Hear the circus so profound

“Everyone’s a critic looking back up the river”

And so begins Lightning Bolt – the first studio album from Pearl Jam in four years (the longest wait between albums for a band once regularly chucking em out every 18 months) and one of the albums that got the most plays on my stereo, in my car and on my iPod last year despite it only coming out in October.

I don’t think I’d awaited a release last year with as much excitement as “the new Pearl Jam” record. PJ fans had been updating numerous websites with snippets of information on “album 10” almost immediately after the release of Backspacer thanks to then hints that more music was imminent. Except it wasn’t. So for three and a half years there were snippets from interviews with different band members during promo tours for solo offerings, random gossip based on studio bookings and occasional live appearances of ‘new’ songs and debate as to what would make the album: would it include the throwaway “Ole” or even the occasionally-performed “Of The Earth” (one that was even touted as an album title)?  All amounting to nothing.

And then, a countdown clock appeared on the PJ website and the waiting was over. Or at least we knew when it would be.

Still I went back and forth in my head – a new album from Pearl Jam could go either way, would it be a limp duck like Riot Act (a good album by anyone’s standards but, and this is hard for me to say as a fan, a bit of a whimper rather than the intended roar) or a return to form?

Then this appeared:

And then the journalists invited to hear the new album started getting excited. Talk of “Sirens” was louder than anything else. Surely no song could live up to the hype that was being thrown at this ‘modern Black’… but it did:

At first listen, it’s a generic power ballad, right? No. Listen to the lyrics. This isn’t some triumphant, fist pump ballad. Here Eddie Vedder sounds more emotionally fragile than ever and is admitting just how terrifying the finite notion of life can be, especially when you’ve so much you cherish. (Though I can’t listen to Sirens since the birth of my son without blubbing until tears hit my car seat)

When I finally got my hands on the slab of vinyl that is Lightning Bolt my excitement was at a peak. Thankfully it was worth the wait – this, to my mind, is their strongest effort since Yield. 

Where Backspacer was a more ‘fun’ record and blasted past quickly and Pearl Jam sounded like the band rediscovering their stride – albeit victoriously – Lightning Bolt finds PJ angry again (“They’re taking young innocents/And then they throw ’em on a burning pile!”) and there’s nothing better thrown into the recipe for a Pearl Jam album than a bit of grief.

Musically this album is perhaps the most diverse they’ve released. While Vitalogy contains some pretty oddball leanings and No Code remains underrated in its deliberate sound change there’s something refreshing about the variety found on Lightning Bolt in terms of both the style and the journeys of the songs. “Pendulum” is a dark, brooding beast that never emerges into a monster ‘FM’ song but remains a menacing growl, “Infallible” is a track I still find hard to believe is a Pearl Jam original:

As part of the interviews that the band conducted ahead of the album’s release, Jeff Ament suggested that this album has much more of Stone Gossard’s imprint on it than any other PJ to date. If that’s true then hats off to Stone. The tunes hear are as tight as you’d expect of a band that’s into its third decade yet – perhaps for the first time – rather than being pulled back in to a structure or formula, are given room to breathe and wander down corridors the bands style had not previously allowed for. Whether that route is the near-Beatles like figures of Infallible or the swampy, blues of Let The Records Play, I’ve been playing them over and over since October.BYVYZ0FIgAADFsE

This far into their career, Pearl Jam are an oddity among their contemporaries – they’ve never split up or lost members to drug addictions and suicides (though they did, for a while, have a bit of a Spinal Tap drummer issue) or experimented with a ‘dance’ album. They’ve done what they abruptly applied the handbrake on their success to do back in the mid-90’s – have a long, successful career. While a new Pearl Jam album won’t make the front pages as it would’ve done back in the 90s or hit the sales figures they were once associated with, it’s a given that it will contain more than a handful of tracks that will remain in their live sets for a few years to come (and the band are now more vital as a live act than a studio one). It’s unlikely now that they’ll release anything bad enough to embarrass their legacy. With that in mind it is, then, a real charge to hear them still pushing hard and refusing to rest on their laurels – while it took four years, Lighting Bolt does find them still punching hard, going for the over-reach and over-emote and turning out belters.

I hesitated in writing this post for a while as there was still one track that hadn’t ‘clicked’ for me and then, last week, while barreling down a country track “My Father’s Son” did just that (I still can’t enjoy “Johnny Guitar” or “Big Wave”on each listen). As such I can’t help but feel that this was my favourite release of 2013.

2013 – A Quick Summise

I haven’t been here for a while. Again. This year has been hugely busy and time to write has not been mine. Aside from from keeping busy and exploring fjords, my wife and I welcomed our son to the world this year. I wouldn’t swap that for the all the time to write blog posts about music in world.

That being said, let’s chew over some music from 2013 – setting aside the big Pearl Jam discussion…

BNJdTlJCcAADTls In the same way as this year is starting strong – another post or three right there – 2013 was also a strong starter with Sigur Ros announcing Kveikur, hot on the heels of their ‘comeback’ album Valtari. I have a huge amount of love for Kveikur  – the lead-off EP Brennisteinn got a lot of rotation en route to Cambridge for a day out with my wife, the aesthetics of the packaging and the vinyl quality were all top notch and the album itself was great: a real, powerful, snarling beast of intent (especially compared to the relative damp squib Valtari) that bought a new ferocity out in them and saw them stamping their name heavily onto a genre that they’ve so massively inspired.  A lot of plays of this in the car, in the house, in the ear-buds..

