After over twenty years and now their tenth album, Pearl Jam is still only well-known by many for their debut album.
That has got to be annoying.
Still, they’ve managed to press on. They’ve established themselves as the most tenacious rock act from the ‘90s, enduring the death of grunge to still be successful today. They changed directions slightly, however, with their ninths album Backspacer. It was more pop, less grunge, and more mainstream as a result. They’ve continued on that path with Lightning Bolt, but in a less cohesive manner.
That’s doesn’t mean that it’s a bad album, but it is less together. The album can be divided into two halves, almost exactly at the halfway point. The first half of the album features more garage-band-esque tunes, and the second half is focused on soft and acoustic songs.
The first half is a little bit of a rocky road. The first track is great, but the second and third aren’t very good, both musically and lyrically. “Mind Your Manners,” which was the album’s lead single, is probably the worst song on the whole album. Eddie Vedder doesn’t sound very good, there’s not much of a melody, and it promotes an anti-Christian worldview, mocking the Christian differentiation of Heaven and Hell. “My Father’s Son” isn’t much better, dropping the album’s only swear word and effectively cursing his father’s very existence.
Not a great start.
It gets much better after that, though. The rest of the album reaches another level of quality, and the next three songs in particular are stellar, and it’s smooth sailing throughout much of the rest of the album. When the album switches to the more acoustic tracks, it does so with expertise. You don’t miss the earlier part of the album, because the latter is fantastic in its own right. The only exception is the last track, which suffers from a corny combination of acoustic guitar and slow violin. Even then, however, the tender love-song lyrics save it from being a total failure.
If you’re a fan of Pearl Jam’s old sound present in Ten and Vs., you probably won’t like this one too much. They’ve changed. I agree that’s a sad realization, but it’s the only way a ‘90s grunge band was going to survive into the 21st century. As is, they’re still making quality music and Eddie Vedder is still the only one who sounds like he does.
I will say that I believe Backspacer is a better album as a whole, but there’s still good stuff here. If you’re not a huge Pearl Jam fan, I’d just listen through it on Spotify. If you’re a big Pearl Jam fan, however, there’s a lot here that you’ll want. With the exceptions of tracks 2 and 3, it’s good stuff.
One of the catchiest songs Pearl Jam has made in a long time. As the opener, it sets up an expectation that the album is going to follow the pop-rock feel of Backspacer, which it does. It’s a jam and it’s energetic without being atonal, something that some rock bands have trouble balancing. Lyrically, Vedder is singing about making his own decisions in regard to faith and life purpose. He says “and if you want to have to pray, it’s all right/We all be thinking with our different brain get this off my plate/It’s all right, I got my own way to believe, it’s okay.” I’m not crazy about the “don’t preach to me” attitude, but it is at least done in a way that still gives respect to Christianity. 4/5
This song starts out pretty lackluster, with Eddie Vedder sounding more like a rapper than a singer. The bridge is much better, but does little to redeem the rest of the song. It also has an anti-God mentality, saying “Go to Heaven, that’s right, live in Hell.” In other words, it’s all the same, and submitting yourself to religion is living in Hell. 1/5
This song sees a return to Eddie Vedder’s story-telling style. The bridge is a bit softer than I would have expected for this song, but it’s very melodic and adds a cool dynamic to the song. The song as a whole is a story about being abandoned by his father. I’m not against that, but it seems to also be saying he’s destined to be the same as father. That and an f-word loses me. 1/5
This song is reminiscent of Backspacer. It’s a softer one, but Vedder’s unique voice keeps it from sounding any less Pearl Jam. Of all the songs on the album, this is the one I keep coming back to. The song isn’t necessarily positive, but it isn’t really negative either. It says “This life has been a light and I can see clear/Oh, I have to take your hand and feel your breath/For fear that someday we’ll be over/I pull you close. So much to lose/Knowing that nothing lasts forever/I didn’t care before you were here.” It’s a break-up song, and one that doesn’t rely on anger and resentment, but instead of reminiscence and how great the other person was. It’s a very refreshing change after two lackluster songs. 5/5
The album’s highest point. It features some of the best guitar-vocal harmonies Pearl Jam has ever written, and opens up into a more powerful and energetic chorus. It’s a song about a girl, but sends some conflicting messages. The beginning of the song sounds like things are pretty good, just talking about how great she is, but things turn kind of sour towards the end: “And your death will soon arrive as she finally decides/That all her problems, they won’t die with you.” So what’s Pearl Jam telling us? I’m not sure. Probably just that sometimes things start out good and go sour. 5/5
The guitar intro sets a more moody tone than we’ve heard yet on this record, but is more like the mood Pearl Jam used to have. They manage to keep a pretty good melody anyway, and I found myself wanting to sing along to the chorus, even though I had no idea what the lyrics were. Lyrically, this is a fantastic song, talking about the mistakes we make by overestimating ourselves: “When progress could be plausible/In the verse we curse ourselves/By thinking we’re infallible.” This is a rare example of secular musicians recognizing a key truth of God’s word. 5/5
This track starts with a slow and creepy vibe. As it progresses and the groovy (not pounding, just groovy) drums come in, it’s easy to adjust to the album’s change in pace. It’s a song about being unsure: “The future’s bright/lit up with nowhere to go/to and fro the pendulum throws.” That’s a sentiment that even Christians can identify with, sometimes not being sure with what God’s doing. 4/5
I love the speedy guitar intro. The excitement doesn’t quite stick with it through the rest of the song, but it has a cool melody, and the intro guitar riff comes back in the chorus. The song is simply welcoming the future: “Whispered songs inside the wind/Breathing in forgiveness/And the chapter I’ve not read/Turn the page.” 4/5
The guitar reminds me too much of old AC/DC. That’s not a compliment. It doesn’t get any better when Eddie Vedder starts singing. It’s just plain old awkward and weird. The song’s meaning is beyond unclear, with only references to shot glasses, cigarettes, records, and blistered thumbs to guide us. It’s just a mess. 1/5
The softer acoustic feel of this song is pretty cool. Of all the songs on this album, musically speaking, this is the one I’d be most likely to learn on the guitar. The song is about love and loss, but again does so in a way that doesn’t harbor anger and resentment: “I believe in nothing but the pain/And I can’t see this turning out right/I’ll be sleeping by myself.” 4/5
11. Yellow Moon
The softer feel of the album continues with number 11, and the band proves that they don’t need power chords and pounding drums to be successful. Of the soft songs on the album, I probably like Vedder’s melody in this song the best. The song doesn’t seem to really be about much (“Here far away/One could feel the earth vibrate/Moon changing shape and shade/as we all do under its gaze/Yellow moon on the rise.”) but we don’t really care. Cause it’s cool. 5/5
12. Future Days
I don’t like the music quite as well in this one as in the last few. It’s not as interesting of a melody, and the violin just feels too country/folk for Pearl Jam. The vocal harmonies are pretty cool, though and the lyrics are fantastic. It’s a love song with a refreshing twist; it talks about change: “All the promises at sundown, I met them like the rest/All the demons used to come round I’m grateful now they’ve left.” That’s very different from the typical “take me as I am, if you love me you’ll put up with all of my horrid selfishness.” 4/5