Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt

“It’s a fragile thing, this life we lead
If I think too much I can get over-
Whelmed by the grace
By which we live our lives with death over our shoulders”
Sirens

Four years seperated the release of Backspacer and Lightning Bolt, Pearl Jam’s tenth (and, currently, most recent) studio album. A band that used to release an album every 18 months or so like clockwork had learnt to slow down and catch their breath between releases and tours.

In those four years the band was far from idle. There were re-releases / expanded editions of Vs and Vitalogy, a live album and the whole Pearl Jam Twenty celebration / lap of honour that included a Cameron Crowe helmed documentary, book, compilation (all very very good), two day festival and tour.

Oh – and a plethora of solo activity: Jeff Ament formed RNDM with Joseph Arthur and released and album as did his other side-project Tres Mts, Stone Gossard dropped a couple of Brad albums, Matt Cameron slipped back onto the drum seat for a little-known Seattle band called Soundgarden’s reunion, Mike McCready got in on a Mad Season reunion-of-sorts and formed Walking Papers with Duff McKagan (yes, that Duff McKagan) and even Eddie dropped a solo album, again ‘of sorts’, with Ukulele Songs (which is fine depending on your appetite for half an hour of Eddie and his uke).

Why do I mention all these solo projects in a review of a Pearl Jam band album, I don’t hear you ask. Well, for all the claims that these side projects help the band members bring more into album sessions and that may have been true in the 90’s when the band had couldn’t stand up for ideas falling out of their arses, I think it’s now the opposite case. When sessions for Lightning Bolt were delayed and interrupted by these commitments and solo tours I can’t help but feel that creative and energy levels were actually drained than recharged and the band’s tenth studio album kind suffered as a result.

But does that matter? Let’s face it: Pearl Jam are in a pretty unique position that few bands or acts reach. Twenty-two years into their life as a band they’re one of the greatest live draws still regularly touring, can sell out arenas, stadiums and ball-parks across the globe, their place and legacy are sealed and were – in 2013 and now – at the point where as long as their new album didn’t stink the place up like Pepé Le Pew and contained a good few songs to mix into the live set, will continue to be able to do so for years to come and keep their legacy intact even if it’s unlikely to bring any new fans into the fold.

Sill “everyone’s a critic looking back up the river” as the first words that ushered in Lightning Bolt point out and there’s a lot of strong material and a willingness to experiment and push boundaries within these forty-seven minutes that show Pearl Jam aren’t quite ready to rest on their laurels and are still trying to push their songwriting forward.

Lyrically, these are some of Vedder’s most accessible and direct, an extension of the approach begun on Backspacer (“For years, it was playing word games and expressing those emotions, but doing it in such a way that was cryptic and where Mark Arm from Mudhoney would still have some modicum of respect for me. But nowadays, it’s more like sitting down and writing a song, and whatever comes out, comes out.”) and musically it’s a lot more diverse than their previous album, with Stone Gossard referring to  “a slight return to some of the more sort of peculiar things we did, say, between No Code and Binaural.”

I really dig a huge chunk of Lightning Bolt and love that diversity in their sound, aptly beefed up by the physicality of Brendan O’Brien production. Take ‘Pendulum’ – how often to you get to hear Mike McCready using a bow on his guitar? – for a good start:

It’s a dark, broody beast that really doesn’t feel like the ‘by the numbers’ Pearl Jam you’d expect of a band this far into their recording career and works great live. It was a Gossard add Jeff Ament composition that even they didn’t expect Eddie to latch on to and work up into a band song. While we’re in the mid-section, ‘Pendulum’ is preceded by another Ament & Gossard composition and highlight, ‘Infallible’, whose groove and progression are like noting else in the PJ catalog and I love the directions the melody veers off in, with near-Beatles like passages :

A lot of attention pre and post release was given to ‘Sirens’ with due course. It’s one of the band’s finest. From a musical point of view, it’s a Mike McCready compostion (which I can never have enough of) inspired after attending a stop on Roger Waters’ ‘The Wall’ tour and wanting “to write something that would have a Pink Floyd type feel”. You can tell pretty much exactly which song he was cribbing from but when paired with Vedder’s most open and direct lyrics it’s elevated beyond ‘power ballad’ territory to a yearning ode on the fear of life’s fragility and our own mortality.

Of course, there are some more expected leanings on Lightning Bolt. ‘Mind Your Manners’ is a ripping, Dead Kennedys inspired rocker that finds Vedder back in angry mode and plays to their strengths, as does ‘Let The Records Play’ which threads a ‘power of spinning vinyl’ theme around a tasty Stone Gossard (this is very much a record for Stone fans) riff with great results.

Instead of a couple, Lightning Bolt produced a good half dozen songs that really add to Pearl Jam’s setlist (even if they’re not the ones that Ed scrawls onto a piece of paper ahead of a show) and any PJ playlist – including the one which will follow this series*. However, there are a few that don’t make the cut.

I still haven’t really clicked with ‘My Father’s Son’ and while ‘Lightning Bolt’ and ‘Getaway’, for example, are fine songs they don’t particularly add anything to pull this album further up in terms of its ‘go to’ placement in the band’s overall catalogue.

Vedder said of the writing that they’re continually trying to ” make not just the best Pearl Jam record, but just the best record.” While Lightning Bolt may not be the one, it is stronger than you’d expect of a band’s tenth album and finds the band not only playing to their strengths but still pushing in unexpected directions. As long as they continue trying to do so it’s worth checking in and always worth getting to a Pearl Jam show when they come to town.

