Rock (or pop, or whatever you need to call it) is supposed to be a young person’s game, we’ve been told from time immemorial. In reality, however, rock is only a young person’s game for those who lack the vision and fortitude to see the form’s possibilities through to maturity. “Lightning Bolt,” Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album (out Tuesday), is an intensely passionate, immaculately crafted testament to this truism.
The fact that we’re still discussing Pearl Jam some 23 years since the release of the band’s debut album, and more than 20 since Seattle’s rich independent/alternative music scene was narrowed down to the unfortunate buzz word “grunge” – indeed, the very fact that Pearl Jam played a sold-out show at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center on Saturday night – speaks to the band’s enduring resonance. Pearl Jam has never gone on hiatus, has never broken up, has never released an album that sought to brazenly embrace any temporal tastes of the day. The group has plowed a singular furrow. And because of this, the band’s members don’t appear foolish in their late 40s, unlike so many artists in their peer group who confuse chasing trends with staying relevant. Similarly, the fans who have grown with them over the years can proceed with their fandom in good faith, with the assurance that Pearl Jam steers by the star of its own integrity.
Quick, think of five other bands you can say that same thing about. OK, now narrow that down to five bands from the early ’90s who are still touring and releasing new music. Yup, it’s just as I suspected. Pearl Jam is close to alone out there.
“Lightning Bolt” is a special collection, even by Pearl Jam’s consistently high standards. It’s notable for many things – its fat-free, 10-songs-in-50-minutes concision; its musical diversity; the strength of the individual performances and the even greater strength of the ensemble interplay; its attention to sonic detail and nuance.
Beyond all of this, however, is the power of the thematic material, as represented by Eddie Vedder’s lyrics. It is indeed a rare thing in contemporary popular music to come upon a collection of songs united by the themes of compassion, empathy, the willingness to forgive and the desire to be forgiven, and the manner in which these ideas might play upon interpersonal, social and political relationships. “Lightning Bolt” is that rare collection.
“Lightning Bolt’s” release in the midst of a partisan-driven government shutdown feels poetically just. Take the epic piece “Infallible,” for example. This is a song tailor-made for the crumbling of the country’s self-image, along with its image in the eyes of the rest of the world. A theme song for what often feels like an end-of-days era, “Infallible” laments our personal and collective inability to get out of our own way. “Of everything that’s possible in the hearts and minds of men/somehow it is the biggest things that keep on slipping through our hands,” sings Vedder, bolstered by one of the album’s many indelible building block-style melodic constructions. And then he drops the clincher: “By thinking we’re infallible, we are tempting fate instead/Time we best begin, here at the ending.” Melody, harmony, rhythm and lyric unite here to startling effect.
There are knotty, challenging punk-based scorchers populating the album – opener “Getaway” is power-pop and angular punk rolled into one; “My Father’s Son” proceeds with violent volition on the strength of bassist Jeff Ament’s prog-ish riff, while Vedder tells a heart-rending tale of destructive paternal inheritance; the title track bounces around the room with pogo-ing post-punk/pop intensity.
That said, the emotional centerpiece of “Lightning Bolt” is clearly “Sirens,” a ballad based upon a chord progression supplied by guitarist Mike McCready. It’s an elegaic tune that builds slowly toward an emotional apex, as acoustic and electric guitars, piano and the Ament/Matt Cameron rhythm section conspire to frame Vedder’s lyric and lithesome melody.
And what a lyric it is. Vedder begins with the image that gives the song its title, (“Hear the sirens/Hear the circus so profound/Hear the sirens/More and more in this here town”) and then proceeds into what amounts to a prayer centered around the fear of loss and the inevitability of death that the sound of the sirens has stirred within him. This is a song that could not have been written by anyone who has never been a parent or part of a long-term love relationship that involves children. “It’s a fragile thing, this life we lead/If I think too much, I can get overwhelmed by the grace/by which we live our lives with death over our shoulders,” Vedder sings in a keening tenor that underscores the vulnerability of the lyric. And then, just as the tune hits its harmonic peak, the singer delivers these lines, one assumes to a child, or a lover, or both: “Want you to know that, should I go, I’ve always loved you/Held you high above, too.”
Aside from Bruce Springsteen, there are not many other writers making powerful rock songs out of such sentiments. This is soul-stirring, masterful stuff, and it throbs with compassion and empathy without ever stooping to the maudlin. The mature Vedder, as represented by “Sirens,” has entered the pantheon of artists such as Springsteen, U2 and a precious few others.
To say that “Lightning Bolt” is one of Pearl Jam’s finest albums is a bit of an empty statement, since the group has never released a dud. Far better to suggest that this new album can more than justifiably share shelf space with some of the best of the best among the band’s catalog, albums like “Yield,” “Riot Act,” “No Code” and “Backspacer.”
Among its generation of bands, Pearl Jam has aged with the most vitality, dignity, grace and integrity of all the rest combined.