It’s been four years since Pearl Jam’s last studio album, but the band’s inspired new effort “Lightning Bolt” (out Oct. 15 on Monkeywrench/Republic) proves to be more than worth the wait since 2009’s “Backspacer,” with 12 tunes exploring bad faith, mortality, the intricacies of deep commitment, and the state of the planet — managing to groove, thrash and soar along the way.
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Recorded over the course of two sessions, separated by over a year, the Brendan O’Brien produced “Lightning Bolt” benefited from the break, guitarist Stone Gossard tells Billboard. “We reacted to that first session, and I think having two to choose from elevated the material,” he says. Having “seven songs recorded,” during the earlier session, guitarist Mike McCready tells Billboard, “we were taking that favor to ourselves to take the time.” He notes that 15 fresh ideas from the latter 2013 session translated into several new songs for “Lightning Bolt,” including the title track and tender closer “Future Days.”
Twenty-three years into its career, the Seattle band that never stopped crafting heartfelt, intelligent rock ‘n’ roll and blowing minds with it on stage, strides forward with a new album studded with highlights.
Here’s a track-by-track look at Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album “Lightning Bolt,” with commentary from guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready for many of the songs.
The album’s “dark stormy weather” rolls in right away with muscular opener “Getaway” as Vedder sings about having to “put all your faith in no faith” and “holy rollers sitting with their backs to the middle” as Ament’s bass follows him through the wave-like melody and the guitars slash around them. Ultimately, Vedder on his own path, singing “I got my own way to believe, it’s ok.” and “Mine is mine and yours can’t take its place!”
2. “Mind Your Manners”
This ferocious sub-three-minute thrasher has been stomping eardrums since its release in July as the lead single from “Lightning Bolt.” “I was listening to some Dead Kennedys at the time and I felt very moved by how East Bay Ray played guitar or what an anti guitar hero he was. I wanted to try to explore that,” says McCready, who wrote the music.” The song’s precise placement in the track list makes perfect sense, as “Manners” picks up the “Getaway” thread taking aim against false righteousness and in a lot of ways, turns it up to 11, while McCready’s riff and screaming hot solo wail and Matt Cameron’s drums crash on. “Go to heaven, that’s swell, how you like your living in hell?!” comes Vedder’s furious howl at the end. “Jeff [Ament] added the stop to it and that made it more kind of punk rock sounding,” McCready adds. “Ed [Vedder] gravitated toward the lyrics and was just screaming and really into it.”
3. “My Father’s Son”
One of Vedder’s most sarcastic/caustic songs in awhile, featuring music by Ament, it finds the protagonist snarling “father you’re dead and gone and I’m finally free to be me / thanks for all your f*cked up gifts for which I’ve got no sympathy.” The weird, driving groove and and almost tropical bridge set the song appealingly askew. “Certainly the traits that are handed down by a father that you don’t like having would be something that he’s singing about,” says McCready. “There’s a real urgency that comes from when [Vedder] gets up into a certain register you can really see his strength as a vocalist and you can feel the lyric in a way that the lower keys don’t let you have access to,” says Gossard. “‘My Father’s Son’ is one of the stand out tracks in terms of his vocal performance [and] lyrically.”
Plenty have called “Sirens” a power ballad, but that’s far too reductive. The song matching Vedder’s lyrics to McCready’s music, aches sonically and vocally as Vedder contemplates love and mortality while listening to ambulances in the night. Here EV’s familiar voice is at it’s most gorgeous, particularly on the stunning lyric; “If I think too much I can get overwhelmed by the grace by which we live our lives with death over our shoulders.” “Before it was called ‘Sirens,’ it was written two years ago. I was at Roger Waters concert and was completely blown away by ‘The Wall,” says McCready. “I wanted to write something that would have a Pink Floyd type feel.” He continues, “We recorded a demo of it [but Vedder] didn’t put the lyrics on it until the second time we went back in. . . I heard them the night that he put them on there and they just brought me to tears. This is Ed at his best in my mind.”
