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On Oct 28, 2013, at 6:13 PM, John Roy <email@example.com> wrote:
Pearl Jam released a bunch of individually purchase-able songs at once this month. They all share the same icon in your Itunes “View” window, and if you buy all the songs at once, they call it “Lightning Bolt.” This is what has replaced what used to be known as an “album launch.”
There really are no “albums” any more. Not in the way they were understood when I first heard Pearl Jam in my friend’s basement in December of 1991. An album was a collection you could only get in one place, by buying all of it. You couldn’t pick and choose and you had to listen to it all at once, in the order Jeff Ament intended, though you could forward the tracks if you found a “skipper.” And journalists would assess the album as a whole.
Pearl Jam got over 160,000 people to buy “Lightning Bolt” the old way, as I imagine a lot of them were my age and we still think of that as “normal.” But in 2013, I am sure that is a minority of the people who will experience this music. So why not review the most common way it will be experienced, the single track? And why not review the one the band intends you to focus on, being the one they closed out their own week on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” with, with a scorching performance of the title track to their bundle of mp3’s, “Lightning Bolt?”
“What’s the point?” one might object. “Pearl Jam is a dinosaur band that hasn’t been relevant since Clinton’s first term. They don’t affect music anymore and the only people who care are a mindless horde of Springsteen-fan style zombies who would love it if Eddie Vedder blew three farts in a microphone, called it “VedderFart” and made it the Fan Club Single. In fact, even in the Nineties they sounded like a retro classic rock dad band.”
Well, if your zombie horde has 160,000 people who buy all of your new songs at once the first chance they get, I say that MAKES you relevant. Certainly only a few other groups of over 45 year-olds can say that. If you are filling arenas without being the of-the-moment zeitgeist sound, then this alone is worth reporting on. And while those numbers are a fraction of what the band’s old sales were, so what? EVERYONE’S numbers are a fraction of what they were in the 90’s. The “album” is just one way to get this stuff, and many ways are free. Think of what “Yeezus” would have sold if people were ready for something like that in 1999?
It is true, you probably won’t hear “Lightning Bolt” on rock radio today, as they are busy playing the Neo-Erasures, Neo-Nicklebacks, survivors of the Blink age, bands who write the songs MGMT currently refuses to, and the seemingly dozen Grand-Sons of Mumford. Not to mention the younger version of Vedder and company, who refuse to leave the radio play-list so their older selves can be heard. And you won’t hear much rock of any kind on most radio stations these days. But none of the current radio giants command the loyalty of Pearl Jam fans. Something a bunch of people LOVE is more interesting than something a lot of people LIKE. And if the group that loves you is big enough to put your album at Number One, as “Lightning Bolt” was the week of its debut, than that is certainly music worth writing about.
There is no mass audience any more. There are only bigger and smaller fragments. But Pearl Jam, like Springsteen, and The Grateful Dead, is a band big enough to encompass an entire fragment of the culture. A large community of people gets most all of their music from one source. The people that buy multiple tickets to their tour stops and obsess over the set lists nightly hear way more Pearl Jam music than any other songs. if they filled in what “genre” of music they liked, the answer would be “Pearl Jam.” And though Pearl Jam is a band born in the early 90’s, there could not be a better example of the end result of post-modern 2000’s internet fragmentary culture than that.
And this “they were boring classic rock dinosaurs back then anyway” line is bullshit. “Ten” sounds nothing like the Journey and Boston that dominated classic rock radio at their debut or now. Eddie Vedder’s melody lines sounded nothing like anything that was out there. The melody lines he created for songs like “Even Flow” were in scales other rock singers hadn’t thought to sing in, as they often stuck to the same old blues scales of Robert Plant. If it didn’t sound so weird, why could Adam Sandler get laughs just from imitating it? It made people laugh because it sounded near insane. “Jeremy” didn’t sound like anything except “Jeremy.” And the most classic rock element of the band, Mike McCready’s bluesy Eddie Hazel/Jim Hendrix lead guitar, was still spraying notes at you way faster than either of those guys would even want to.
Their music wasn’t EXPERIENCED as classic rock either. You weren’t supposed to stare at them like you were, say, Van Halen. You experienced their music from a mosh pit or surfing on the hands of your fellow berserkers, or catching the actually in danger singer as he dive bombed into the crowd from the lighting rig. I was a Stones-vinyl-worshipping classic rock zombie in 1991and I found the melody of “Even Flow” THREATENING. There was nothing familiar in the notes of that chorus to grab on to, and it’s existence was a challenge to my safe idea of what “rock” was
But yes, Pearl Jam are in some ways traditionalists, and this is why they will never be cool enough for the “Kurt thought they sucked” crowd. Like Paul Weller splitting from the punks, yelling. “What’s the point of saying destroy?” Vedder and company envisioned a seamless line between the Who, the Kinks, The Ramones, REM, and Fugazi and did their best to prove it could work. To punk nihilists, that was just way too hippie-suspect to embrace. But perhaps it was this very attitude that has led to them creating music to this day, when all of their peers burned out. And yet, maybe this is the final proof of their uncool-ness, staying around to bother us as dads, rather than exploding for our amusement in the prime of youth.