On the subject of suprise, early wins AND comebacks – My Bloody Valentine‘s bombshell started the year off well. I ordered my vinyl as soon as I could load the MBV website and was glad I did; it’s easy to dismiss a band that releases new music after such a long period, to complain that it’s not as good as Loveless (what could be?), to say they should stick to the reunion / reissue circuit (I WILL talk about the Pixies EP but that’s going to need a post of its own)… but to my mind MBV was a slab of greatness. It has all the wall of reverb and wash of guitar, the thump of drums against dropped tunings that you’d expect.. but there’s something new in there too.  It’s a great connection from what was and what could be. A shame that it came out so early in the year in a way as it almost got lost in the noise created by other releases as the months went by.I suddenly feel the need to put it on again, in fact. 

BM5ggaKCYAARJacThe National‘s album Trouble Will Find Me was sublime; deep, absorbing and multi-layered. I picked this one up fairly soon after it came out back in May. Hugely transfixing (even the artwork is one of those addictive images that I have trouble pulling my eyes from) and a real move forward from High Violet – a band that genuinely seems to get stronger with each release. It got many a spin on my turntable, through the iPod and more than one track found their way onto different mix cds through the year. All the callings of a good purchase for me.

Following a stroke of luck in which – following a win on Xfm’s Quizee Rascal, followed by a bit of admin blunder and recompense – I found myself with 400 iTunes downloads I got to exploring a lot of new music this year.

Having read a few strong reviews and after hearing a track (not to mention my enjoyment of previous album Empros) or two I downloaded the Russian Circles album Memorial. A pretty solid, and quality effort but most of note in rounding up this year as it introduced me to Chelsea Wolfe. Her album Pain Is Beauty is one of the year’s strongest for me – dark, haunting and hugely hypnotic. Like P J Harvey’s To Bring You My Love dipped in David Lynch atmospherics and sung with a soul-chilling beauty. 

I also used a fair chunk of those downloads to absorb more back-catalogue and the new album Walking on a Pretty Daze by Kurt Vile. I’ve recently started to really fall for the particular groove that Mr Vile so effortlessly taps into. It took a while – his previous album Smoke Ring For My Halo had sat in my collection for a while but didn’t really ‘click’ until this year but now that it has… can’t get enough. There’s something so enveloping about the sound and style that it’s more like a continuing journey than a new album, familiar yet still full of development and surprise to keep rewarding. Of course, from here I then read and stumbled back a little further to his work with The War On Drugs  and then their work without him – Slave Ambient in particular getting a few plays at the tail of this year. 

Also getting a lot of play – though not quite so much as those above (but that’s more down to my not having been able to allocated enough time to listen) – were Silence Yourself by SavagesAntiphon by Midlake, Junip‘s self-titled album, last year’s excellent Kill for Love by Chromatics, My Head is an Animal by Of Monsters & Men (thanks to getting addicted to “Dirty Paws” via the Walter Mitty trailer) and Pirameda by Efterklang.

Strangely enough my new commute has put me into constant tuning range for Xfm – I’ve been able to hear a lot more ‘new’ music of the ‘not pop’ variety for once. It meant that along with those usual suspects and bands listed above, I got into music by the slightly more mainstream acts like the catchy, pure-fun music of Haim who’s melodic, solid and good-80’s leaning Days Gone By also found a happy listener in my wifethe perhaps even more ‘Radio 1’ Ben Howard who’s album Every Kingdom got a fair bit of play this year (Devon-based chap playing mainly acoustic, chilled, beach-like tunes in the manner of Mojave 3 – it’s not that bad) but more so this track, “”, from The Burgh Island EP:

This got lodged in my head early in the year and I’ve been addicted to it since.

Also of note –   Boards to Canada and Tomorrow’s Harvest got spun a fair few times but then only after I’d grabbed it using my download haul. To be honest, while I enjoyed it I was glad I hadn’t sprung for the vinyl.

The same “glad I didn’t pre-order” could also be said for this year’s two other BIG HYPE releases – I used to like and have a fair bit of time for Arcade FireReflektor, the surrounding hype and the essentially dire nature of the single and the extra-hype over the most pointless guest contribution from David Bowie (was this another of the mutterings from the same retirement home his own boring-as-death comeback album was recorded?) They may well have been trying to capture a fun, exciting element but something in the execution of the idea didn’t work and to me it sounds flat and uninteresting when they’re trying so obviously hard to do otherwise. Not only that but when stretched out over the seven and a half minutes of the single and EIGHTY-FIVE minutes of the album… I’d more happily listen to Funeral and the half-dozen crackers from Neon Bible and The Suburbs in that time.

Then we have BIG HYPE release 2…. I found Random Access Memories to be hugely bland and uninteresting after having been pummeled with “Get Lucky” from every radio station in the Universe and thought Daft Punk could have done, nay SHOULD have done a whole lot better in the seven years since their last ‘album proper’. The only track I’ve listened to more than once is “Giorgio by Moroder” and I don’t think that’s down to their input as much as it is Giorgio’s. Although, in fairness, “Instant Crush” came on the radio recently and managed to sound fresh – the perils of having your comeback single played to death and flogged when your album is only a 6/10 at best, I suppose.

Still, I’d not like to finish this wrap up on a downer – to be honest I’ll probably remember more to write on last year’s music when my mind settles – so I’ll leave with the last song I downloaded from my iTunes haul, don’t judge….