God, I love Pearl Jam. While most “fans” are only intimately familiar with their 1991 debut Ten, and the vast, vast majority of their listenership checked out after 1994‘s Vitalogy, Pearl Jam has continued to soldier on for the better part of two decades now, willfully shedding its audience in exchange for survival. Indeed, even though they have churned through as many drummers as they have members (five, for those keeping score at home), Pearl Jam is the only grunge band of Seattle’s Big Four to have remained standing all these years. So while their “rock & roll story” lacks the tantalizing sexiness of Nirvana‘s (kind of sad that somebody killing himself makes theirs interesting to so many), the fact that Pearl Jam have weathered so many storms — and have actually lived to tell us the tales (chronicled beautifully in the Pearl Jam Twenty documentary) when their peers did not — makes them quite special indeed.
When I was in high school, I only cared about Ten, but when I was in college, I incorporated Vs. (1993) and Vitalogy into my repertoire, too. In the 3+ years since graduating from college, I have rapidly raced to import the rest of Pearl Jam’s extended catalog into my iTunes library, as well; much of this particular impetus was the release of 2009‘s Backspacer, which brought Pearl Jam back from the wilderness in a big way, debuting at #1 in the US. I actually have plenty to say about Backspacer, which you can read right here. For now, I’ll just say it’s my favorite Pearl Jam album since Vitalogy. It saw the band re-team with producer Brendan O’Brien for the first time since 1998‘s Yield — which, incidentally, is the one Pearl Jam album I don’t particularly like — and O’Brien is back in the producer’s chair for Lightning Bolt, as well.
Lightning Bolt has all the earmarks of an album made by a band settling into a comfortable middle age: for one, it sounds like a record that came together really easily from a bunch of guys whose primary focus is no longer getting together and making the best record they can possibly make. In other words, that comfortable middle age that has allowed for the band to continue to exist after all these years has resulted in complacency. Lightning Bolt is an album that is breezily enjoyable, for sure, but there are precious few songs to really latch on to as they pass you by. The penultimate track, “Yellow Moon,” is easily my favorite, and track 7, “Pendulum,” is another interesting one for me, but none of this material really compares especially favorably to Pearl Jam’s best work.
And that’s too bad, since as I said, there’s just one Pearl Jam album (Yield) that I’m not a fan of. But even Yield had some really standout tracks like “Do the Evolution,” “Given to Fly,” and “Faithful,” and compared to those highlights, Lightning Bolt‘s best tracks don’t really stand up that well, even if the album is stronger as a whole. At the end of the day, I’m grateful Pearl Jam is still making music when they could have imploded long ago (and in fact almost did), and even if it’s not their best work, Lightning Bolt is still a refreshing, sunny reminder that their stormy past that is now behind them. It’s an enjoyable listen for the fans that have stuck with them for this long, and on those terms, it’s successful.