Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

pearl jam

Lightning Bolt/ Pearl Jam

Genre: Alternative rock

Universal Music/ Rs 395

Rating: *** 1/2

LET’S flash back to the beginning of the 1990s, when the term ‘grunge’ suddenly became trendy. A sub-genre of alternative rock originating in Seattle, US, it boasted of heavyweights like Kurt Cobain’s band Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. And yes, there was Pearl Jam, which took the world by storm with its 1991 album ‘Ten’, featuring the super-hits ‘Jeremy’ and ‘Alive’.

Ever since, Pearl Jam gained the reputation of being one of the most significant bands in modern rock. Each album is awaited with eagerness, and some of them, like ‘Vs’, ‘Vitalogy’, ‘No Code’ and ‘Yield’ remain fan favourites years after their release. While Eddie Vedder is considered one of the most powerful and distinct vocalists on the scene, the band has consisted of an incredibly talented bunch of musicians, comprising guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron, who came in on board in 1998.

The group’s latest album ‘Lightning Bolt’ comes four years after its commendable effort ‘Backspacer’. And like one has seen with most of its albums released during the past 15 years, there seems to be some evolution in sound while sticking to the same basic roots and rules. Yet, despite the fact that this is one of the best Pearl Jam albums post-2000, there are some basic drawbacks. Or maybe that’s where the cleverness lies.

The major flaw is that the 12-track venture starts rather predictably, in a possible bid to woo those who loved them in 1991 and haven’t matured musically or otherwise ever since. Thus, the first two songs ‘Getaway’ and ‘Mind Your Manners’ have that typical early 1990s grunge-meets-thrash sound that’s become so old-fashioned now. The younger audience should love them, but one presumes the older fans would have grown up by two decades now.

The third song ‘My Father’s Son’ is the most rebellious of the lot, as it is an ironic and hatred-filled lament of a son for his father, who also loves his mother. May strike a note with some folks, but musically again, it doesn’t offer anything new. Thankfully, it’s after this that things change, and how! Maybe that was the way the album was structured deliberately.

Among the remaining nine tracks, you find plenty of goodies, written with maturity and style. Tempos are varied, the lyrics get deeper, the instrumentation gets tighter and sheer grunge power is replaced by emotional intensity and lyrical depth. Barring the title song, which starts on a catchy note but gets raucous later on, what stays constant is the sheer elegance of Vedder’s singing. He traverses a wide range of notes, and has a distinct timbre that makes him sound so charming. The mix of rhythm and lead guitar, that has always characterised the band’s sound, is once again put to best use.

On ‘Sirens’, which has faint shades of Pink Floyd, Vedder keeps varying his pitch as he sings: “Hear the sirens, covering distance in the night; The sound echoing closer, will they come for me next time?; For every choice mistake I’ve made; It’s not my plan, to send you in the arms of another man.” A beautiful riff adorns this song.

With its haunting melody and gorgeous arrangement, ‘Pendulum’ talks of the ups and downs, and the highs and lows of life. ‘Swallowed Hole’ has an infectious hook with Vedder singing, “I can feel the dawn, I can feel the Earth, I can feel the living all around; Round round round, All around, round round round.”

The group switches to blues-rock on ‘Let The Records Play’, which talks about a person’s regular trip while listening to his favourite music. ‘Infallible’ is a symbolic number with philosophical lines like, “By thinking we’re infallible, we are tempting fate instead; Time we best begin, here at the ending.”

In terms of tempo, the three slowest songs are reserved for the end. Each one is a beauty in its own right.

‘Sleeping By Myself’ is about a man’s feelings after the end of a relationship. Vedder’s voice brims with emotion when he sings, “I should have known there was someone else, Down below I always kept it to myself; Now I believe in nothing; Not today, as I move myself out of your sight; I’ll be sleeping by myself tonight.”

‘Yellow Moon’ is probably a tribute to Neil Young, hailed by many as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’, as the lines ‘Yellow moon on the rise’ are borrowed from his song ‘Helpless’ with the band Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Finally, ‘Future Days’ ends the album on an optimistic note, as it talks about how a relationship weathers all the storms. “When hurricanes and cyclones raged; When winds turned dirt to dust; When floods they came or tides they raised; Ever closer became us,” go the lines. Brilliant!

One, of course, wishes this kind of songwriting consistency was there throughout the album. It’s prominently there on half the songs, present in passing on a couple and absent on the rest. But never mind. This is an album that should please both Pearl Jam fans and those who’ve grown up on the later rock generation. And what’s most creditable is that the band is still going strong 22 years after arriving on the scene, and coming out with one lightning bolt after another.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding


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