Assessing the work of bands that are – in the truest sense of the world – seminal often feels like a brutal internal skirmish. The head knows they’ve changed, aged, softened into something that feels at-times unbearably unrecognisable from their youthful defiance. But the heart, in all its fervour, wants what it knew and adored. And Pearl Jam – particularly in the last decade – have pandered to the former. Their last record, ‘Lightning Bolt’ (2013) was the opposite of its moniker; a gentle jaunt into middle-aged nothingness, it commanded a sense of loss for the greatness that had been. For many Pearl Jam fans, this was pretty devastating. It felt like the end.
And so ‘Gigaton’ – their 11th record and first in seven years – arrives into a curious space for the band and in a new musical status quo where guitar music seems to have taken a backseat. Yet album opener ‘Who Ever Said’ is exciting even in this climate, sounding not unlike something from 1998’s ‘Yield’-era Pearl Jam, a vestige of grown-up grunge with a welcome bluesy Stone Temple Pilots edge. It brims with hope (much-needed, right now) that evokes a sense of urgency.
‘Superblood Wolfmoon’, am album highlight, fits into that fold of brilliance, too. You can just imagine it at a festival, slotted between ‘Do The Evolution’ (1998) and ‘Hail, Hail’ (1996) with pacey, hip-shaking swagger and clever time signatures. Frontman Eddie Vedder’s silky vocals perch over Mike McReady’s riffs to perfection with melody firmly at the top of the agenda. This is the kind of song that won the band seismic radio airplay back in the ‘90s (and some backlash too) as contemporaries like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden stayed firmly in the heavy rock stable with little mainstream crossover. They’re both solid tracks – great, even, and a truly exciting start of a band renewed. But they’re sadly not always indicative of the rest of the album.
A lot hinges on single ‘Dance Of The Clairvoyants’ to follow up with some fervour. But its synth-laden noughties vibe – although catchy – just feels too far from their original sound to resonate in an old world or a new one. The smoothness jars against Vedder’s vocals while McCreedy’s guitar soars try to salvage something. But we’ve entered a mediocre zone the band need to be wary of and have occasionally fallen into.
Nestled in-between is ‘Quick Escape’, which is something of a relief. A listenable crescendo of strings, bass and sonic excellence, it’s the kind of track that would slip into a live set with relative ease. ‘Never Destination’, with its classic rock vibes, tempers along slowly and delivers something thoroughly palatable. ‘Take The Long Way’ similarly sounds like a cleaned-up Pearl Jam of yore with lines such as “I always take the long way / Leads me back to you’ pushed up against frenetic licks.
Everything feels OK – for a moment. But that’s when the sickly, MOR ‘Buckle Up’ sidles up to you and if followed by the gentle ditty ‘Comes Then Goes’. They both fall into the category of Pearl Jam tracks that sound – much like Vedder’s solo stuff – nice enough, but are pretty darn samey.
The band’s records have long featured unremarkable material – and this kind of filler gets less remarkable with each record. New track ‘Retrograde’ has its charming acoustic moments, but as this record closes with ‘Rivers Cross’ – which is one-part Pearl Jam epic, one-part cultural commentary with lines such as ‘the government drives all discontent‘ – you can’t help but look back across a legacy spinning over 30 years.
While ‘Gigaton’ features threads of similarity to 2009’s ‘Backspacer’, which boasted acid tenderness, and 2002’s ‘Riot Act’, which was all furious punk medleys, those magical moments do feel a little fleeting on this record. A handful of great songs might not be quite enough to sustain a new listener, or placate an older one.
‘Gigaton’’s saving grace? There’s plenty of malcontent here, even if Vedder leaping from amps might be a thing of youthful memory. Here his well-honed, biting lyrics signal fury at a world that seems to have lost its way entirely. The political climate comes into fire and references to grief and loss abound. A resonating line from ‘Comes And Goes’: ‘It’s all vivisection in the end’. Pearl Jam have, undoubtedly, as pioneers and figures that have shaped rock history, earned the right to make whatever the fuck they like. But the question is whether anyone is still listening any more? With this multi-faceted record, the answer is likely yes. It just won’t change your life.
Release date: March 27
Record label: Monkeywrench Records/Republic Records