Pearl Jam‘s first album in four years is reason to be curious and (guardedly) excited.
There are definitely good omens in the air; the Dead Kennedy’s-inspired (according to Mike McCready) ‘Mind Your Manners‘, released in July as the album’s lead single, has whetted the apetite (along with its very cool video; Pearl Jam really do make some damn cool videos, especially for a band that generally doesn’t do videos – ‘Jeremy‘ and ‘Do The Evolution‘ remain two of the best music videos I’ve ever seen), boding well for the broader album to follow. And the involvement of long-time collaborator Brendan O’Brien, producer of Pearl Jam’s first two mega-selling albums ‘Ten‘ and ‘Vs‘, might make things all the more interesting, as O’Brien is dealing with a very different band now from the guys who made those 1991 and 1993 releases.
‘Sirens‘, the second single, is less exciting. Some have been labelling it a (gasp!) “power ballad”; I’m not sure that’s what it is, but I find myself hoping this track is less an indicator of what the album’s like and that the meatier ‘Mind Your Manners‘ is more of a pointer. The faster, heavier, punkier tracks have tended to be the standouts on the last few PJ albums (‘Got Some‘ on the ‘Backspacer‘ album, for example). Early reviews have been mixed, some calling the album one of Pearl Jam’s best, others describing it as merely being in line with the formula of the last few records (NME has only given it 4/10). However, most agree that ‘Lightning Bolt‘ has a degree of anger and “brooding depression” to it; which, musically and thematically, can only be a good thing if it means Pearl Jam rocking out like they mean it again.
To be clear, this isn’t a review of the new album – I haven’t listened to it yet. In fact I don’t intend to listen to it for at least a month or so; being a highly temperamental type, I don’t like trying to process/experience too many albums at once, especially something as important as a new Pearl Jam album. So, given that I’m still listening to this year’s Alice in Chains record ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here‘, along with a few other recent albums (including Soundgarden’s ‘King Animal’ and the last Smashing Pumpkins album), I’m putting off ‘Lightning Bolt‘ until I can give it the space it warrants, the space needed to properly debut, digest and experience the music.
Really, what I want to talk about here is Pearl Jam in general and the fact that they’re still going strong, still releasing albums and still being relevant, over twenty years since their legendary beginnings. Some commentators naysay Pearl Jam and other bands for not knowing when to call it a day. I disagree. While admittedly fizzling out or imploding at your height is the best way to ensure your legacy and your potency – Pearl Jam can never now be as powerful an entity as the eternally-crystallised Nirvana, for example – I think there’s something to be said for artists that do keep going, that do keep working their field, plying their art.
Admittedly Pearl Jam haven’t made a genuinely great record since 2000’s ‘Binaural‘. Their albums since then do now tend to be largely unsensational affairs, usually following a reliable formula and usually consisting of three or four really good songs, three or four average offerings, and three or four pointless exercises (which, in fact, seems to be what every band in the world – even the best of them – has been doing for some time now).
The problem is they can never make anything as mouldbreaking as ‘Ten‘ now or as interesting as ‘No Code‘; no artist can do that ten albums down the line (except maybe PJ Harvey).
Anyone who expects Pearl Jam to release anything as fresh or groundbreaking as they did twenty years ago is being unrealistic. Even Alice In Chains, who hardly have a large back catalogue, are beginning to fall into the same category; their reformation was something I was both guarded and intrigued by, and their 2009 album ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’, while very good in places, was never going to be able to recreate what we loved about Alice In Chains in the Layne Staley/grunge era days (God, I miss Layne Staley). And like the now-standard Pearl Jam album, this year’s Alice In Chains record ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here‘, while good in places, is basically a band trying to have and maintain a career, rather than any kind of potent musical or artistic force trying to do something special.
