Maybe Pearl Jam’s new album, “Lightning Bolt,” should have been the album to earn the name “Ten.” “Lightning Bolt” is not only the group’s 10th studio album, but also one of its most consistent and mature.
The band’s 2009’s “Backspacer” proved Pearl Jam could still top the charts and stay relevant in a rock landscape much changed from the early years. “Lightning Bolt” may do even better on the charts because it achieves something few legacy bands manage: It takes a classic sound but builds upon it with nuance, so that it sounds new but without being jolting.
All the essential Pearl Jam touches are here: Mike McCready’s crunchy guitar solo on “Sirens”; Matt Cameron’s infectious backbeat on “Getaway”; Stone Gossard’s riff-heavy punch on “Let the Records Play”; and Jeff Ament’s bass thunder on “Infallible.” Pearl Jam has always been a better band in concert than on its studio records, but “Lightning Bolt” shows that performance gap narrowing, and the band sounds cohesive here.
Central to this new direction is Eddie Vedder, who sings with a passion that frankly was missing from middle-era Pearl Jam albums. There’s no avoiding this version of Vedder: His voice begins every song, and on ballads like “Future Days” he enunciates every syllable. For one of the first times on record, he sounds like he truly wants to be fronting Pearl Jam, and if that sounds like a bizarre assertion, that desire wasn’t always apparent before.
Many of Vedder’s lyrics here are about loss, or near-loss. “I pull you close, so much to lose, knowing that nothing lasts forever,” he sings on “Sirens.”
You would have never heard that weariness on “Ten,” but that’s a big part of what makes “Lightning Bolt” an album of emotion and sentiment. These are veteran songwriters and players, and they are trying to create music that has lasting meaning.
On “Lightning Bolt,” for the most part, Pearl Jam achieves that goal. Against all odds, Seattle’s long-running superstar band stays young, stays hard, stays vital.
Charles R. Cross: firstname.lastname@example.org