Friday, September 13, 2013

Lightning Bolt: The TSIS Partial Review

Well it’s been just about four years but we finally have our first extended taste of new Pearl Jam, thanks to a partial leak of songs from Lighting Bolt (Getaway, Lightning Bolt, Let the Records Play, and Swallowed Whole).   They’re good. A couple are very good.  Lightning Bolt might be great.  

A few caveats:
1. This is a crappy sounding leak.  You can definitely get a feel for the songs and make out the details, but the whole thing sounds blurry--like a 10th generation copy of a cassette mix (which is basically how I first heard Vitalogy). It is clear that everything will have more definition and depth when we get the album (and it is understandable why artists don’t like it when their stuff leaks in substandard form, and why people with more will power than myself don’t listen to this stuff).

2. Based on what we’ve gathered from the Lightning Bolt listening parties, these tracks are the connective tissue on Lightning Bolt--the songs that help move the record along or serve as breaks between some of the more expansive and ambitious songs.   That’s not to say that they are lightweight.  These songs have attitude or reach for (and arrive at) some majestic places.  But they are also the songs that are probably the most likely to feel familiar.

Is this a logical extension of Backspacer?  Yeah, pretty much. At least these songs are (again, from all accounts the songs that are likely to feel different  we have yet to hear). They feel stripped of the heavy and increasingly claustrophobic weight and anger that characterized, in different ways, the run of albums from Binaural through S/T.  They are lighter. They take themselves less seriously (even when they’re earnest, and you don’t get much more earnest than Lightning Bolt). Instead of being angry they are wry--the knowing smile you’d get from someone who isn’t going to be surprised by much anymore.  But there is also a musical depth that was absent from much of Backspacer.  The songs seem to feel a little more solid, and in some ways more purposeful.  There is a sense of mission that wasn’t always present on Backspacer (or was understated enough to be missed if you weren’t looking for it), but that makes sense.  Lightning Bolt seems to be a more ambitious undertaking, and the band seems more energized, more present, more prepared to give us something we haven’t heard before.  And Eddie sound really good--the crackly screaming on Backspacer (which I did like, but many did not) seems to be gone, and the deeper parts of his register which were curiously absent from that record are back. Picture Backspacer Eddie singing with the same energy but in the Riot Act style.  If you’re reading this you’ve heard Mind Your Manners and so you probably know what I’m talking about.

I think we can also make some sense of the title now, and the larger theme of the album. Lightning Bolt really seems to be shaping up to be an album about inspiration--where it comes from and, just as importantly, what you can do with it?  How does it move you, and how does it hold you back.  Recall the lyric from Hail Hail ‘I sometimes realize I can only be as good as you’ll let me’.  It is looking increasingly like this is the core issue the album is going to grapple with.  The context seems to be, at  least in part,  a world that is failing us, that is falling down on every front.  I can relate.  I was struck the other day about how unhappy I was that THIS was the world I brought my little girls into, and that there needs to be something more than this. The question is what will get us there.   So once again I’m lucky enough to have a pearl jam record come along that mirrors where I am in my own life.

There seems to be a definite villain in this story--just about every song we’ve heard is locating the forces of inertia and reaction within religion--both the actual institutions of organized religion and a broader critique of its otherworldly focus.  There are probably better targets that Eddie Vedder the social theorist could have picked, but at the same time to focus on the religious aspect misses the point.  This is less an album about religion’s alleged failings than it seems to be an album that is looking for something to replace it.

Or that’s my initial read, anyway.  There are still 5 tracks we haven’t heard, and their presence on the record could change everything.  Okay, onto the songs:


This is the  song that feels the freshest of the four, and is a surprising choice for an album opener.  Usually a song with this kind of accelerated mid tempo stomp shows up later in the record.  This song has an appealing swagger to it. It struts in a way most pearl jam songs don’t, and seems driven by Jeff’s bass work.   If Got Some slowed itself down and was slightly less sleazy than Johnny Guitar you might end up with Getaway, although it’s a surprisingly earnest song for its self-confidence (then again, it’s Pearl Jam).   There’s a really strong ending on this, reminiscent of the Rearview Mirror outro (although not that powerful--I don’t want to  set people up for disappointment).  But still, this is how we all wanted Got Some to resolve, and it should segue nicely into Mind Your Manners. 

It does open up with an unfortunate lyric “everyone’s a critic” which means we’ll hear 50 different reviewers thinking this lyric is addressed at them.  The anti-religious language is most prominently on display here, with the song trying to encourage people to hold fast to their conviction that things can be better in a world that just wants you to accept things the way they are. In that respect the swagger has a little bit of false bravado to it--trying to express a confidence it may not entirely feel.  It also helps make clear that religion is the problem because it feels static and soporific. It may not be the cause of the world’s problems, but it is getting in the way of the solutions.

