The first single from Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album Lightning Bolt is Mind Your Manners. A blistering, back to basics track, it recalls the sound of another album that has to do with the number 10. But contrast Mind Your Manners with The Fixer, the lead single from their last album, 2009’s otherwise underrated Backspacer, and you find less of an emphasis on making a radio-friendly, Foo Fighters-esque single with a meaningless chorus, and more of a cheeky move on the part of Eddie Vedder and company: on Lightning Bolt, Pearl Jam don’t necessarily mind their manners.
Many of the songs on this album are punk songs that, while still pleasant to listen to (as a result of longtime producer Brendan O’Brien’s clean sound), bring the urgency from Pearl Jam’s early work back into play. Or so you might think from listening to the album’s great first half. The second half is rather more unpredictable, for better or worse.
To start, bookending Mind Your Manners on Lightning Bolt are the comparatively less rocking but more melodic Getaway and the almost equally forward-driving My Father’s Son, which sports a groovy Jeff Ament bassline and a profane Vedder, resulting in this year’s best Coliseum song not on that band’s album Sister Faith. These first three songs on Lightning Bolt find Vedder returning to both the aesthetic and the topics (namely, his confusing relationship with his stepfather) that made the band so popular and legendary in the first place. But then, the emotional centrepiece of Lightning Bolt is next: the terribly maudlin, but altogether irresistible Sirens. While it may not contain the emotional subtlety of past great Pearl Jam slow songs like Wishlist or Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town, it’s higher than the sky chorus and shit eating grin guitar solo bridge is bound to dominate both certain radio station playlists in the rest of 2013 and, surely, festivals in 2014.
Sirens opens the door to Lightning Bolt’s softer, slower, and disappointing second half. Track five, Lightning Bolt’s title track, too closely resembles The Fixer, as Vedder’s screaming and wailing is more grating than inspirational, while Stone Gossard and Mike McCready’s cheesy guitar tones are ironically more emotionally off-base than those in Sirens. Next up is Infallible, another attempt at radio domination via a hooky, “ooh”-laden, light chorus. But unlike Sirens, which is cleanly formulaic yet affecting (and probably self-aware in terms of its cheesiness), Infallible plods. The song is tiring even before Vedder’s “yeah yeahs” appear towards the end of the track, needier of attention than even those of Bono in When Love Comes To Town.
That’s not to say that Lightning Bolt’s second half doesn’t contain any good songs. Swallowed Whole’s acoustic guitars and driving, increasingly loud melodies are clearly inspired by Vedder’s biggest heroes The Who. In fact, Vedder might have lifted the riff from Substitute. And Sleeping By Myself (not a Drake song) is actually a Vedder ukulele-featuring, charmingly mopey pop ditty whose ’70s-inspired guitars might have happily slotted in on this year’s Foxygen album. But then there’s the cock rock of Let The Records Play, which is not only the best song Golden Earring never made but terribly titled because the musical eras it’s emulating were definitely in the post-vinyl, pre-vinyl revival era.
Lightning Bolt is a mixed bag. It does punk well, hard rock terribly, and soft both effectively and ineffectively. As an album it amounts to a forgettable entry in Pearl Jam’s canon, but it has the potential to produce staples in the band’s live set for years to come. From this realisation comes the swaggering and not entirely unwelcome future image of a 70-year-old Vedder, still trying to sing Sirens.