Backspacer sessions. Like Arc, it is dark, ominous and hypnotic. I wish it could've ended better cause it sounds a bit incomplete. The ambiance, the sparse instrumentation, especially Matt Cameron's drumming, all add to the intensity and weight. Initially it was a very hard song to get into. I disliked it. But on my fourth listen, it hit me hard and emotionally. "Easy come easy go, easy left me a long time ago". Spine-chilling and devastating.

8. Swallowed Whole - No PJ album is complete without a tune related to surfing. But of course, like Amongst The Waves, it is merely a metaphor to describe one of the ultimate human experiences, surrendering yourself to nature. Again, it's all about taking control of yourself. The guitar styling is something Pete Townshend would've thought of when he was a young man. And then there's the Peter Buck inspired jangles that also makes this an outstanding tune. 

9. Let The Records Play - This is the 'fun' song of the album, contributed by Stone Gossard. By the way, there aren't many Stone songs here, but he's all over the place in terms of fleshing them out with his guitar; same for Matt too (I'm probably one of the few people who thinks he's the best drummer PJ ever had). After 1/2 Full, it is the most bluesy thing PJ has done. I love the little dirty electric noodling at the start. The groove has got a kinda Black Keys vibe to it. I'm intrigued by Ed's words. Taken at face value, like Spin The Black Circle, it could simply be about a music lover dropping the (turntable) needle and getting healed......or the 'he' could refer to a higher power, considering the 'religious' imagery.

10. Sleeping By Myself - Surpassing Sirens for the most polarizing track on this album, or on any PJ album for that matter. Honestly, I thought this should've stayed put on Eddie's solo ukulele album. It was great there, and it's dull here. It's basically a filler track and nothing more, and thematically it doesn't really fit. Despite how surprisingly well the band arrangement is incorporated onto this, it's still the weakest song compared to the rest. Like many have pointed, it sounds like it belongs on modern country radio. Why producer Brendan O'Brien pushed for the band to record this for the album is beyond me.

11. Yellow Moon - The flawless Pearl Jam song. It has a kind of spiritual quality to it. The acoustic intro is quite similar to Low Light, but done in 3/4 time. It's got that certain Into The Wild (and Neil Young Harvest Moon) sound, very liberating sorta melody, but juxtaposed with some dark lyrics, about death and the lost of innocence. It's one of the most genuinely heartbreaking tunes they've ever done. McCready penned the music, and his short solo is beautiful. My ears say it's the best song on the album.

12. Future Days - Why does Brendan O'Brien have to ruin it by sprinkling loads of smelly cheese at the start of this song? I can't stand the piano intro, and the even more cringe-worthy outro. It's a sweet, adult love song, expertly written by Ed, one that most up and coming rock bands could only dream of writing. Stronger than Just Breathe, the violin, the keyboards, and the little guitar flourishes add some nice touches to an otherwise decent chord progression.

Compared to Backspacer, Lightning Bolt is a more difficult record to appreciate immediately. For me, it's the hardest to get into after Binaural. Having said that, Pearl Jam has never made a bad record.  And I can't imagine them making the same stuff they used to make in their mid-twenties, because it's not gonna happen. The band knows that, we know that, so why bother comparing Lightning Bolt to their 90s output? Those five records remain untouchable. But as far as post-2000 goes, this is their second best, just behind Avocado. For over twenty years, PJ has done things on their own terms, never following trends, never once going against their ideals and integrity. They have now earned their rightful place in the pantheon of classic American rock.


P.S. Here's how I rank all the ten PJ albums:

1. Vs.
2. Ten
3. Yield
4. Vitalogy
5. No Code
6. Pearl Jam
7. Lightning Bolt
8. Backspacer
9. Riot Act
10. Binaural