Pearl Jam’s tenth studio album “Lightning Bolt” is a decent rock record, I think. Maybe? It’s hard to consider something both good and boring, yet here we are.
It’s not that “Lightning Bolt” isn’t good — it certainly isn’t a bad record — there’s just not much meat on the bones. Even at its best, it never feels fulfilling. Sometimes an album leaves the listener wanting more because it’s so good that they don’t want it to end. “Lightning Bolt” left me wanting more because there’s just so much filler between its high points, which aren’t even all that high to begin with.
The first two tracks, “Getaway” and “Mind Your Manners”, are also two of the best songs on the album. “Manners” is a raw, punk-ish burst of energy that serves as the album’s first single. It’s a ton of fun and has a great, driving groove to it. It’s the kind of Pearl Jam song that makes you want to crank your speakers and rock out. The bad news is that there’s nothing else like it on the album. Ever since I heard it for the first time, I was under the impression it was representative of the direction the band took on the album. That is not the case. Frankly, it almost feels like false advertisement.
Tellingly, the song that is representative of the album’s sound is the title track, “Lightning Bolt”. The first minute of the song builds up to an all-too brief classic PJ guitar solo before hitting the brakes with a quiet vocal interlude. After this, there’s another buildup, only this time they skip the solo and go back to a quiet part. It does this three times. The song is 4:13 long and its best part is a solo that comes far too early and lasts nowhere near long enough. It’s frustrating.
The next track, “Infallible,” introduces an intriguing, chugging groove that got my hopes up. It quickly abandons the groove in favor of a fairly standard ballad that’s driven by Eddie Vedder’s vocals. After about a minute, you realize that you’ve pretty much heard everything the song has to offer, but it goes on for another four and a half minutes.
With one exception, the second half of “Lightning Bolt” is entirely forgettable. It’s too long, it doesn’t really go anywhere, and it certainly doesn’t break any new ground for the band. I’m sure “Sirens” and “My Father’s Son” will kill during Pearl Jam’s epic live shows, but they’re just boring on a studio record. “Pendulum” is nearly four minutes of sonic filler and adds absolutely nothing to the album. It’s basically a musical interlude on an album that’s full of songs that already suffer because of their musical interludes.
That exception I mentioned comes in the form of “Let The Records Play”, a juke-joint swing number in the vein of early Aerosmith or ZZ Top. I’m a sucker for any song with an bluesy, overdrive-pedal driven guitar solo to begin with, but “Records” contains some of the album’s best six-string work. Frustratingly, on an album with too many songs that are too long, “Records” is too short. The song ends by fading out on the solo, just as Vedder shouts “Faster! Faster!” It’s a let down and it actually detracts from the song as a whole.
“Lightning Bolt” is a pretty typical late-period Pearl Jam album. There’s no two ways about it. If you’ve liked PJ’s last couple of studio releases, you’ll enjoy it. If you’re like me and can only name one or two songs from their last few records, it’s skippable. I suspect that after a few listens, even Pearl Jam completists will file it away on the shelf and forget about it in favor of listening to their favorite PJ bootlegs for the umpteenth time.