That can be a slightly depressing aspect of your favorite bands getting older; everyone from Manic Street Preachers to Pearl Jam themselves do tend to allow for more and more tedious, uninteresting songs to end up on their albums (for Pearl Jam, ‘Riot Act‘ was the first album that I felt bored by; still for a band to take seven albums before beginning to bore me a little is incredibly impressive, I guess). Unfortunately, it must be a natural effect of maturing; getting less and less edgy and more and more safe, even overly sentimental at times (some of the lyrics have been going downhill for some time). The Manics are never going to hit ‘Holy Bible‘ levels again and Pearl Jam are never going to be as dynamic as they were in their twenties again – life happens, unfortunately.
Even so, however, such albums still contain surprising gems, even hidden treasures, for the loyal listener – the last Pearl Jam album, ‘Backspacer‘, for example, had the incredibly beautiful ‘Thought Unknown‘, even if most of the album was generally uninteresting. And those hidden treasures are always something special; something worth the effort.
“If I think too much I can get overwhelmed by the grace by which we live our lives with death over our shoulders.” – From ‘SIRENS’ (Lightning Bolt)
Perhaps that is the problem of band’s trying to have careers and going for so long – they can never recapture what was there at the beginning and they can never be relevant in the same way.
Those explosions have already happened, those battles already waged and won; we’re talking about artists – Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, among others – who raised the standard and set the benchmark in their day, and who have influenced countless younger bands and songwriters, most of which will never produce anything as outstanding as those bands did at the time.
Without needing to be on TV or the radio, without needing to be talked about in mainstream press, a Pearl Jam show will sell out. That band can sell out arenas all over the place, just like the Rolling Stones can. And I still look forward to hearing Pearl Jam albums; and I still look forward to those Alice in Chains releases and to Soundgarden, and to hearing what Billy Corgan or Courtney Love or Radiohead will do next.
Artists such as these are part of our landscape, part of our lives. It’s great discovering interesting new acts, or seeing some fresh young band in a small club, but at the same time we want to come home to our standards too; our old, reliable purveyors of the art. And although it becomes increasingly hit-or-miss as the years progress – some albums will be disappointing, even baffling – there’s still excitement in each new chapter; and just as much as that, there’s the reliability, the fact that loyal, longstanding fans can depend on Pearl Jam to put out another album and to come to their city and play another show.
Speaking as someone who, for example, never got to see Nirvana in concert, I am perfectly happy to stand in an arena and sing along to ‘Alive‘ for the tenth time or hear ‘Rearviewmirror‘ again.
I don’t expect ‘Lightning Bolt‘ to be amazing; I know it’s not going to change my life. But I’m looking forward to hearing it and to having it be a soundtrack to my winter. I still remember the ‘event’ of every Pearl Jam CD and hearing it for the first time, whether I was impressed by it or not (for the record my favorite PJ albums aren’t ‘Ten‘ or ‘Vs‘, but ‘No Code‘ and ‘Binaural‘). Why shouldn’t rock be a career? Pearl Jam clearly love what they do, are bloody good at what they do, and are now well and truly a bona fide chapter in rock music history, who’ve bought themselves the right to do whatever they want. They are a band with nothing left to prove – they already have their loyal and devoted fanbase, have already earned their place in the annals, and have long-since established their own kingdom.
In an increasingly vacuous musical age, there’s something life-affirming about “waiting for the new Pearl Jam album” again. With that in mind, it’s interesting that 2013 has also strangely seen new albums, as I already mentioned, from Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, and we’ve also had the recent return of Smashing Pumpkins; all bands who made amazing, revelatory music twenty years ago and who’ve reformed and returned to continue their sagas. Of these, I think Smashing Pumpkins are musically still the strongest; but regardless, it’s something to be celebrated that incredible artists such as these are continuing to put out worthy music – not all of it great, but worthy all the same.
In a recent broadcast on Pearl Jam’s SiriusXM channel, Eddie Vedder spoke about the band’s longevity. “It’s kind of like dying, or getting older. You don’t want to get older but what are the options? It’s like you wanna just keep living and still be in a band. It’s life or death.”,