Pearl Jam's 'Lightning Bolt': Billboard Cover Story

Danny Clinch
Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam load the bases with an inspired new album, new tour, and a deal to soundtrack the World Series

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.

The setting was perfect in ways both good and bad. About to debut songs from "Lightning Bolt" -- its first album in four years, and one that would prompt a major deal to supply all the music for the upcoming World Series broadcast -- Pearl Jam was at Chicago's Wrigley Field, with more than 40,000 fans stuffed into the stands, huddled along the outfield walls and spilling onto the streets. There was also an uninvited guest: a thunderstorm pelting the ballpark with rain and illuminating the sky with jagged streaks.

Frontman Eddie Vedder had called for an evacuation of the field and stage as what he deemed "heavy weather" rolled in 45 minutes into the band's set. "You had Eddie actually on the phone with the city weather guy talking about the cells coming through," manager Kelly Curtis says.

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The rain delay stretched on for nearly three hours while Curtis and his staff warily watched the clearing skies and talked the city into extending the 11 p.m. curfew. "If there was any way that we were going to get it done, whether it meant fines or whatever, we were going to take that on. At the end of the day, the city, and the Cubs, the promoter, fire department, everybody, they were on the same page in a great way. There was a little bit of yelling but no giant fines."

Just before the clock struck midnight, the crowd streamed right back into position and the band proceeded to conquer with a set that raged on until 2 a.m. Pearl Jam unveiled three Lightning Bolt songs-the thrashy lead single "Mind Your Manners," the rocking title track and the delicate "Future Days." Only "Manners" had been played live before, a few nights earlier in Canada.

"Luckily our fans are receptive to new music," guitarist Mike McCready says. "They don't just want to hear the old hits."

But they have had to wait a minute for the new album. "Lightning Bolt" arrives Oct. 15 in the United States on Monkeywrench/Republic, four years after 2009's Backspacer, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Though the gap has hardly been downtime-PJ toured regularly and side-project and solo releases included Vedder's 2011 "Ukulele Songs," a pair of albums from guitarist Stone Gossard's Brad, a Soundgarden reunion for drummer Matt Cameron and three different projects from bassist Jeff Ament -- the time has also been one of reckoning with both the past and future.

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Pearl Jam worked with director Cameron Crowe to mark the 20th anniversary of its 1991 debut, "Ten" (which passed the 10 million sales mark in February, according to Nielsen SoundScan). Crowe's 2011 "Pearl Jam Twenty" doc, along with an accompanying book and soundtrack, examined the band's full history. "We're established, so how can we push the envelope as far as we can?" Vedder says of the band's longevity. "I think we're barely halfway there."

In part, "Lightning Bolt" is about just that-harnessing the flash of inspiration and electricity as Pearl Jam charges into its third decade. The 12-song palate of propulsive rockers, soaring grooves and tender ballads features some of the band's finest songwriting and some of Vedder's most potent vocals as he addresses lasting relationships, bad faith ("Getaway," "Mind Your Manners"), the state of the world ("Infallible") and life's transience ("Pendulum," among others).

But there's also a sense that the stakes are higher this time out. Songs like "Sirens," "Future Days" and "Swallowed Whole" wrestle with mortality, and may reflect the questions raised in early 2012, when a back injury sidelined Vedder. Temporary nerve damage left him with limited use of his right arm and forced the postponement of a 15-city U.S. solo tour. "It sure was scary for him at the time, and a struggle to play guitar," Curtis says. "He's a pretty healthy guy and he didn't know what was going on."

This is still a young man's game, so we have to stay young. Music allows you to do that, especially rock'n'roll." - Eddie Vedder

"Not knowing how things are going to turn out-or if things are going to turn out, if you're going to heal-that's the hard part," says Vedder, who underwent a rehab process that restored him to normal and put him back on the road with Pearl Jam by June 2012. "We all know it's a toxic world. We've got things that are incredibly beautiful and incredibly tragic all going on at the same time. Sometimes when you're hit with the tragic stuff-and I'm not even talking about the injury, because it was nothing compared to what some people have to go through-but when the magnifying glass of tragedy selects you, it changes you. It ends up making you so much more empathetic. So part of what the record is saying is, try to live an empathetic life. Don't wait for tragedy to hit you before you start understanding what other people are going through."

