When I left the 90s I was just starting to take music seriously. The complement of grunge and alternative rock that I had in my luggage didn’t contain Pearl Jam. I know what that sounds like, but I just didn’t like their seminal hit, Ten. Yes, that sounds just as crazy, but what can I say? I found the album to lack a certain sonic edge and move from start to finish a little slowly. Maybe the production was overblown, who knows, whatever. They’ve released how many other records? All fantastic. There’s a reason they are as big as they are, of course. Fast forward a few handfuls of years and you find the band at a point in its career that’ll almost assuredly produce a dud, but not for Pearl Jam. They seem to have effortlessly reinvented themselves and dropped what could be the most diverse and exciting record of their career.
Lightning Bolt starts with a collection of edgy, upbeat tracks that seem like a cross between classic Pearl Jam and a deconstructed, excited version of themselves. Tonally a little bit neo indie, but otherwise totally unique to them. Listening on a nice pair of Mackie near field monitors, I swear I can hear members of the band breathing. There’s no excessive production to be found, just kick-ass rock n’ roll. My ideal listening environment is lying on the floor with the lights off, but this record won’t have it. At least not at first.
As you get to track 4, Sirens, the record finds a less angsty stride that it rides for a few tracks until the hypnotic Pendulum stakes its claim. The record could end there, but carries on to Swallowed Whole—my personal favorite—and then bounces around from folky to bluesy to who knows what until the end. Some people have criticized this part of the record for making the entire thing feel “confused,” but I’m not really sure what that’s all about. If you want every track on an album to sound the same, try out some Mumford and Sons.
Has the music industry really spoiled its waters so much that 90s mainstays are having to come back and push the reset button before it’s too late? Not sure, but like the newer offerings from Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, Lightning Bolt is a thoroughly pleasurable listen and seems to set the stage for a lot more to come. This is a record not just for Pearl Jam fans, but for those looking for something with a lot of soul. Start to finish, not a poor second passes.