And here they are, with “Lightning Bolt.”
I think including this performance is relevant. In a multi-media world, this clip, which can be watched whenever we feel like it, is as much a part of how “Lightning Bolt” is to be understood as an MTV video was for a 90’s rock song. And they are fucking putting their all in here. They are playing like they are aware you may be impatient with them and they are proving in five minutes just why the fuck Fallon still thinks they deserve their own week. It’s awesome.
Before I turn in the rest of the review, which is pretty glowing, I want to give one negative comment. The lyrics aren’t the best. For a “That girl is awesome” song (a time honored rock category) the lyrics are pretty bombastic, both grandiose and kind of on-the-nose. By the time Vedder is screaming about birds flying “towards the great NorthWEST!” I was kind of over it. The earnestness of Vedder’s lyrics works better in a dark song. “King Jeremy the wicked!” sounds delicious and Gothic, while in a happy song, the same approach sounds kind of empty headed and stonery. Just as the flip side of Tori Amos, is, unfortunately, Enya.
But I think the big-hearted sincerity of Vedder’s singing, without a single dishonest note, overcomes the clunky metaphors. By the time he is belting “MIGGGHHT!” at the end, his tribute to his love has become endearing. And that vulnerable, completely non-cynical honesty is ultimately what Pearl Jam is all about. If you don’t like it here, you didn’t like it in “Black” or “Better Man” or any other time you encountered their music. You can safely ignore this one. It won’t convert you.
And that’s the last negative thing I will say, because lyrics aside, this is an absolute master rock band showing why they have played to stadiums worth of people across the entire planet for twenty one years.
Eddie Vedder’s beloved Chicago Bulls won three championships towards the end of star Michael Jordan’s career. At the point, MJ was in his thirties and he was no longer the dominant physical superman he was in his youth. He had to add a bunch of crafty veteran’s tricks to his arsenal, like the fade away jump shot, to compensate for what he no longer had in brute Olympian force. Pearl Jam does this all over “Lightning Bolt,” all the while delivering what they know their fans want in a band. All the while showing someone who stumbled on “Fallon” last week what they are selling from their particular truck.
Eddie Vedder has added a couple tricks to his vocal game, now that, at 47, he is no longer climbing the lighting rig and plunging into the mosh pit like a messianic daredevil. He sings the intro of the song in a softer voice than he ever used on “Ten” so that when he hits his trademark baritone belt on the second part it seems extra powerful. He adds a Bono-esque falsetto to the end, another veteran’s trick that adds value without shredding his voice. But when it is time to deliver, he still hits the scream in the outro that brings home the rock bacon. Eddie knows he shot to fame on the part of “Alive” where he cries, “Now I can’t SeeeEEE I just STAAAAAARREEEEIIIII” and he sometimes he needs to give us a little more from that box to keep our faith. And he does it here like a motherfucker.
The rest of the band adds veterans’ tricks too, building and quieting the music in a way they weren’t capable of in 1991. They layer intricate rhythms and turn on a dime in a way only a band that’s played nonstop for over twenty years can do. They show us all the old rock tricks. The organ. The third guitar. The build into a two chord riff for the fade-out, while the drummer kicks in to double time. This is how they end the song, and it’s a bad-ass rock tradition that goes back at least to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” U2 made a whole song out of it with “Bad.” And not only does it end “Lightning Bolt” in a powerful way, it kicks the emotion up to a place that transcends the song’s “straight ahead rocker” beginning. And the riff that Stone Gossard layers over Matt Cameron’s drum stomp may bring to mind CCR’s “Around the Bend,” but we have never heard those notes in a rock song before.
“Lightning Bolt” is a song by a band at the top of its powers. It’s good enough to let the MP3 era know why anyone cares about Pear Jam. And while it doesn’t innovate any more than Pearl Jam already have in the past, it shows the band is making good on their idea: that rock and roll is a path that goes from the Stones through the Clash through the Minutemen and through them. And they are out there night after night showing that with enough love and effort, it’s a path that still leads somewhere fulfilling. They are doing admirable work keeping that flame lit, and they need to be, because in 2013, it is not at all clear that anyone is there to pick it up and add to it.
You can get “Lightning Bolt” on ITunes, which I don’t need to tell you how to get to.