“It’s better to burn out than fade away.” This lyric, from Neil Young’s “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” was the last thing written in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. In a way, it may have also become the motto for other bands from the grunge era.
Despite the typical “adapt or die” mentality, grunge bands were desperate to stay true to their roots under pressure from major labels (so more like “resist or die”). The four flagship bands of grunge were Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. Nirvana’s journey ended in tragedy in Cobain’s desperation to stay true. Soundgarden broke up before the 90s ended, but successfully reunited three years ago. Alice in Chains also suffered tragedy in the loss of their lead singer, Layne Staley, but also successfully reformed in 2005. Pearl Jam, however, has been the only band that has stayed alive and rolling since they began 23 years ago. Ironically, they have often fought with their image concept, concert promoters, politicians and even their own sound. But what has kept Pearl Jam going (and relevant) is that they have always been captivating and full of life, no matter where they have been in their career? But how long can being Pearl Jam (and only Pearl Jam) last before people start asking, “So what?”
“Lightning Bolt,” Pearl Jam’s tenth studio album, is an ironic title because not a lot on the album is truly striking. The sound is the same, with perhaps a darker tone than 2009’s “Backspacer,” with fast tempos, sharp guitar riffs, and the command of lead singer Eddie Vedder. This has been the calling card of Pearl Jam for the past seven years since their self-titled album, which was a topical, supposed return to form after two albums of good, but alienating records. “Mind Your Manners” is a prime cut of Pearl Jam, with a twin guitar attack from Mike McCready and Stone Gossard and the hard drums of Matt Cameron. The lyrics are the angry charge we have come to expect: “Try my patience / My patience tried / This world’s no longer good enough / Makes me wanna cry.” “My Father’s Son” is lead by Jeff Ament’s chugging bass line and Vedder shouting over the freedom from an overbearing father. The title track is another great guitar-fronted track, with McCready and Gossard using a quiet-loud delivery to help guide the band.
Unfortunately, those three tracks are the most notable tracks on “Lightning Bolt.” In fact, the rest of “Lightning Bolt” seems like one long mid-tempo track. Nothing else about the album stands out. The energy stays the same, the guitar delivery does not change all that much, and the lyrical content is not as dynamic as previous records. It sounds like comfort music, and that is not what Pearl Jam does. The band behind a shocking narrative like “Jeremy” cannot be the same band behind a Weezer rip-off like “Let The Records Play.” “Pendulum” sounds haunting at first, but it seems more like a sequel to Pearl Jam’s own “Indifference” with its echoing guitars and slow-rolling drums. Album closer “Future Days” is way too soft to even be considered a Pearl Jam song with Vedder and his crystalline harmonies. If U2 closed their album like this it would be acceptable because U2 is known for turning something cheesy into something wholesome (if you do not analyze it, at least), whereas one would think Pearl Jam is smarter than that.
Is age to blame? Most of the members of Pearl Jam are married fathers, so they must be exhausted from raging against the machine for 20 years. This is also the longest break between Pearl Jam albums in quite some time. During their break, Vedder got married and cut an album of ukulele songs, Matt Cameron recorded the first new Soundgarden album in 16 years, Mike McCready formed a super group with Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses fame, and Jeff Ament started a new band himself called RNDM. Pearl Jam has really spread itself out in the last five years, so there is the wonder that “Lightning Bolt” could be just a friendly reminder that they are still around and that there is more coming. For now though, it would have been better to kick down the door instead of just knocking lightly.