Monday, October 7, 2013

Lightning Bolt: The TSIS Review

It’s been four years since our last Pearl Jam record. Given the reaction to Backspacer among elements of the Pearl Jam community (especially the Red Mosquito forum) it was a long four years. Many of us spent the last four years wondering if Pearl Jam still had it in them to make really great music, to write songs that wouldremind us that pearl jam IS, and not just WAS, a band for the ages. Not me. I spent the last four years trying to convince everyone who cared to listen that Backspacer was a great record. I was not successful, and it was exhuasting. I knew there was plenty of great music left in the band, but Pearl Jam has become a communal experience for me as much as it is a private one, and I didn’t want another record I loved and everyone else hated. I had faith they could do it, but four years is a long time to have to sustain that faith.

But every now and then people do get to have their faith rewarded.

Lightning Bolt is an excellent record, a consistently enjoyable listen from top to bottom with a strong crop of top shelf songs and very few stumbles. Even the cynics who have largely left the band behind found a few songs on here to latch on to. It’s a curiously divisive record in places, and one that, following Backspacer, continues to challenge fans by redefining what Pearl Jam is (a gauntlet that casual listeners seemingly could care less about, as they are far less invested in what they think Pearl Jam should be and are more inclined to take a song on its face value). Following Backspacer, Pearl Jam continues to move away from the dour, weighty feel of their ‘middle period’ records, embracing immediacy and melodies you don’t have to work to find. Quite a few songs move away from the obvious , easy, and popular decision to go dark, choosing instead to juxtapose a creeping menace with a dignified acceptance of human weakness and limitations. There is stubborn insistence throughout Lightning Bolt that the world can be full of horrible things and not be a horrible place--that the promise of something better is now extant in a world that, for all its faults, we are blessed to be a part of. It is an energized record, a knowing record, one that continues to write from a place of experiential, rather than aspirational, wisdom. It’s a middle aged record, one that possesses the self confidence to just be itself and not apologize for it, that understands that posturing is a younger man’s conceit. It is a record about joy and fear, the joy of having something, and the fear of losing it. it is about the righteous anger you feel towards the people who threaten it, and the need to not let that anger consume you. It is a record about making sure you learn to hold on to the moments that matter, because they are hard earned, and precious, and fragile.

But above all, this is a record about inspiration, that feeling of being divinely inspired, of hidden secrets made manifest, of knowing the world and your place in it. What inspires you, and what do you do with it?

These are the themes that unify the record, and it’s good that they do because little else does. It’s been a while since it felt like there were so many styles of songs on one record--an album that took you to so many spaces so quickly. In fact, other than the album’s bookends (3 fast songs/3 slow songs) Lightning Bolt often feels like a series of isolated moments--moments that hit hard, but in a vacuum, oddly separated from each other. No doubt future listens will bind the songs together, but initially the only thing that holds them together is BoB’s polished production (less glossy than Backspacer, for sure, but this is also a shiny record) and Eddie’s vocals. Eddie sounds strong. Gone are the screechy ramshackle vocals from S/T and Backspacper. Eddie’s low end returns, and with it his warmth and resonance. For the most part he kept the melodic insights of Backspacer while learning to write and sing in accordance with the limitations of twenty years of aggressive singing and occasionally shoddy maintence. In some ways it is similar to Riot Act, but with performances that are far more lively and engaged. Wordy too. I’m not sure Eddie has ever filled an album the way he does here.

The rest of the band is strong. Matt holds the songs together, Stone colors in the empty spaces and gives shape and depth in the most critical passages, and Mike has quite a few nice solos on this album. But, more than any other Pearl Jam record, Jeff seems to be the hero here. His playing gives quite a few songs a meaty swagger that has been missing, gives some of the slower songs a richness and fullness that might not otherwise be there, and wrote what are quite possibly the three best songs on the album to boot. Not bad.

Okay, onto the music.

