Somebody put pearls in the jam again.
Pearl Jam announced via their website on Thursday that they would be releasing a new album, Lightning Bolt, on October 14. They also released a lead single, “Mind Your Manners,” on the same day. The classic grunge band is most well-known for their hit debut album Ten, so it may be hard for listeners to remember how long they’ve been around. This will be album number (ironically) ten.
I confess I’ve listened to quite a bit of Pearl Jam. If I’m not mistaken I’ve listened through every album, although I’ve listened to Ten, Backspacer, and their eponymous record from 2006 more than the others. I’m a big fan of their style, so I’m pretty excited about a new album. However, I’ve also been thinking about the Pearl Jam worldview, which is the more important issue.
Like most bands that have been around for 20+ years, Pearl Jam’s style has changed. Their first album was their heaviest, and since then they have become progressively softer, until their 2009 record Backspacer sounded more like Matchbox Twenty than it did a grunge album. Ultimately I’m okay with that, because it shows their maturity and willingness to change. In regards to their lyrics, they’ve also changed as they’ve gotten softer.
The first thing I can say about the band on a positive note is that they are not inclined to sing songs of sexual indulgence. That’s unusual, especially considering the rock genre that Pearl Jam was undoubtedly a part of in their inception. Even Nirvana in all of their lyrical ambiguity had some pretty repulsive songs regarding sexuality (to those that this may surprise, they are mostly in unreleased B-sides, but a few are also present on their studio albums).
As the band has softened up, they’ve also had their fair share of positive tunes. Take “Just Breathe” from Backspacer, for example: “Oh I’m a lucky man to count on both hands the ones I love.” That’s pretty much the whole song (It’s a really good one, too). However, that positivity is nearly non-existent in the band’s more popular songs.
Most of their big hits are from Ten, so that’s where we can go to learn the most about them. The album was made popular largely because of lead vocalist Eddie Vedder’s expert lyrical formula: story-telling. The stories themselves, however, can be concerning.
In the interest of making this a summary rather than an album review, I’ll be brief. Pearl Jam’s stories are dark and sometimes twisted, with a kernel of a lesson underneath the muck and grime. Take for example “Jeremy.” The song is arguably Pearl Jam’s best song musically, but the story as far from appealing. The story is about a twisted boy. The song opens with him drawing pictures of him victorious with dead bodies around him. The chorus dubs him “King Jeremy the Wicked.” The song ends without resolution, although Vedder and his friends found out how disturbed the boy was. The lesson is found in the Jeremy’s home. His parents didn’t care. A good lesson, but is it necessary to put in such dark and disturbing terms?
That’s Ten. Thankfully, that formula of twisted tales didn’t last long. By the time we move past Vitalogy, that notion is all but gone. Pearl Jam are still story-tellers, but not with that level of twisted psychotic stories. They gradually more accessible through the years, which brings me to Backspacer, the closest to mainstream the band has ever come.
I’ve already mentioned the positivity of “Just Breathe.” There’s also “The Fixer,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a guy who’s
trying to fix stuff. It’s not nearly as specific as Pearl Jam tales normally are (an indication that their formula is changing and has changed), but is pretty easily understood as a man trying to repair relationships. Vedder also describes being in love as being high “Amongst the Waves.” The band has changed a lot. So what can we expect in the following album? Let’s look at the single to find out.
“Mind Your Manners” is a clear indication that Lightning Bolt will not be a continuation in the direction of Backspacer. It’s not a reversion back to Ten either, though. It reminds me a lot of Binaural and Riot Act, both of which were garage band-esque records. Lyrically, the song is disappointing but not in the same way as their dark and twisted tales of the past. The song starts out talking about being beaten down. That’s all good and fine. Then comes the line: “I caught myself believin’/That I needed God/And if it’s hard to some/We sure could use it now.” That could be taken one of two ways. Either he caught himself because it’s just ridiculous that he would need God, or (as the last line might indicate) he does need God. Based on these lines either, I could easily take the latter interpretation.
However, the bridge is more revealing: “Self-realizing that I’m physically redeeming/I’d live another life/No, I’ll solve my mystery/Right now, around the corner/We could be bigger than ourselves/We could wear it to the sky/Or we could something else.” In otherwords, “We don’t need God, because we are gods.” The song ends simply poking fun: “Go to Heaven/That’s right/How do you like it?/Live in Hell.”
Pearl Jam never has had a vendetta against religion, so I don’t expect this to be what the whole album is like. However, it’s certainly not a promising start.