Spin Cycle

PJ-LBI hate to break it to you, but Pearl Jam’s 10th album is both a beautiful – and disjointed – mess.

Let’s face it – any band that makes it to 10 studio albums deserves the title of ‘legacy act.’  As such, the pressure to make the album that befits the pedigree of such a widely accepted rock band is gargantuan in nature.

Another pitfall of a legacy album is that you’re generally only a good as the last two or three albums in comparison.  Trying to reach farther back into the catalog is generally unfair. The writing for this album began on the heels of the release of 2009’s Backspacer, before being halted/hiatused until earlier this year – creating both a vacuum and a four-year distance between the two albums.

I still love how they tackle things head on from the start.  Vedder sings, ‘Everyone’s a critic/looking back up the river…’ and off the ship sails on the garage rocker, ‘Getaway,’ that opens Lightning Bolt.  He continues later on in the track, ‘It’s ok/sometimes you find yourself being told to change your ways/there’s no way/my way is mine/and yours won’t take it’s place/now getaway…’

For as unfair as it might be to compare the band’s current output to early years, when they blatantly regurgitate ‘Spin the Black Circle,’ from 1994’s Vitalogy it has to be commented on.  ‘Mind Your Manners,’ musically, from the chords to the vocal tone are rooted in the same punk aesthetic, even if the lyrics have changed.  It’s still a great rave-up track that goes 90 miles an hour.

On ‘My Father’s Son,’ a vitriolic third garage rocker to make the album, a noir-ish vibe is taken through it’s first half before opening up in its middle with organs and a rumbling, if brief bass line from Jeff Ament, before returning to it’s root tone.

The Pearl Jam of yesterday, today and tomorrow returns on ‘Sirens,’ one of the sunniest ballads the band has written to date.  It’s also the sound of the band in complete unison…you’ve got McCready on the right, Gossard on the left and the team of Matt Cameron and Jeff Ament holding things down in the back, giving way to Vedder’s soaring vocals.  Mike McCready gives a killer, if brief, solo on the cut as well.

The album’s eponymous cut returns the band to the garage one more time with Townsend like guitars introducing the track before McCready’s lean, muscular playing comes in again.  In some ways, this album feels like PJ’s answer to The Foo Fighters Wasted Light (2011).   ‘Infallible,’ again recalls Vitalogy – this time in a less caustic guitar line reminiscent of ‘Tremor Christ,’ but with a much more steady rhythm section and a Beatles-esque refrain in the chorus.  It ‘goes big,’ and will play well to arena crowds.

One of my favorite tracks on the album is the spare, moody ‘Pendulum,’ that begins Side B of the record.  It’s more of a keyboard and vocal driven track which offers a pretty stark contrast to the rest of the songs on this collection.  Cameron’s drums come in at a shuffle and Ament offers up world-weary notes from his bass guitar.  McCready layers in electric guitar here and there, while Gossard finally brings acoustic strings to the mix.

‘Swallowed Whole,’ is a slice of 60’s and 70’s guitar and reminds of Fleetwood Mac in the verses, before exploding into full Pearl Jam alternative bombast in the choruses – again, this track will get heavy live rotation play in the near future.  ‘Let the Records Play,’ makes an ill-advised attempt at blues-based Tom Petty, but it comes off as a b-side that should’ve definitively been wiped from the studio dry-erase board.

‘Sleeping By Myself,’ is as good of an Eddie Vedder solo track that’s been written to date, but in hearing Eddie’s solo album(s) – it’s obvious this track belongs in that realm as it doesn’t seem to fit either this album, or even the better acoustic segment of Pearl Jam’s discography. ‘Yellow Moon,’ feels like one of those artistic excess tunes.  It’s just one of those songs that makes the album and the live set, and the listener is left holding the bag waiting for the band to ‘play something older (and better).’

I always like seeing how Pearl Jam’s final cut on an album turns out.  Sometimes they are a perfect coda for the album, sometimes they are brilliant Vedder musings, but generally the listener isn’t left feeling empty in the final frame.  ‘Future Days,’ is a good track.  Not a great one, mind you – but it’s solid.

Pearl Jam’s Lightning Bolt is a lot like a race horse.  It jumps out of the gates with a few missteps in it’s gallop but holds well into the turn, before running out of gas down the stretch, finishing with a slight jolt in it’s bolt.  Not my favorite album over the last three or even over the past 10, but definitely worthy of the legacy act’s collective body of work.

Grade: B

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