On “Lightning Bolt,” Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album, the Seattle group isn’t content to rest on its laurels. The 12 songs here — all anchored by Eddie Vedder’s often stirring, always impassioned vocal delivery, Mike McCready and Stone Gossard’s fine, sharp guitar playing, and drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Jeff Ament’s sturdy rhythm section —are well delivered, with taut, strong musicianship.
By now, after more than 20 years, it’s not a surprise that the band finds itself so easily in the pocket on the Brendan O’Brien-produced set. Even though the band stretches out of its usual heavy, mid-tempo, groove here a few times, the playing always sounds assured, but that doesn’t mean everything works as well as it should.
Some of the songs, including first two singles, the spiky “Mind Your Manners” and the heartbreaking “Sirens,” hit their marks with perfect precision. On others, as Pearl Jam drifts into funkier territory or space rock, don’t land as gracefully. It seems churlish to deduct points for Pearl Jam’s attempts to push its boundaries a little here, but the result is an album that sometimes feels a tad unfocused and one that could use a little more bite in a few places.
Also, given that it’s the band’s first album since 2009’s “Backspacer,” it seems odd that the band had to draw upon a track from Vedder’s 2011 solo album, “Ukulele Songs,” to round out the package.
Lyrically, Vedder looks both outward and rails against the system ("Mind Your Manners" and "Infallible"), as well as inward on such beauties as "Sirens" and "Future Days," but he's also sensing his own mortality on a number of the tracks.
Despite its flaws, there’s much here to enjoy on the band’s first album in four years, out Oct. 15. Here’s a track-by-track review:
“Getaway”: A thrashy, mid-tempo treat opens the album with the band firing on all cylinders. “Getaway” has a 70s rock feel as Vedder rants about organized religion. In a career built on often impenetrable lyrics, he comes across loud and clear when he sings, “Science says we’re making love like the lizards.” Go figure. GRADE: B
“My Father’s Son”: Vedder’s father issues are, understandably, the dominant story of his life and he’s got a lots left to say here. The song totally shape shifts in the last third, but for the most part is a dark, driving tune about getting out from under your own gene pool. “Now father, you’re dead and gone and I’m finally free to be me,” Vedder sings, although none of the torment seems to be alleviated. GRADE: B-
“Sirens”: Simply one of the most beautiful ballads Pearl Jam has recorded. There are seldom happy endings in Pearl Jam’s songs and this one won’t end well either, but between the gorgeous piano-based melody, and Vedder singing about how the “fear goes away” when he holds his disappearing lover and how fragile life is, this is the album’s masterpiece. GRADE: A+
“Lightning Bolt”: The titular character is a woman whom you will never be able to tame, even when you ride her like a wave or she may be the ocean. The mid-tempo rocker has a killer vocal by Vedder and it explodes into a full-on burner for a nice build that left me wishing the whole song had that kind of thrust: GRADE: B
“Infallible”: Funky isn’t really one of Pearl Jam’s signatures, but the band gives it a try with this tune about man’s infallibility. “Our ship’s come in and it’s sinking,” Vedder sings. It’s fun to hear the band play around a bit here and switch it up, even though it’s a tripwire of a song that feels a bit more like a curiosity than anything else. GRADE: C
“Pendulum”: “We are here and then we go/my shadow left me long ago,” Vedder sings on this stark, spare entry. The subdued percussion brings a feeling of foreboding, as a lonely tremelo guitar line weaves through much of the song, adding to the haunted feel. “Easy left me a long time ago,” Vedder sings. The change of pace works much better here than on “Infallible.” GRADE: B+
“Swallowed Whole”: Redolent of mid-‘90s Pearl Jam, this track feels like a loose-limbed jam that could take flight at any point. Lyrically, it’s a reminder of how our peace and sense of nature get swallowed up with all the mire and muck of daily life. GRADE: B+
“Let The Records Play”: That funky bounce is back as Cameron and Ament find a cool groove here. The sneaky bass line works well, but the rest of the song never really goes anywhere. GRADE: C
“Sleeping By Myself”: The gentle, lulling, acoustic tale first appeared n sounds like an Vedder’s 2011 solo album, “Ukulele Songs” and is stretched out in an enhanced version here. He’s destined to be forever lonely as his love leaves him and he comes to the conclusion that love and disaster are pretty much the same thing. GRADE: B-
“Yellow Moon”: A spacey, intentionally slow drift of a song with a dreamy vocal by Vedder and measured drumming from Cameron. GRADE: B-
“Future Days”: For all the turbulence that life brings, both from external struggles and internal demons, there can be beautiful moments where we can leave all that behind, especially when we find the one person who anchors us and lets us fly at the same time. The album concludes with a very happy ending on this emotional piano ballad (complete with strings and O’Brien on piano) as Vedder sees a future free of pain... OK, maybe with a little less pain. GRADE: B