A muscular, strutting, self-confident opener. Jeff’s bass is the star, but Eddie bounces along on top of it with enthusiasm and conviction, and the guitars feel heavy and slick at the same time. Getaway is a song about refusing to have to compromise your own beliefs and convictions in the face of other people’s certainty, a fighting song about being left alone and respecting boundaries. The immediate target is religious fundamentalism (an easy one) but is hardly limited to it. There is a level headed tone to the song, like it is afraid to allow itself to be drawn into the self righteous and destructive passion that it’s reacting against, but Getaway starts ratcheting up its intensity in the final 40 seconds, culminating in an outro that calls to mind the furious siren assault at the conclusion of Rearview mirror.

One particularly standout lyric is the line ‘sometimes you find yourself having to put all your faith in no faith’. This can be interpreted in two ways, and each plays into themes that seem to recur throughout the album. One is the obvious anti-religious reference to no faith. But I think it’s both less interesting and less important than the other meaning--to abandon faith in faith, the belief that somehow everything in life that matters will just work out. Instead it calls on us to believe in ourselves, to replace that faith in faith with a commitment to action--that it might actually be our apathy and complacency we need to get away from. In the end Eddie may be yelling at us, or himself--that we hold the key to our own liberation. We just need to believe it.

Getaway into MYM is one of the few easy transitions on the album. The song picks up with the aggressive ending of Getaway, gives it an air of menace, and transforms into a punk song that comes close to the savage polemic of Comatose before choosing to turn back, almost like it realizes that anger is counterproductive. It’s a frustrated song, for sure, but where the target of Comatose is everyone other than the singer, here MYM seems to turn its gaze inward, blaming itself for its own passivity, its focus on anything and everything other than taking responsibility for our world. The religious attack is obvious, but superficial and secondary, a way to introduce a much more interesting and complex idea. It comes to light in the song’s excellent chorus where the singer pleads with himself to rise above himself, to commit to making this world better than it is, rather than accepting that our problems are too big to solve, or even acknowledge (and that it would be rude to even try--mind your manners). it’s a song about salvation, but salvation in the here and now, rather than in a world to come. This could be a statement from Eddie the atheist, but I’m not so sure. The real reason we need to locate the fight here is because the things we care the most about won’t be coming with us. We’ll be leaving this world to them. And so the exhortation in the solo, the urgency in the chorus, and the anger in the call and response outro make sense. There’s too much at stake to wait any longer.

Eddie sounds great here. This is a perfect template for any future angry rants. While the rest of the song is hardly remarkable musically it is well executed, with the strong opening riff making a reappearance in the outro, an entertaining ‘every trick in the book’ solo, and strong, well executed performances all around. An early highlight.

After getting over the initial nod to Soundgarden’s Dusty we have one of the first fairly original moments on the record. Quite possibly the most bass heavy song in the catalog (well, Sweet Lew), Jeff drives this snarling, angry, rant. Eddie is at his most unhinged and sarcastic here. It’s certainly the most pissed off song on an album that for the most part rejects this kind of rampaging posturing. It seems to be a song about feeling alienated from the world, and choosing to blame it on your father/your genes/being abandoned/anything other than you. There is something of a garage band aesthetic to this song, and it fits the lyrical content. Maybe the most interesting thing is the guitar work, the way it stalks the singer, reminding him of his failures, judging him, especially in the chorus. It makes an otherwise open song feel slightly claustrophobic, haunted by his father’s ghost.

What makes the song really interesting, and elevates it, is the decision to not go dark during the bridge. Instead we get this curious twisted carnival, the happy childhood memory that never was that transitions back into the spitting and spluttering fury of the final verse. it is an immature song, but an immature song by design, one meant to establish a bottom through which we can juxtapose songs like Sirens and Future Days--the journey from petulant son to being for others the father he never had. And this is why I think Sirens makes sense following My Father’s Son, even though musically it’s a very abrupt transition. If My Father’s Son is about a self absorbed brat living for himself and blaming all his problems on someone else, Sirens is a mature reflection of a father who has come to understand that he lives his own life through others.

Sirens may very well be the most divisive song in the Pearl Jam catalog. Either people love it or hate, but very few seem indifferent about it. On the one hand it is the sort of grand sweeping anathematic statement that has long been Pearl Jam’s calling card. On the other hand, it is a curiously subdued number, a near 6 minute epic song that rarely draws attention to its own size and ambitions. It also draws pretty heavily on the power ballad genre, a style that, on the one hand, Pearl Jam owes a great debt and, on the other hand, has long stood in opposition to. When I spoke earlier about this being a middle aged record, this is a good example of what that means. Not that the song is middle aged, but that it is a song written by a band that is no longer concerned about labels, or what people think, and is willing to embrace unabashed sentiment without embarrassment or irony.