Some standout lyrics include “sometimes you have to put your faith in no faith” and the anchor line of the chorus “mine is mine and yours won’t take its place”


We’ve all heard the Wrigley version.  The studio has a little less on guitar solo front, but is otherwise superior in just about every other way, and is easily my favorite of the new songs.  Yes, it does sound like Unthought Known, but it is the song Unthought Known wanted to be--Unthought Known started off with a marvelous build but the song plateaus too quickly and ends up treading water.  Lightning Bolt moves and breathes and rises and falls and has a life that to it that UK could never sustain.  We start out with the familiar palm muted guitar and piano accents, although it’s a bit faster and more urgent, and it explodes about 30 seconds in, rising and expanding with a threshing  guitar solo that stops abruptly so we can drop back into the verses (this time with some fixer bridge coloration) and rise again

The final minute and forty five seconds of this song is wonderful.  There are some really nice spacey guitar effects (or keys or something) underneath the dramatic sweep of the song and some wonderful emancipatory imagery that can keep up with the stakes the music keeps raising. It all culminates with a Given to Fly esque ending that Unthought Known and Amongst the Waves both desperately needed.  Eddie belts out a great set of lyrics soaring on the wings of the music into the sort of cathartic outro that is the hallmark of so much of their best music.

And with no repair in sight there is
No God with such might
As you open her world wide with such a view
And your death will soon arrive
As she finally decides
That all her problems, they won’t die with you

I think the best thing I can say about the end of Lightning is that by the time the outro closes with  “she’s a lightning bolt/uncontrollable/like you” I actually believe (for a few seconds) that this is a good title.  If you hate the outro of Marker in the Sand or Joshua Tree era U2 this may be a turn off, but then again the same traits are there at the end of Given to Fly.  This is basically the promise of release and a better world to come implicit in so much of pearl jam’s music, but made explicit.  That’s a lot of drama for one song. I think this one pulls it off.   

My biggest complaint is that this is all resolving so well and then there is a damned fade out right in the middle of a space I wanted to linger in.  I can’t really judge until I hear how it transitions into the next song, but it better be worth it.

Since they named the album after this song it’s probably safe to assume that this song is meant to be a centerpiece track on the album.  Like I said earlier, it’s a song about inspiration, keeping faith in dark times (in your personal life and in the world around you--pearl jam has long used personal relationships to mirror a larger social struggle), and holding on for the ride.  In a lot of ways this strikes me as a companion piece to Force of Nature (with a different type of 80s style excess), although if the central element in Force of Nature is water this one is air.

It starts out slow, but this really turns into a glorious song.


If REM did the soundtrack for Into the Wild we’d probably have gotten Swallowed Whole.  It’s a jangly optimistic number that starts out sounding like an Eddie solo song but, Mike and Stone actually decide to write music for themselves this time, and so the song ends up sounding a lot richer and fuller than you might expect when you first heard to expect Into the Wild.   High energy verses (reminiscent of a major key Uberlin, if you are familiar with that REM song) with quieter choruses and bridge.  There’s a nice solo leading out of the bridge into the final verses that reinvigorates the song just when it starts to drag.  Like Lightning Bolt, this ends much stronger than it begins.  All the energy dissipates in the final 15 seconds, but it feels like a resolution rather than a let down. Picture the end of Tremor Christ.

Whispered songs inside the wind
Breathing in forgiveness
And the chapter I’ve not read
Turn the page

This is easily the most Better Days new age batch of lyrics we’ve heard.  It seems to be about finding inspiration from the world around you, and using its energy to heal the wounds we’ve inflicted.  A bit heavy handed in places, but it’s well meaning and lacks the Eat Pray Love vibe we got from a song that, well, appeared on the Eat Pray Love soundtrack.   Picture eddie writing a song about how he feels reborn after he surfs, but then being told he can’t use any water imagery, and you’ll end up with this.

This is probably the song I personally enjoyed the least of the batch, but part of that may be because I hardly feel the need for something light and refreshing after Lightning Bolt, which already left me feeling pretty good. This song might take on some extra life after following the two allegedly darker and heavier songs preceding it on the album (Infallible and Pendulum).  And it’s still good, mind you, catchy, with a strong ending.


This is some pretty familiar thematic territory, an idea they’ve tried to express ith marginal success in Big Wave and Supersonic. They get it right here.  It’s a song about numbing yourself with drugs and alcohol at the end of the world.  There’s a swampy southern barroom swagger to this (I hear that over the 50s rock and roll vibe reported from some of the listening party reviews).  If ZZ Top was going to cover a pearl jam song it’d be this one.  The vocal melody is catchy in a curiously upbeat way, as if by celebrating oblivion you can somehow defeat it.  Nice solo reminiscent of Supersonic, but it actually belongs here.  Some nice soloing to take us out  that once again ends in a fade out for seemingly no reason.  It’s not as bad as Lightning Bolt, but I’m still not sure why guitar solos can’t just finish.   If you gave 1/2 Full a shot of whiskey and some beef jerkey and a hard on and told it to listen to Get Right you’d probably end up here.

And yes there are handclaps, and yes they work.  This is how you write a fun song without making it feel disposable.

I am reluctant to draw too many conclusions just yet. This is not a high quality leak, and it’s difficult to really grasp a song outside the context provided by the songs that surround it.  I think I liked Mind Your Manners more than any of these except Lightning Bolt, but then again I loved Mind Your Manners.   I’m not sure any of these are going to become my favorite song on the album, but they have me primed for the record and feeling really good about it.  If everything else matches the quality of these songs we’ll have a good record. If everything else is better we could have a great one. My Father’s Son, Sirens, Infallible, Yellow Moon, Pendulum--the ball is now in your court.