If this were a relationship, we’d have broken up with Pearl Jam a long time ago. Sure, they thrilled us in the beginning, with that breathless first-love of Ten and Vs, so seductive to a small-town teen, and the spikier misanthropy of Vitalogy – a bit weird, sure, but the nice weird, the interesting weird. We stifled the occasional yawn through No Code because the good times were still so very good and we gushed evangelical over Yield, falling in love anew. We stayed loyal through Binaural because the smattering of highlights made the abuse seem tolerable and we wept into our pillows over Riot Act, consoling ourselves only that if we could just get through this then everything would be alright on tour.
2006’s self-titled album was a chance to start over that didn’t quite work but hey, at least the thought was there, but Backspacer – we don’t talk about Backspacer. It’s still too raw, the scars cut deep and the tears always near. Since then we’ve been living through the memories, relying upon nostalgia for those early days to blot out the cold reality: if we were stronger we’d have walked away.
But we’re not so here we are, on album number ten, pressing play and bracing for the pain (we really are bracing here: it’s taken three days and quite a lot of wine to work up to this point). And yet the blows never really come: Lightning Bolt’s twelve tracks are far less the agonising ordeal than they are just muted, a protracted sapping of energy from opening roar to final weary sigh.
That opening roar is pretty damn convincing, though, Getaway’s guitars brash and its drums rousing and Vedder’s vocals combative: ‘Everyone’s a critic looking back up the river,’ he sings seconds in, and it’s hard not to look away a little guiltily. But then a lot of this seems to reference Pearl Jam’s past, from the scrappy Spin The Black Circle punk of first single Mind Your Manners to Pendulum’s brooding Sleight Of Hand experiment: certainly there’s much here that’s familiar, albeit markedly less potent than first time around.
That’s not to say it’s bad – indeed, there’s a lot here to like. Infallible’s a striking tune, and not just for its echoes of Tremor Christ, and Sirens – well, Sirens already seems canonical, a perfect swell of melody and sound that’s driven by Vedder’s best vocal showing this century. But that roar that opens Lightning Bolt, that poise and vigour that promises so much, paring back the encrusted meh of years of tedium to give a glimpse of that former band like King Theoden awakening from Saruman’s spell – that’s pretty much burnt out by the midpoint. From Swallowed Whole onwards the album fallows into Dad Rock, comfortable and slippered and toothless and utterly inessential, hitting a sad nadir in Let The Records Play – the sound of a pub band in a middle-American bar moments before being bottled off-stage and beaten up in the parking lot for being so staggeringly uninspired. They should have recorded that bit. Heck, they should have filmed it, for catharsis.
But hey, at this stage in their career we’re way past expecting anything exciting from Pearl Jam – we’re more just hoping, praying, that any new material won’t be so spectacularly godawful that it’ll fuck up the live show. We’ll endure most things to hear State Of Love And Trust again. In that regard Lightning Bolt is a success – only fleetingly bad enough to bring about self-harm, and for that first half-hour at least actually pretty damn good. Not classic Pearl Jam by any stretch – let’s not get carried away here – but enough to kindle at least a little optimism for whatever comes next. And that’s more than any of us dared wish for, right?