October 16, 2013

Test Spins: Pearl Jam, Lightning Bolt

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By PAUL BLANK

It doesn’t speak highly of Lightning Bolt that, at a certain point, I stopped paying attention to the album’s songs and instead tried to count the sonic touchstones Pearl Jam were referencing. Once I realized in the first few listens to the band’s tenth album that they were offering nothing new or interesting musically, I thought a better use of my time would be to parse out the sounds that brought them to this point. I decided to challenge myself, seeing as Pearl Jam certainly wasn’t doing it for me.

The obvious touchstones for Lightning Bolt are the sounds of Pearl Jam past. Particularly 2009’s Backspacer, an album of measured tones that clearly indicated the group was entering its complacency period. Lightning Bolt follows the flow of Backspacer almost exactly, with mid-tempo rockers taking up most of its runtime and the occasional raw (but richly scrubbed over thanks to Brendan O’Brien’s production) track and acoustic ballad thrown in for variability. In Lightning Bolt’s case, that “raw” track is first single “Mind Your Manners,”  which apes 1997’s Vitalogy’s “Spin the Black Circle” nearly part-for-part. Because there’s nothing about Lightning Bolt that makes it stick out from any of Pearl Jam’s past releases, it can be comfortably filed as a low-stakes late-career production.

This isn’t necessarily bad. Although the Pearl Jam on Backspacer was very comfortable with itself, the group still managed to write songs filled with  wall-to-wall fun and memorable tunes — the kind of dad rock romps that one might expect from the recent output of Wilco. What makes Lightning Bolt so many steps below Backspacer is not only that it’s a dilution of the latter, but that it also yields some disconcerting comparisons. Sheryl Crow. Lifehouse. Matchbox Twenty — any bland, innocuous act playing a chiropractor’s office waiting room near you, assured a permanent placement on a radio playlist next to Mumford & Sons and Imagine Dragons in the near future. As a result, much of Lightning Bolt presents Pearl Jam as the antithesis of what they stood for just twenty years ago. You could say that the band has sold out, but that would imply a broader audience would be particularly interested in what Lightning Bolt has to offer.

It’s in Lightning Bolt’s second half where the quality really takes this dive. Eddie Vedder speaks in dull platitudes on ballads “Yellow Moon” and “Future Days.” “Swallowed Whole” has the kind of generic riffing that Goo Goo Dolls could write in their sleep. The worst is “Let the Records Play,” a song that covers the tired guy-who-listens-to-records-alone lyrical trope, one of the few things that has gladly gone away with the musical format. Its half-assed, bloozy bloat sounds uncomfortable in the hands of some of the best musicians of the past 20 years, and O’Brien does no favors by prioritizing them far below the vocals, like he’s unfortunately done on Springsteen’s recent albums. As a result, a lot of Lightning Bolt just sounds like The Eddie Vedder Show. Judging by the considerable strain he goes through to hit the high notes on songs like “Sirens,” that’s hardly a dynamic that plays to the group’s strengths.

Written by any of the aforementioned D-list bands, Lightning Bolt would probably pass a few uninterested but unoffended ears. Within a catalogue that features what I believe to be the best album of the ’90s and plenty of other gems, the album seems to serve little purpose other than bathroom break fodder for live shows. Such judgement within the context of an artist’s catalogue might seem unfair, but Lightning Bolt’s blandness leaves little else to talk about but the great band that made it. Such is the case with bands that hit autopilot as they enter their Golden Years. Backspacer showed that Pearl Jam could do that with style, but Lightning Bolt compromises that optimism.

Paul Blank is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at pblank@cornellsun.com.

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