By JON PARELES, NATE CHINEN and BEN RATLIFF
Published: October 14, 2013
The New York Times
“All the demons used to come round,” Eddie Vedder sings in “Future Days,” the ballad that closes “Lightning Bolt,” Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album. “I’m grateful now they’ve left.” Well, not entirely: Pearl Jam still needs something to brood about.
“Lightning Bolt” (Monkeywrench) is Pearl Jam’s current answer to the open question of how to create honest rock as a grown-up. The music that has made Pearl Jam an arena headliner for two decades, with a huge and loyal following, is based on churning and seething, on Mr. Vedder’s mournfully forthright voice and on tensions that often explode into choruses of desperate affirmation. With songs about self-doubt, loss, abusive relationships and political fury, Pearl Jam nevertheless turned out to be the one stable band (give or take a drummer) among the major pioneers of grunge; its members have prospered and settled down.
But complacency would undermine Pearl Jam’s music. So Mr. Vedder continues to ponder and agonize: this time, often, over mortality and faith. “Go to Heaven, that’s swell/ How you like your living in Hell?,” he taunts in the punky “Mind Your Manners.” He warns humanity against arrogance and shortsightedness in “Infallible,” as the music hints at the Beatles’s “Magical Mystery Tour.” The eerie, gorgeous “Pendulum” suspends Mr. Vedder’s voice amid echoing keyboards and guitar as he sings about looming despair. But he also finds euphoria, a oneness with Nature and spirit, as major chords peal all around him in “Swallowed Whole.”
“Lightning Bolt” is not as raw or reckless as the music Pearl Jam made in the 1990s; it also trades away the rough-and-ready sound of Pearl Jam’s previous album, “Backspacer” from 2009. With the producer Brendan O’Brien, Pearl Jam now offers some of the most unrepentantly pretty arrangements in the band’s entire catalog; “Sirens,” an apologetic love song that also warns, “We live our lives with death over our shoulders,” has the sheen of “Hotel California.”
Whether he’s singing a ballad or a rocker, Mr. Vedder carefully outlines the melodies, no matter how worked up he gets (and he does). Even when the music goes hurtling forward in hard-riffing songs like “Getaway,” “My Father’s Son” and the album’s peak, “Lightning Bolt” itself, what comes across is the teamwork of musicians who have been working in tandem for decades. They’re grown-ups with fewer demons and more polish, but they’re still pushing themselves.