As the last classic-rock band the world might ever produce, Pearl Jam finds itself in a position familiar to its forebears—able to pack any venue it chooses to play, but largely disenfranchised from the world of mainstream popular music. In other words, like The Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam can move a lot of tickets, but nowhere near the number of albums it did at its commercial peak. Multi-platinum has become merely gold, which still isn’t a bad place to be. That commercial slump has something to do with music-buying habits and something to do with the music itself: After 1996’s undeniably uneven but frequently exciting No Code, Pearl Jam slipped into a four-disc slump of albums that weren’t bad—and produced some excellent songs—but that never even skimmed the fiery heights of Ten, Vs., or Vitalogy. (Especially Vitalogy.)
2009’s Backspacer went a long way toward reversing that trend. Pearl Jam re-hired Brendan O’Brien, who had helped bring heat to Vs. and Vitalogy, but who had been out of the producer’s chair since 1998. And, more importantly, the band seemed to be having a lot more fun playing with each other in the studio—they’re always on it live—than they had in ages. Backspacer even debuted atop the American charts, something the band hadn’t achieved since No Code. And it spawned something of a long-tail hit in the ballad “Just Breathe”—nothing on the order of “Alive,” but a poke back into the heads of casual fans who’d jumped off the train years before.
Lightning Bolt, Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album, wisely rides the same wave as Backspacer. Though it’s not as economical—48 minutes versus Backspacer’s lean, mean 37—it musters up a similar energy and balance, pitting big guitars against acoustic ballads. That mix reveals itself with the album’s first two singles: “Mind Your Manners” offers a quick blast of punk fury that looks squarely back at “Spin The Black Circle,” while “Sirens” announces itself, right from its opening drum fill, as an unabashed power ballad. There’s a sweetness to Eddie Vedder’s lyrics here that he’s rarely allowed himself in the past; creeping up on 50, some of his bluster has been replaced by resignation, but in a way that’s more beautiful than hopeless. “Sirens” is the first of several songs on Lightning Bolt to circle mortality—it could even be called a theme if such things weren’t too gauche for Pearl Jam records.
“Swallowed Whole” treads similar lyrical territory (“What lies beyond the grave / Might be welcome change”), but with a gorgeously Tom Petty-like guitar and Vedder’s most pure, purposeful vocal performance on Lightning Bolt. Though nowadays he’s just as likely to opt for undersung sweetness (“Sleeping By Myself”) or throat-ripping rage (“Mind Your Manners”), it’s refreshing when he returns to big, simple phrasing and his natural range—the voice that made him famous, to put it another way. Album-closing ballad “Future Days” benefits from that simplicity, too, as well as a willingness to step outside the guitar-bass-drums foundation. (It also echoes “Just Breathe,” which is probably a smart commercial move.)
Lightning Bolt isn’t faultless. It’s longer than it needs to be, with a couple too many songs that revisit the past without any fresh insight: “Let The Records Play” is fun and funky, but ultimately forgettable, and Pearl Jam has done “Yellow Moon” before, and done it better. But the album still feels fresher and more relevant than the world at large might expect at this point—this classic-rock band still has at least a few classics left in it.