5. “Lightning Bolt”
Debuted live at Chicago’s “Wrigley Field” after a thunderstorm threw literal lightning bolts in the sky around the sold-out stadium, the title track puts Vedder’s voice right up front as the verse about a mystery woman “like a burning meteor” that starts quiet but grows and expands with the storyline, until the band lifts off and he’s riding the top like a wave. “I wonder who that’s about,” says McCready. “The cool thing is kind of not knowing. I can put in the context of what I feel and who I know just like you can…the important thing is what it means to you the listener.”
“There’s a lot going on in that track. It’s three dimensional, you can really hear each instrument playing,” says Gossard, who co-wrote the song’s music with Ament (the lyrics are Vedder’s). “I think the melodies are so strong, the descending chords in the chorus and where Ed takes that vocally, it has this classic melody that is pretty instantaneous.” Dark but not pitch-black, intricate and soaring all the same — like many of Pearl Jam’s best songs — well-wrought “Infallible” builds and twists around sonic corners for nearly five-and-a-half minutes while Vedder sings of the ill-advised hubris of modern humans. “By thinking we’re infallible, we are tempting fate instead,” is the hook, as his voice climbs along with the riffs.
“‘Pendulum’ is actually a song that didn’t make ‘Backspacer,'” says Gossard. “We pulled that back out and worked on that a little bit more, we really were in love with it again.” Eerie, with a hitch in its time signature, Vedder is hauntingly close and quiet until he hits a visceral note at 1:45 that goes right through you, “easy come easy go / easy left me a long time ago.” Cameron’s drums tick out the passing seconds, while EV’s voice swings into the left channel, then the right, “to and fro / the pendulum throws” as he muses on our limited time alive here amid a spare mix that includes Ament’s bowed guitar and Gossard’s strategic bongos. Key to the song, Gossard explains, is “its simplicity; it’s basically three or four chords, the whole thing, and it’s really about a groove.”
8. “Swallowed Whole”
Ringing, almost Byrds-ian guitars along with a quick-strummed undercurrent propel EV’s evocative mid-tempo rocker finds him communing with nature, feeling the sun, wind and oceans current and “breathing in forgiveness.” Thoughts of “what lies beyond the grave” come with the equanimity of “time will come / come what may.”
9. “Let The Records Play”
Gossard turns in a full-on boogie wherein Vedder, no stranger to writing songs about the restorative power of playing music (see “Spin The Black Circle”), tells the tale of a man who “let’s the drummer’s drum take away the pain” as “he let’s the records play” before the band stomps into a good ‘ol rave up.
10. “Sleeping By Myself”
Most Pearl Jam fans will recognize this as a song first released as a heartbroken, spare uke tune from Vedder’s 2011 solo album, “Ukulele Songs.” Here, with the whole band taking part, the song takes on a jaunty bounce.
11. “Yellow Moon”
A solemn Ament song with Vedder lyrics, “Yellow Moon” almost didn’t make the album, according to both guitarists. McCready championed it, however. “We ended up moving the key a little bit and that really brought the vocal out more in a really interesting way. But the odd time signature of that song creates something unique about that song,” says Gossard. “In terms of a lead,” explains McCready, “I feel that that was trying to actually write a beautiful part of a person ascending.”
12. “Future Days”
“Lightning Bolt” closes with this delicate ballad, completely written by Vedder, which sings of looking ahead into time and seeing love last strongly into those “future days,” with the friends lost along the way (Vedder told Billboard the song’s “crooked hearts” is a reference to the Frogs’ Dennis Flemion, who drowned accidentally last year) and other “hurricanes and cyclones” of life just bringing them closer. “I think it’ll be one of those that people cry to, hopefully get a little closer to their loved ones when they hear it,” says McCready. “I was feeling that that night [at Wrigley Field in July when Pearl Jam debuted it]. I was feeling it with the whole crowd.”