For Vedder, the tragic stuff includes the accidental drowning death of friend Dennis Flemion of the band the Frogs in July 2012, a loss referenced in the song "Future Days." The singer says mortality wasn't something he wanted to focus on with "Lightning Bolt" so much as something he couldn't get away from. "It sounds so pedestrian and ridiculous but death is everywhere," he says. "Maybe just because I read the paper every day. Maybe it's war, maybe it's the epidemic rates of suicide in veterans coming back. I just can't seem to get around it. So I think part of it is not getting around it, it's getting through it. Songs end up being mantras that you end up playing for yourself as well."

One of those mantras is "Sirens," a gorgeous ballad in which Vedder reflects on the "fragile thing, this life we lead/If I think too much I can get overwhelmed by the grace by which we live our lives with death over our shoulders." McCready wrote the music after a Roger Waters concert for "The Wall" inspired him to "take a shot at something in that same kind of feel." He says Vedder's lyric "just brought me to tears."

"As a band, we're all at an age now where there's a lot of reflection going on," Gossard says. "[At] 40-something, almost 50-something, you're looking at life through your kids' eyes, through the filter of relationships that are 20 or 30 years long, through the filter of your parents getting older and the passing of friends and relatives-relationships and all that they encompass, the difficulties of them and the sacrifices you make in them and also the joy they bring you."

NEXT PAGE: 'A Deal to Soundtrack the World Series'

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Vedder has a keepsake at home that brings two of his passions together: a baseball glove that belonged to Johnny Ramone when he was a kid. "Lightning Bolt" will unite that love of sports and music come Oct. 23 when the World Series telecast begins on Fox Sports. "For the World Series, every music cue will be Pearl Jam," says Michele Anthony, who has worked with Pearl Jam throughout the band's career, has helped run PJ's "Monkeywrench" label and was recently named Universal Music Group executive VP of U.S. recorded music. "The band are all huge baseball fans and they have a lot of sports fans, so Fox Sports came to us with a very fun idea, which was to license to them 36 songs plus the new album."

FULL DETAILS: Pearl Jam to Soundtrack the World Series

It's been more than two decades of hard-fought victories that have brought Pearl Jam to this point: a 10th studio album that can match the intensity of its best work. "The No. 1 reason is Eddie Vedder," Gossard says. "He doesn't want to fade quietly into the sunset. What excites him, what pisses him off, what energizes him still is these bursts of adrenaline. They're relative to the stuff that we learned the first few years of playing together, where we were all sort of losing our minds. He's never forgotten that.

"We're still the new kids in a lot of ways," Gossard adds. "You look at the people that are our heroes-you look at the Whos and the Neil Youngs and the Bruce Springsteens-those guys are 20, 30 years down the road farther."

Asked if the examples of those heroes have changed the perception that rock'n'roll is a young man's game, Vedder responds, "It still is a young man's game, so we have to stay young. Music allows you to do that, especially rock'n'roll. But it also has to do with growing up and becoming more mature, and then you have a pretty good balance." Vedder thinks part of that maturity is "being less precious about the records and maybe trying to put out more material. The irony is that I'm saying this after taking four years to get this one out. Now I think we've had enough thinking or talking about the past, and it just feels like a good time to be prolific, take advantage of this opportunity. Because it is pretty rare, if nothing else."

So if Pearl Jam is, as Vedder puts it, barely halfway there after 23 years, where does he see himself 20 years from now? "The most important thing is to be able to see who you are at the current time, in the present tense," he says with a laugh. "Because there's just no guarantees. I'm just trying to be as strong as I can for my kids, for my family. I can't see looking into the future. I just want to be alive."

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.

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