For some reason it’s been very hard to write up my thoughts about Pearl Jam’s Lightning Bolt. Not because I don’t like it; I do. Not because it follows the same basic formula the band has been using for nearly a decade; that is true but that doesn’t make it indistinguishable from the last two albums. Not because there’s nothing interesting about the album to put into words; there’s plenty. Not because I find myself agreeing with the theme of every positive review of the album I’ve read; I can always find something to write about my favorite band of our generation.
Rather, like so many ideas these days, it keeps turning into an essay about growing older and how that affects our likes/dislikes and whether comfort and happiness render it impossible to make great rock music. Why, for example, can I only think of two great albums created by artists over 40?1 What is it about reaching middle age that causes bands to make good, but not necessarily memorable, music?
So, anyway, I’ve written probably 2000 words in a couple drafts exploring these ideas and attempting to connect them to my thoughts about the album itself. But the end result kept coming up awkward and impossible to connect coherently. Thus, I’ll strip those thoughts down to a few bullet points and save myself more flailing for the right words.
- Of the one million reasons older bands struggle to make classic, memorable music, I think comfort is the biggest factor. Young bands bump into each other, figuratively and literally, and those collisions create tension and excitement. Sometimes the process is messy, but it can also lead to brilliance. Older bands have found their comfort zones, ways to make space and opportunities for each other. The result is smoother and perhaps more consistent, but at the loss of an energy which could push a good song into a great one.
- Eddie Vedder has changed the way he sings, and it’s a terrific change. There’s no mistaking that it’s him singing. But his voice sounds warmer, more engaged, and, I don’t know, maybe more careful. I’m sure there are some production tricks involved that isolate his voice in a different way than in the past. But it’s very interesting, and pleasing, to hear one of the most recognizable voices of the last 20 years transition into a (slightly) different style.
- I hated “Just Breathe,” from their last album. This time around, I’m digging the super power ballad that will probably be played endlessly for the next six months, “Sirens.”
- Favorite songs: “Swallowed Whole,” which finds them exploring a new angle of the classic The Who sound; the title track, which rocks nicely; and album opener “Getaway.”
- There are a few songs I’m already skipping.
- Bottom line, like every other band that has been hugely successful and survived into their late 40s, Pearl Jam has settled into a nice routine. Make an album every 3-4 years, which they know will sell a minimum of 500,000 copies. Tour for a year or so, selling out every night. And then take some time off to do other fun stuff, spend time with family, etc. The happiness that comes with that routine allows them to make some fine music, but keeps them from being angry/agitated/frustrated enough to make any truly great songs. The good news is there are plenty of fun songs to keep you occupied for a while. The bad is there are no great songs that will still be getting rock radio play in 20 years like “Jeremy,” “Alive,” “Corduroy,” etc.
- My verdict: 3.5 stars.
- My definition of great is wide critical, commercial, and cultural success. I’m sure there are others, but U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising are the only two that came to mind. ↩