If you want to make a big, sweeping, grandiose declaration you can do a lot worse than a power ballad.

Yet, at the same time, the song seems shorn of excess. Other than Mike’s guitar solo the song is mostly some strummed acoustic guitar and a bunch of interesting piano and guitar accents. Stone in particular is the unsung hero here, giving Sirens emotional weight without drawing attention to what he’s doing. There are a few other little subtle touches, like the way the acoustic guitar coming out of the solo echoes the lingering notes, and the whale call (Stone on guitar?) sound that gives the song a sense of depth. It makes the night just a little deeper. But again, these are all subtle touches. The song took the power ballad style and stripped it down to its barest essentials, so that it could serve as a canvas for Eddie’s performance. He delivers in spades, giving one of his more affecting vocals in years, commanding the entire song with a touching, compelling, but understated performance and a languid melody that gently and unobtrusively draws you in. The ending is particularly strong--the weeping joy as Eddie sings ‘the fear goes away’ and the beautiful vocal harmonies during the outro--quite possibly the best background vocals the band has provided this side of Black.

So where does the hate come from. Some of it is no doubt from the power ballad architecture of the song. Most of us grew up feeling superior to that genre, and it’s hard to let go. But some of it is because of the intensely personal nature of the song. In some respects Sirens is similar to some of Eddie’s anti-Bush broadsides. When a target looms so large in front of you it is easy to forget how close you are, and that while there is no way for you to miss you still need to make sure people further away can connect. And so a part of the Sirens divide seems to be whether or not the listener can relate to the experience of the song. Eddie doesn’t actually work that hard at bringing in outsiders. If his story is your story it’s very powerful, effectively delivered, Eddie expressing your sentiment in his golden voice. But if it isn’t your story then what you’re listening to might be maudlin and cheesy and curiously alienating.

So what is the song about? It opens with the ‘hear the sirens’ lyric, inspired, as we now know, by the sounds of sirens in an LA hotel room. But beyond that it is, if not a narrative, the story of a particular moment--the panicky instant when you are awoken from sleep by the sound of crisis, the horrifying few seconds before you know what happened, and the overwhelming sense of relief that everything is okay. Sirens lingers in that moment, and extends its gaze outwards. How lucky you are to have something you could not bear to lose. How haunted you are by the fact that, someday, you will lose it, and how blessed you are that, for now, it remains here with you. It’s an incredibly potent sentiment, but one that is pretty easy to overdo, and Sirens, for all that it tried to eschew excess, is not a subtle song.

The title track is a master’s class in how to write an anthem. It’s not their best, but it is the first song of its type in a very long time that can hang out with their best without embarrassing itself. It is a song about inspiration, about how elusive it is, about the drive to find it, and the perfect moment when you capture it.

The song starts out with the palm muted beginning, a la Love Boat Captain and Unthought Known, but there’s more teeth to it. We have a quick build a la Unthought Known, but the song is fuller, richer, more urgent, and 30 seconds in the song takes off and never relents, taking the listener to higher and higher peaks with a fierce intensity that recalls the finest soaring moments of U2 (or Given to Fly). It’s not that musically complex a song, but it arranges itself in interesting ways. Verse, chorus, guitar solo, bridge, new verse, chorus, original verse, outro. After the first verse (which is admittedly a little weak) the lyrics are excellent, Eddie crackles and shimmers on the chorus and the guitars are great--alternating between spacey effects that give the song some ethereal highlights and buzz saw riffs that drag you back down to earth so the song can lift you up again.

Mike has a wonderful double mini solo (simple, but joyous and pure) before the bridge recalls the best parts of the Fixer without the rest of that song’s baggage. But the song really shines in the final minute and forty five seconds, when we transition back to the first verse, delivered this time with a breathless promise of freedom and rebirth. And as Eddie delivers an epic set of final lyrics with a level of passion, commitment, and authenticity we haven’t heard in a long time we move into an outro that recalls the explosive finale of Porch, except where Porch promises liberation by virtue of having nothing left to lose, Lightning Bolt captures that moment of oneness with the universe when you have that moment of inspiration, when you know love, when you feel redeemed, when the mysteries of the world finally reveal themselves. It is church bells and lightning strikes and rapture and, for that brief moment you just know that from this point forward the world is going to be okay. It won’t last, but the memory will sustain you. It’s enough.