Oh, and in terms of album closers, though, they went with a beauty on Lightning Bolt with ‘Future Days’.

Highlights: ‘Mind Your Manners’, ‘Sirens,’ ‘Infallible,’ ‘Pendulum,’ ‘Let The Records Play,’ Yellow Moon,’ ‘Future Days’.

Not-so highlights: ‘My Father’s Son, ‘Sleeping By Myself’.

*At this rate that may be a Christmas special

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Backspacer

“But I am up riding high amongst the waves
Where I can feel like I
Have a soul that has been saved
Where I can feel like I’ve
Put away my early grave”

Let’s kick this off with a reminder of this series’ caveat – this is not a critical ‘worst’ situation and I can well imagine any of these albums being cited as a favourite by others.

In many ways it pains me to start this series off with Backspacer but it has to start somewhere and the band’s 2009 album is probably the least-played of their discography in casa Hill.

Why does it pain me? Like many I was very much hyped to grab this one when it dropped. The build up to it painted a strong picture of a revitalised band about to release an album that could sit amongst their strongest. 2006’s Pearl Jam (or ‘Avocado’) seemed to find Messrs Ament, Cameron, Gossard, McCready and Vedder back on focus and  firing on all cylinders and even the fickle media was back in their corner.

In fact, press leading into the recording dropped even more fuel for anticipation – for the first time since Yield Brendan O’Brien was at the helm. O’Brien had produced Pearl Jam’s cover of ‘Love, Reign o’er Me‘ for the (pretty pants) Adam Sandler film of similar title. They had a blast together and when it came time for a new studio album, the choice was a no-brainer. According to O’Brien, Pearl Jam “were ready to be, for lack of a better word, “produced” again” while Vedder told Rolling Stone “In the past, Brendan would say, ‘It’s a great song, but I think you should do it in a different key,’ and we’d say no. But now that we’ve heard Bruce has listened to his suggestions, I think we will too.”

It all pointed to ‘great’. And there is a lot of great stuff on Backspacer. Take first single ‘The Fixer’ as an example – it’s  pure hook, it’s almost pop-like in its sensibility. It’s fast, immediate and one of their best songs.

It’s also a great example of Pearl Jam’s collective song-writing chops. It takes its basics from a Matt Cameron demo (hence the odd timing signatures) which was worked up by Stone and Mike before Ed then worked on the arrangement ‘to get the parts he needed in the right place’ and tackled the lyrics. As such it’s one of only two tracks on the album with music composed by more than two members – Vedder wrote the lion’s share of Backspacer; all the lyrics and music for five of its eleven tracks.

According to Ament “Whatever wave Ed caught with [his soundtack for] Into the Wild has taken him to different places.” Those sole-Vedder creations areare among Backspacer‘s strongest – ‘Just Breath’ (which takes the opening chord from Into The Wild instrumental ‘Tuolumne’ and builds from there), ‘Unthought Known’, ‘The End’ and ‘Speed of Sound.’

Vedder’s lyrics on Backspacer are markedly more optimistic and politic-free after at least two previous records filled with barbs at the administration*. “I’ve tried, over the years, to be hopeful in the lyrics, and I think that’s going to be easier now,” Ed would tell press – whether that was down to a sense of calm in his personal life or a reflection on the end of the Bush era and the beginning of the Obama administration or both… it’s no bad thing. There’s a real joy and lightness that soars through some of Backspacer‘s finest moments that make it one of Pearl Jam’s easiest and most accessible albums to date.

So with all this good stuff to be said…. the reason Backspacer sits at the Least end of this list?

Essentially  – while this is true of a lot of albums in general – my version of it is a lot shorter than the actual album. There’s a good number of tracks that just don’t linger in the memory and as this is Pearl Jam’s shortest album, that doesn’t leave a whole lot left to spin. On average I’d say there’s five songs on here that are guaranteed a listen every time, possibly six which – on an 11 track album – splits it right down the middle.

There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with those songs but ‘Got Some’, ‘Supersonic’ etc are of the type that Pearl Jam have done better elsewhere in their catalogue and don’t offer sufficient hook to stick and, I’m sure, are cues to head to the bogs during concerts.

As for ‘Johnny Guitar’ – it’s the worst song Pearl Jam have committed to tape if you ask me (and it’s my blog so… ).  Ed was ‘inspired’ by seeing a Johnny Guitar Watson album cover… on the wall of a bathroom. If you ask me there should be a rule for songs about things you see in the crapper and that rule should be: don’t. Just don’t.

Backspacer arrived at an interesting time for Pearl Jam. Reinvigorated by the response to their 2006 album the band were on the cusp of their 20th Anniversary ‘lap of honour’ which had already begun with the re-release of Ten earlier in 2009 and would soon see further re-issues (expanded versions of Vs and Vitalogy) a new live album, a Cameron Crowe helmed documentary and soundtrack and a series of ‘summer’ tours that would focus on the band’s legacy rather than new material. Not that it wasn’t deserved, more that for a time, new music felt more of an afterthought. It would be four years before their next album.

Highlights: ‘The Fixer’, ‘Just Breath,’ ‘Amongst The Waves,’ ‘Unthought Known,’ ‘Speed of Sound,’ ‘Force of Nature.’

Not-so highlights: ‘Johnny Guitar’.

 

*I was very excited about the possibility of a righteously angry Pearl Jam album being the sole positive of a Trump presidency and still am even after ‘Can’t Deny Me‘.