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Pearl Jam’s ‘Lightning Bolt’ strike an ambivalent chord

Jimmy Kemper | Monday, October 14, 2013

As the grunge rockers enter their third decade, Pearl Jam (PJ) seeks to find a balance between their punk rock impulses and their matured, sentimental side. Recorded in two separate sessions, their album “Lightning Bolt” veers sharply between both sides while pushing the band forward in a new direction. 

The album opens up strongly with the song “Getaway,” which has the classic Pearl Jam feel about it. Filled with rocking guitar riffs, Eddie Vedder’s passionate singing and an uplifting beat, it is a very solid way to start the album. 

“Lightning Bolt” kicks things up a notch almost immediately with “Mind Your Manners,” one of the most notable songs on the album. This lead single is much more intense and full of primal energy than a number of other songs on the album. It has a Dead Kennedys garage-rock swing and is a prime example that Pearl Jam can still rock even this late in their career. It is as punk as the band has been in 20 years.

After that, the band makes an interesting leap with “My Father’s Son,” a track that quickly skips between intense and leisurely parts that creates an intriguing mixture that is reflective of the tightrope act of the album as a whole. 

By far the best song on this album is “Sirens.” Vedder’s majestic warbling will make fans of classic PJ hits like “Yellow Ledbetter” and “Black” absolutely swoon. It shows that sentimental acoustic side of Pearl Jam that we don’t nearly hear enough. The lyrics are surprisingly deep compared to those on the rest of the album, raising concerns of mortality in a way that could not have possibly been done in PJ’s younger years. The band excellently combines a shy, echoing piano with smooth, rolling guitar riffs to make a song that is positively bound to go down as one of the biggest hits from PJ this decade. 

From here, “Lightning Bolt” rapidly looses its spark, killing all momentum built up by replacing any deep, emotional feelings with dull, generic dad-rock that might have been slightly relevant a couple decades ago.  These songs in the middle of the album feel like filler content, employing ham-fisted lyrics and dissonant riffs that Nickleback could have written. “Infallible,” “Pendulum” and “Swallowed Whole” feel empty, lacking the beautifully raw emotions signature of the band, and show signs that the band is aging and could be losing its touch.

Thankfully, the album does not end on such a sour note but picks up with the extremely solid and definitely notable “Let the Records Play.” This track has an almost bluesy, classic rock feel that is rather unanticipated coming from Pearl Jam. Even though the band may be aging, songs like this show that Pearl Jam is maturing and capable of branching out as they grow older. 

“Sleeping By Myself” clearly started as one of Eddie Vedder’s ukulele jams that was expanded and developed in a way that works for the whole band. It is a highly enjoyable tune that teeters onto the slower, sentimental side of the album. “Yellow Moon” is also one of the dreamier tracks on “Lightning Bolt, but by no means will this song put the listener to sleep. “Lightning Bolt” winds down with “Future Days,” which is honestly rather mundane. It is surely a conclusion, but is not the fairytale ending one might hope for.

The days of the raw, angst-filled brutality of “Ten” and “Versus” are long gone for Pearl Jam, but in their place Pearl Jam has brought to light a more mature, sentimental side that works when the effort is there. This album shows that the band has found a strong balance between its fun arena rocker and softer sides, but at times “Lightning Bolt” loses direction and falters. The whole album is definitely worth a listen to see what it’s all about, but not necessarily everything is worth saving for later. 

“Lightning Bolt” is currently available for streaming on iTunes and will release everywhere Tuesday, October 15.

Contact Jimmy Kemper at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.