It’s another middle aged song in that it doesn’t run from itself, doesn’t feel the need to temper its sentiment with darkness, and we get Eddie singing a lyric like ‘she’s your rock and roll’ just as Stone starts a final guitar solo, and not only do they refuse to run from that moment, they know it’s awesome and don’t need to apologize for it.

I guess there are probably some analogues to this song in the catalog (maybe think Tremor Christ meets You Are) but Infallible probably feels the newest of everything we’ve heard. Synth heavy, pounding, groovy, ominous, brooding, and playful--Infallible keeps the listener on its toes. It’s one of the trickier songs to grasp, always just a tiny bit out of reach.

Eddie gives us a clipped, precise delivery over another strong vocal melody. It’s a dark song about our unwillingness to confront our own limitations and the consequences of our own certainty. Lyrically it calls back to Getaway and Mind Your Manners but once again turns away from the darkness, refusing to condemn us for being imperfect without making excuses for our limitations. The music reflects that--the verses prime us to expect judgment and damnation for our sins, and instead we get a catchy chorus, harmonies, some playful instrumental choices (woodblock?) that all work together to, if not exactly forgive us, at least help us understand that we’re better off learning from our mistakes than blaming each other for them. Some of the best lyrics on the album, some of the newest sounds, some of the most energetic performances, and some of the most surprising choices mean this may very well be the best song on the record.

Or it could be Pendulum. This was the song I was most excited for once I discovered that it was the origin of the haunting music from the 2013 tour announcement. And it did not disappoint. Easily the most atmospheric piece since Binaural (in fact, this can stand toe to toe with the best mood music on that record). The music is ominous, sad, tragic, lost. The gloom is tangible but the bass and percussion give the song a fluidity usually absent from these kinds of songs. The acoustic guitar coming in for the final minute tolls some future fate we better figure out a way to escape. Musically this is a masterpiece. I’ve never said this before, but this is maybe the one pearl jam song that I wish was an instrumental.

It’s not that Eddie messes it up. He gives his performance the necessary gravity, the lyrics are appropriate for the mood (about the need to exorcise demons--tying the song loosely back to the my father’s son/sirens arc), the pendulum image fits the sense of impending doom, and there are some new tricks here towards the end. It would be a standout performance if not for the fact that music is just so good. Perhaps if he was buried a little deeper in the mix. This is still a strong performance, just one overshadowed by a fantastic musical piece.

Yes, it is inspired by Into the Wild, but I hear a bit more REM than Into the Wild. Both excellent influences, either way. The song is driven by a jangly acoustic guitar, but all three guitar players have interesting parts to play, and it is a surprisingly rich and robust song. Eddie starts out playing it relatively low key for a fast song, and the contrast between his performance and the music is interesting, until about a minute fifteen into the song, when everything suddenly explodes into a major key celebration of life and feeling like you belong--ostensibly to nature, but it’s hardly necessary to confine the song to that. It’s the feeling of belonging that matters. There’s an interesting tension in the song, the feeling of freedom you get from being submerged into something larger and greater than yourself (swallowed whole) and the sense of personal empowerment that comes from the experience--like you have to disappear in order to reappear, or surrender to the world in order to be able to act upon it. And so even though we don’t have the over religious imagery we still have connections to Getaway, Mind Your Manners, and Infallible (a spiritual connection and the call to action).

Another excellent bridge that manages to slow the song down just enough to launch it into an inspirational solo from mike that starts an all cylinders firing celebratory finale. In an interesting move the song chooses to come down from that high one final time, with a final request to try and create a better world, the seriousness of the moment highlighted by descent in the music.

