The Mainstream: Pearl Jam’s “Lightning Bolt”

“I found my place and it’s alright/I got my own way to believe” belts Eddie Vedder during “Getaway,” the hard rocking opening track of Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album, and in the process sums up both his and Pearl Jam’s musical career thus far. At a time in the history of Generation X where many Xers themselves are are saying things like, “Oh, Pearl Jam is still around?” and train wrecks like the Miley Cyrus express are grabbing all the headlines, Eddie and the boys drop what might just be their best album since 1998’s Yield (with the possible exception of 2006’s Pearl Jam) and all is right with the rock world.

Filled with songs of a much higher musical caliber than Backspacer (which did have it moments), Lightning Bolt is the band’s most widely embracing rock album. There’s a little bit of everything here. From the straight up punk rock of “Mind Your Manners,” to the acoustic and stormy surf guitar riffs of “Sleep by Myself,” to the slightly psychedelic/slightly Beatle-esque beats and colors of “Infallible,” Pearl Jam demonstrates that not only are they rock legends themselves, but that they are still huge fans of legendary rock and roll itself. With Jeff Ament’s well documented love for ’70s glam rock and KISS, Vedder’s well documented love of Fugazi, punk, and The Who, and Mike McCready’s love of the blues, Pearl Jam’s sound consistently mixed and matched rock styles in their music once they became a true band and not just Eddie Vedder’s backing band (a position they were dangerously flirting with circa the Vitalogy days). Lightning Bolt is the first album where the band’s differing musical styles and tastes are so boldly on display right next to one another though.

“Sirens,” with its 1970s mainstream rock ballad feel (I cringe associating the word “ballad” with anything relating to Pearl Jam, but it does fit here) sounds perfectly at home right next to the uplifting, almost pop-rock like, title track “Lightning Bolt” where Vedder sings about the girl “You know you’ll never let go/She’s a lightning bolt” (in stark contrast to his bemoaning on Vitalogy’s “Nothingman”: “caught a bolt of lightning/Cursed the day he let it go”).  Just as the “rock ballad” description of “Sirens” might generate negative connotations, the pop-rock description of “Lightning Bolt” is worrisome. Rest assured though, this is pop-rock more in the vein of Beatles pop-rock than Jimmy Eat World pop-rock.

Any Pearl Jam album would be amiss without its odes to Nature and Emersonian Transcendentalism. No Code was soaked in it. Yield gave us the most powerful version of Pearl Jam’s Emersonian nature-love with “Given To Fly.” Backspacer had “Unthought Known,” and even Ten had “Oceans.” Lightning Bolt has “Swallowed Whole” and again, it might be the best Pearl Jam song of its kind since the Yield album. “Swallowed Whole” opens with a very Pete Townsend like acoustic riff that quickly carries the song into its powerfully uplifting descriptions of “hearing the planet humming,” on through to its rapturous electric guitar that launches the listener into a spiritual stratosphere. I hate to make another dated comparison, but we used to only get this kind of elevation from U2 back in their career’s third act heydays of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. “Swallowed Whole” is easily a stand out track on the album. “Swallowed Whole” must be what Emerson’s transparent eyeball must sound like set to music.

Perhaps the most rollicking track on the album, “Let the Record’s Play” is the track where Mike McCready finally, and most fulfillingly, gets to pay tribute to his still sorely missed guitar hero: Stevie Ray Vaughn. A stomping beat, a solid bass track by Ament, and some inspired blues soloing by McCready all come together to form one of the most bluesy tracks Pearl Jam has ever recorded. It’s as rapturous in its own way as “Swallowed Whole” is in its. “Let the Record’s Play” is another standout track, and one that deserves many repeat listens.

It’s not all joy and ascension though on Lightning Bolt. The darkly brooding, and slightly frightening “My Father’s Son” explores some very dark interior territory and is one of Pearl Jam’s heaviest songs since Vs. The also brooding “Infallible” explores some dark political territory (you knew politics would raise its head somewhere-this IS a Pearl Jam album after all) with its lyrics that question blind American Exceptionalism. It is themes are very relevant to today’s political climate. “Yellow Moon” revisits the “in awe of nature” theme, but this time more contemplatively. It also has some brilliant guitar work on it. It’s a track that would have been easily at home on No Code. “Pendulum” is an atmospheric fog bank of doubt with its haunting surf guitar and hazy acoustic work. Also, Vedder’s continuing dialogue with mortality, evidenced most powerfully in “Just Breathe” from Backspacer, continues on Lightning Bolt. “Future Days,” with its slight country twang and strings is one of the most beautiful songs ever written by the band and outdoes “Just Breathe” with its tender and fragile beauty. It’s one of the most powerfully moving songs on an album full of powerful songs.

I would be amiss, in any look at Pearl Jam’s newest album, to overlook the incredible affect that long time Pearl Jam producer Brenden O’Brien has on the album’s overall sound. Ever since Vs. no other producer has managed to capture the powerful live feel the Pearl Jam exudes on nearly all their tracks. Pearl Jam is a band that makes music that begs to not be overproduced, and no one captures the perfect balance of overdub, echo, and straightforward clean sound that O’Brien does. He’s in a class all of his own when it comes to producers, perhaps even more so that Pearl Jam is when it comes to rock bands. For those of us who have stuck by Pearl Jam for more than two decades, Lightning Bolt is just another gem in the catalogue of America’s greatest rock band. For those just discovering, or rediscovering, Pearl Jam, Lightning Bolt is one hell of an introduction to one hell of a band.


Lightning Bolt is available for purchase via CD and iTunes download on Oct. 15th.

You can pre-order the album here.

Purchase tickets for their upcoming tour here.



Consol Energy Center


Buffalo, NY

First Niagara Center


Worcester, MA

DCU Center


Worcester, MA

DCU Center


Brooklyn, NY

Barclays Center


Brooklyn, NY

Barclays Center


Philadelphia, PA

Wells Fargo Center


Philadelphia, PA

Wells Fargo Center


Hartford, CT

XL Center


Baltimore, MD

1rst Mariner Arena


Charlottesville, VA

John Paul Jones Arena


Charlotte, NC

Time Warner Cable Arena


New Orleans, LA

Voodoo Festival


Dallas, TX

American Airlines Center


Oklahoma City, OK

Chesapeake Energy Arena


Phoenix, AZ Arena


San Diego, CA

Viejas Arena


Los Angeles, CA

Sports Arena


Los Angeles, CA

Sports Arena


Oakland, CA

Oracle Arena


Portland, OR

Moda Center

with Mudhoney


Spokane, WA

Spokane Arena

with Mudhoney


Calgary, ALB

Scotiabank Saddledome

with Mudhoney


Vancouver, BC

Rogers Arena

with Mudhoney


Seattle, WA

Key Arena

with Mudhoney



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