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.

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