Today, Pearl Jam’s new album Lightning Bolt comes out worldwide. Frequent readers might realize what this means to me specifically, and various members of the site in general: we “live-blogged” the new single when it was released, and I’d already spoken on the band before they dropped that bombshell. With this blog, hopefully we’ll get to move away from Eddie & Co. for a bit, but when one of the biggest, longest lived names in modern rock put out a new album after four years, it’s news. Already Lightning Bolt is getting more play and press than the last few PJ albums and most of their post-Yield singles. This is pretty exciting for me in a lot of ways, because I feel the band has deserved that sort of continued respect, and am glad that, 10 years and 22 albums later, people still care. I’m also excited because it means I don’t have to do the promotional legwork. In discussing this most recent album, I’d far prefer to discuss how I got into the band in the first place.
PJ’s Vitalogy was the first CD I bought with my own money. This is a fact I’m quite proud of, as Pearl Jam is still holding on strong as my favorite band, given that they continue to push themselves to be relevant both in content and emotion, and experiment without being untrue to what the band is. This is a large reason why so many of their fans only know up to this album, if that much: people were afraid of a changing band. Of course, even without being a fan, it’d be hard to have avoided the album. It was huge.
Up until Pearl Jam, music I could call “mine” came in more of a very-early-90s pop variety. My mother listened to WBRU (at the time, THE station to hear good modern music, now Just Another Hipster Pop Crap Outlet), and was probably pretty tired of my sister and I preferring Top 40 to respectable music by real musicians, but that divide allowed the music of the era on those stations to be my own. Thankfully a kid named Pete that I knew at the time asked me one day: “Have you heard ‘Better Man?’” This was in 6th Grade. I hadn’t, of course. He told me I had to listen to the Z-Rock 50, a syndicated radio countdown from Cali that WHJY (the local “straightforward” rock station) played every Sunday. It was #1 for like 12 weeks at that point. So, well, I did.
The Z-Rock was severely formative for my musical tastes, and I hope that it’s still going on in non-syndicated form and surviving better than the overall state of rock music has. Since the countdown came from a more meaningful musical market than Providence, RI, I heard new music first, got exposed to other singles from one-hit wonders, and felt like a music guru. Friends in high school wouldn’t have disagreed. As far as Pearl Jam went, I listened through the whole countdown to get to “Better Man.” I liked it fine, but I fell in love with Pearl Jam through “Tremor Christ” and “Corduroy,” which were earlier in the countdown. “Tremor Christ” is still unlike most of what I’ve heard, but back then it especially felt new and weird but still great. The discordant staccato riff, chunking along persistently, with meandering bass and steady drums, formed a perfect backdrop for Eddie’s vocals, and everything together creates a tension that was alluring at the time, and still holds me captive. It becomes the storm that the song describes. I might not have realized it on first listen, but by the time that night was over, with four new favorite songs from this single band, I knew which one had affected me most.
I find it interesting that the first song I really heard and understood as Pearl Jam has this sort of folksy faith, the sailor “[putting] his faith and love in Tremor Christ,” compared to this new album, which seems thusfar to really touch on losing ones religion and finding a certain spirituality in our humanness. The storm on the ocean versus the lightning bolt. The staccato crunch and bluster compared to the incredibly mature and maybe just a bit AOR “Sirens” off the new disc. It’s a Pearl Jam which has evolved and grown up without losing insight and rage. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been along for the ride through so many years and stages of my life. The awkwardness and anger of the era I found them made so much sense to a youth entering puberty. The experimentation in No Code and Yield clicked with a teen trying to find where he stood apart from a crowd he didn’t understand. PJ put their politics all the more strongly forward when I was most enraged at the world, and tried to step back and enjoy the ride when I most needed to do the same. In 2013, we’re all tired, and there needs be more balance, and thusfar we are seeing that: the band’s influences and frustration on its sleeve in “Mind Your Manners,” the coming to grips with what means most in life (and the inevitable loss of it) in “Sirens”… these aren’t necessarily new themes for the band, but they are presented in new ways and new album contexts. There is a more universal theme in Lightning Bolt, it seems, as opposed to the super-insular, privacy-based musings that are so prevalent on Vitalogy. Even so, as much as this new work feels far more in line with who I am now, the music that first led me into the band hasn’t stopped being one of my favorite tracks.
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