Another surprisingly divisive song. It’s muscular, swampy, vaguely glam blues that addresses serious subject matter in a not so serious way. It’s got a great stomping groove, a cool tetanus edge to the guitars, an interesting scratchy shine to eddie’s performance, two sets of winning vocal melodies (and yes, one of them is reminiscent of Shania Twain, but who cares), several dirty solos, even some handclaps in the bridge. There should be something for everyone as long as you’re prepared to have a bit of fun with it.

But what makes the song interesting to me is the juxtaposition between the performance and the subject matter. There is a party at the end of the world feel to the song--a sense that the world is coming to an end so we might as well get drunk and dance--oblivion means you don’t have to worry about the hangover afterwards. Unlike Insignificance (the last song to take place in a bar) there seems to be a lot less hope this time out. It’s like the character can’t quite work up the energy to do it right. Letting the records play is not an act of defiance--it is an act of surrender and there is a pathetic quality to the main character. Someone to be pitied perhaps, maybe even feel sympathetic towards (this is two largely nonjudgmental records in a row) but not admired, and not emulated. It’s actually a very dark story being told in a pretty upbeat way, and makes the whole more interesting than its component parts.

Someone on Red Mosquito speculated that the main character could be God. I’m not sure yet, but it’s an interesting theory.

Probably my favorite piece from Ukulele Songs. While on the whole I was disappointed with that record I love this song, and was eager to see what the whole band would do with it. It earns its place on the record. It’s maybe the jauntiest song in the catalog, and skips along like its determined to hold onto the beauty in the world despite the heartache of the moment. Eddie has a brave vulnerability to his voice and turns in a strong performance, but I think Matt may actually be the star here. There’s something very appealing about this whole performance though. My one critique might be that the some of the louder guitar flourishes may be a little unnecessary, but it’s a small complaint and I’m not sure I even believe it. This is a minor song executed well enough to justify its stay in the majors.

As an aside this song reminds me a bit of Meladori Magpie, an excellent b-side from the Smashing Pumpkins

Another outstanding song, and a serious contender for the best song on the album. It uses the moon’s phases as a metaphor for mortality and possibilities, and the lyrics have some striking moments. It’s one of Eddie’s better uses of an extended metaphor.

Everything about this song is great. There is a sense of gravity and drama that’s given just enough free reign to draw you in without becoming self-important in an off putting way. Eddie sounds fantastic (maybe his best vocal performance on the record), the guitars are rich and full (and Mike’s solo is big while remaining tasteful), and jeff and matt help create a sense of vast expanse and distance. Piano and keys in the second half of the song help create the controlled cacophony that got away from Speed of Sound. This is a textbook example of an assuming song executed so perfectly it becomes a possible classic. Basically they did everything right, and this song is perfectly crafted without drawing attention to the craft. It’s a real triumph.

Okay, no one liked the Wrigley version. This is certainly better, but it’s still not great. It’s a pretty song, in a bland sort of way. Like Sirens, the sentiment is so blindingly obvious that it can lead to lazy writing. Unlike Sirens, this one falls a bit flat even for those who share the sentiment. It’s a love song to his family, about how they ground him, about how important they are to him. It’s hard to argue with that, but Future Days hasn’t exactly drawn me in either.

Fortunately the performance is strong (Eddie sounds good) and the empty spaces in the song are colored in quite nicely--the keys, the guitars, the strings. it does help make the song wistful and ensures that something is at stake. Actually all the background details probably deserve a stronger song.

Still, this is one miss (and hardly a disaster) out of 12 songs. The first 11 range from good to great, and a few songs (Yellow Moon, Infallible, and Pendulum in particular) could grow into truly top tier 5 star songs (it’s too early to tell). It remains to be seen how cohesive the record will feel as we get to spend time with it. It certainly feels like one of the most eclectic pearl jam records. But there is unity here too, in the consistently strong performances, in the arrangements that manage to capture the sense of freedom on Backspacer while abandoning its simplicity, in the self-confidence that permeates the record, and in the intertwined narratives of engagement and the family that inspires the struggle.

But in the end all that is secondary. We waited four years for new music. It’s finally here. And it’s pretty great. Lightning Bolt will probably not be among the very top pearl jam records, but it is compelling edition to the catalog, possibly ranking among the upper half of the records, full of expertly rendered old standbys and some genuine surprises. It was well worth the wait. But next time do it in two, assholes.