With contemporaries Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Nirvana (if we count that Paul McCartney collaboration) making music again, Seattle rock icons Pearl Jam have quite some competition releasing Lightning Bolt that they didn’t have releasing their previous album Backspacer four years ago. As the only one of these bands to have remained active since formation, the band rocketed to fame with one of the 90s’ finest debut albums Ten in 1991, an album that combined the energy and attitude of their ‘grunge’ era peers with the stadium-sized ambitions of Bruce Springsteen and U2.
Over 20 years into a career that has held political activism and charity almost as high as music making, it isn’t always an easy task for a band like Pearl Jam to continue to sound inspired while retaining key musical features that fans have loved for decades. But Lightning Bolt manages to achieve the perfect balance between playing it safe and experimentation. Lead single Mind Your Manners is a throwback to the punkier and faster-paced tracks on Vitalogy, while Pendulum shows quite a Pink Floyd influence coming through. Let The Records Play is responsible for one of the album’s few minor dips, but this picks up again for one of the most surprising songs Sleeping By Myself, which sounds more like The Eagles than anything you would expect from Pearl Jam. They finish on piano/acoustic guitar ballad Future Days. Taking a lighter approach than many of their early albums, the band members’ contributions all come across clearly, largely thanks to the help of long-time producer Brendan O’Brien.
Lightning Bolt shows the band at perhaps their best since the time of the Ten/Vs./Vitalogy run of albums that began their career, with them managing to write songs which are among their best, coming across as neither an unnatural attempt at youthfulness (if you were expecting them to ‘go dubstep’, sorry) nor an attempt to go too far into mellower territory. At this point in their career, you couldn’t ask for much more.