Perhaps it's destined that a band who considered the Who and Neil Young idols would have no quarrel with middle age; nevertheless, the settled nature of Pearl Jam's Lightning Bolt comes as a bit of a jolt. Long ago, Pearl Jam opted out of the rat race, choosing to abandon MTV and album rock radio, ready to take any fans who came their way, and in a way, Lightning Bolt -- their tenth studio album, arriving 22 years after the first -- is a logical extension of that attitude, flirting with insouciance even at its loudest moments. Often, this record seems to ignore the very idea of immediacy; even when the tempos are rushed and the amplifiers are revved up, Pearl Jam never quite seem to be rocking with abandon, choosing to settle into comforting cacophony instead. Then again, nothing on Lightning Bolt -- not the wannabe breakneck rocker "Mind Your Manners," not the tightly coiled title track, not the glam stomp of "Let the Records Play" -- proceeds with any manner of urgency, with even the loudest rockers unveiled at a measured pace that allows plenty of space for solos by Mike McCready. The guitarist has room to roam and the band has a supple, natural interplay that only comes from almost 30 years of collaboration, but here more than ever, all the emotional notes seem to derive from Eddie Vedder, who is not only the chief songwriter/lyricist but a spiritual touchstone. Eying the milestone of 50, Vedder is very comfortable in his skin: he's no longer raging against the dying light or tilting at windmills, he's choosing his battles, knowing when to lie back so he can enjoy the rush of rock pushed out from his familiar, but never lazy, colleagues. This unhurriedness may seem to run counter to the rebellious spirit of rock & roll, but for all their insurrectionist acts, Pearl Jam weren't upstarts: they eagerly accepted the torch of arena rock when it was handed to them. On Lightning Bolt, they've grown into that classic rock mantle, accentuating the big riffs and bigger emotions, crafting songs without a worry as to whether they're hip or not and, most importantly, enjoying the deep-rooted, nervy arena rock that is uniquely their own.
Lightning Bolt Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine