The moment that you realise the new Foo Fighters single is as good as the Great Lost Nirvana Classic that Lady Courtney’s promised is the moment that you realise that what they called ‘grunge’ – as concept, sound, nostalgia trip – is spiritually dead and buried. Pearl Jam always seemed eager to slip the genre’s yoke. But their string of irrelevant mid-’90s albums defined The Grunge Retirement: a tediously rockist mentality characterised by Neil Young solos, pointless live records and hippy proselytising. Yet Pearl Jam did not go down with grunge’s ship. 2000’s brooding ‘Binaural’ was steeped in rock classicism in the best possible way. And this, the band’s seventh studio album, goes deeper still. Right now, The Music might dabble in the ancient arts Led Zeppelin once practised, but Pearl Jam sound like full-on high priests. Mike McCready’s guitar solos are accomplished but never overwrought, and the awesome rhythm section of Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron tether Stone Gossard’s primal amp roar down into songs of undeniable might.
Straight out of the trap, there’s two that rank with Pearl Jam‘s best. ‘Save You’ is a magic carpet ride of bucking riffery and thrashing bead-shakers. Meanwhile, the Mellotron-ridden ‘Love Boat Captain’ is a gorgeous example of Pearl Jam‘s gnostic expansiveness done right, Vedder singing “To the universe I don’t mean a thing/ And there’s just one word I still believe/ It’s love”. Complaining that Eddie Vedder is morose is like complaining that Johnny Cash has a mostly dark wardrobe. Get over it: it’s what he does. His range has expanded, though: with a touch of Michael Stipe’s cryptic wisdom, ‘You Are’ and ‘I Am Mine’ unfurl grandly, while ‘Bushleager’ fields a spoken-word attack against Dubya, Vedder growling like William Burroughs: “He’s not a leader, he’s a Texas leaguer/ Swinging for the fence, lucky he got a strike”.
Pearl Jam sound content, and usually that’s the kiss of death to a rock band. Those waiting for another record as challenging as ‘Vitalogy’ will be left disappointed. But ‘Riot Act’ is the sound of a band entering a powerful middle-age. They still deserve your attention.