Music Reviews

Pearl Jam Gigaton

(Republic Records) Rating - 6/10

Let's get the obvious out of the way first: Pearl Jam has been riding on cruise control for over two decades now and it's hard to make an argument otherwise. Outside of the occasional single that makes you think, "Well, this sounds promising" (Backspacer's The Fixer or their self-titled's Life Wasted), one quickly realizes that those full album experiences tend to blur into serviceable session rock without hardly a memorable moment. Also, let's not even bring up 2013's Lightning Bolt. Of course, there's a pack of wildebeest who'd be quick to trample me over, loyalists who give credence to every bootleg and live album as if it's sacrosanct. Because, to their fans' credit, what's most exciting about the band's longstanding trajectory is the fervent community they've built—since their backstory is terribly pedestrian nowadays.

Early on, Pearl Jam was quick to capitalize on that strategy. It's a clever way for them to disguise the quality of one's input when you're writing monolithic rock n' roll that takes little to no effort. But on Gigaton, their 11th studio album, the Seattle veterans are not afraid to get a little bit "weird." Well, weird in that embracing your middle-age sort of way, as there's no mention of insects, spoken-word diatribes, or half-sketched ventures into Indian raga. The band is truly at their best when they embrace more conventional songwriting methods. The difference comes in the energy that they bring into their performances— and as far album openers go, Who Ever Said and Superblood Wolfmoon are punk-driven, anthemic rockers where the band certainly places the hooks in all the right places.

The first sign that hinted that Pearl Jam was attempting to take a more adventurous course was on first single Dance of the Clairvoyants, and rightfully so, as vocalist Eddie Vedder objects about those who wish or choose to move forward without much concrete thought over an unusually spasmodic vocal delivery. The use of electronic textures is another outlier, but compared to the rest of Gigaton, it's not exactly indicative of a major transformation. On Alright, Vedder puts up his usual protest over drummer Matt Cameron's mantra-like drum pattern—and though the song takes a more cinematic approach, it also could've fit nicely with the spiritual sensibilities of 1996's No Code. So as far as innovations go, the band balances unique songwriting quirks while reverting and reexamining other phases of their career to approach a sound that feels new.

That said, it wouldn't be a tried-and-true Pearl Jam album if they didn't write their usual midtempo hard rockers. And on Gigaton, the band delivers in spades. One of the album's most unhinged moments comes early into the tracklist with Quick Escape, written by bassist Jeff Ament, where rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard gets his moment to shine with a squalling, Led Zeppelin-like riff. Escape hearkens back to the jagged sonic spikes of Vs. and Vitalogy, though it's not as oblique and lacks any nuance whatsoever, as Vedder launches a vitriolic attack against President Donald Trump. Others, like Never Destination and Take the Long Way, are immediately ear-grabbing but lack some depth, beginning to drag an album that had already opened with a similarly urgent one-two punch. When things settle into more of a groove, like on Seven O' Clock, we're back to that familiar place where Vedder channels his inner Bruce Springsteen over a measured, psychedelic-lite vibe.

Pearl Jam does struggle to carry the momentum through Gigaton's last stretch. The utterly dreadful Buckle Up has a rootsy, alt-pop sound that'll take you back to the days of Barenaked Ladies and Blues Traveler (because not every '90s music reference rings the same), while the spare acoustic ballad Comes Then Goes is instrumentally accomplished but falls a little emotionally flat (which indirectly alludes to his late friend, Soundgarden's Chris Cornell). Outside of the soaring Retrograde, a prime example of how Pearl Jam has ultimately matured, most of Gigaton shows a band whose collaborative efforts and expertise can still resonate if they open their minds to the challenge. As one of the classic rock bands still standing and writing original material, Pearl Jam set out to voice dissent with poise, albeit, with a mixed bag of new and old tricks. The ball's back on your court now, U2.