Here's what Pearl Jam haven't done in the past decade: Broadway musicals, EDM remixes, VMA shucking-and-jiving. And more to the point, they haven't been making suck-ass, faded-glory, pro-forma LPs. Unlikely though it seems, the grunge survivors are now — Bruce Springsteen excepted — America's foremost torchbearers of classic rock.
Pearl Jam have become their heroes, but, like Springsteen, clearly do not want to become fat Elvis. So on their 10th LP, they overthink, overemote and overreach — fruitfully. If the party line on 2009's Backspacer was that it was PJ having "fun," Lightning Bolt is the sound of anger and brooding depression. In Pearl Jam terms, this is reason to be happy.
Take "Mind Your Manners," the first single, a throw-yourself-around-the-room mix of Seattle mosh-pit metal and Bay Area snot punk that, at this late date, surely connotes "classic rock." Eddie Vedder dives into a screed about religion that announces, "They're taking young innocents/And then they throw 'em on a burning pile!" Elsewhere, "Infallible" chides "What, me worry?" types as our collective ship sinks, with Vedder's portentously huggable baritone making preacher-speak like "the hearts and minds of men" sound like wee-hours soul-bearing at the kegger.
This ability — with the band's exacting musicianship, storied integrity and respect for fans — is key to Pearl Jam's longevity. And it defines the album's most remarkable song, "Sirens," an Eighties-style power ballad recalling Creed, Nickelback and other acts who have taken Xeroxes of PJ's melodic hard rock to the commercial-radio ATM.
How is this not cheesy? Because unlike so many power ballads, there's no self-impressed stink of emotional triumphalism: Vedder sounds honestly helpless in the face of his fear and gets that love salvation is at best "a fragile thing." Co-written with guitarist Mike McCready, it's simply airtight pop: modern yet retro, dramaheavy yet plain-spoken, inspiring yet haunted, with a piercing David Gilmour-flavored guitar break and a melody that sounds like an arena full of cellphones, aloft and glowing.
Many of the best songs are downtempo, reflecting the vibe of Vedder's more folk-rocky solo projects. "Pendulum" is a creepy unpacking of depression that nods to Edgar Allan Poe; "Yellow Moon" covers similar ground with a nod to Nick Drake; and the acoustic "Future Days," like "Sirens," is a fraught but uplifting love song. Then again, a full-band rereading of "Sleeping by Myself," the standout on Vedder's Ukulele Songs, loses the bittersweet loneliness of the original.
The two most telling tracks invoke nostalgia for when rock albums carried more cultural weight. On the R.E.M.-Who hybrid "Swallowed Whole," Vedder declares he "could set the needle, spin it loud." And the dude in "Let the Records Play," a blues-rock romp with a touch of the Cramps, apparently cures his pain with LPs and a vaporizer — an ancient healing practice utilizing modern technology. That pretty much describes Pearl Jam, too.