On Pearl Jam's first studio album since 2009, complacency is the enemy. Now into its third decade, the Seattle quintet could easily slip into a heritage-band midlife with a backlog of hits that could sustain them for decades on lucrative tours. But Pearl Jam still wants to make vital music, and about half the time on its 10th studio album, "Lightning Bolt" (Monkeywrench/Republic), it succeeds.
Three brisk, blood-pumping rockers pick up where the band's previous album, "Backspacer," left off. "Getaway" and "Mind Your Manners" scrap and howl. "My Father's Son" could have fit alongside the domestic psychodramas on the band's debut, "Ten."
Things falter when the band's love of '70s classic rock turns musty. On the melodramatic power ballad "Sirens," Eddie Vedder pushes his voice into its upper range and Mike McCready's guitar solo channels Pink Floyd's David Gilmour. The blues stomp "Let the Records Play" evokes a bar band staggering toward last call. And "Sleeping by Myself" is a bittersweet but lightweight tune recycled from Vedder's solo ukulele record.
Inspiration returns on the title track, which rides Matt Cameron's roller-coaster drumming and richly layered guitars and keyboards. Longtime producer Brendan O'Brien adds subtle touches that enhance "Infallible," which blends keyboards and guitars into sonic accent marks that give the song unexpected bounce. Similarly, "Pendulum" swings on a percussive, wordless vocal that turns into an unexpected hook while complementing the ghostly atmosphere. Nearly as successful is the haunted "Yellow Moon," and guitars tumble and tangle on the propulsive "Swallowed Whole."
Vedder sets the tone, even when his earnestness spills over into greeting-card mysticism: "Whispered songs inside the wind … feel the planet humming." Mostly, he comes across as a concerned citizen fretting over the planet's ecological decline, a skeptic grappling with a loss of faith, a middle-aged father confronting mortality.
These are big subjects, and Pearl Jam's natural tendency is to turn them into larger-than-life songs that inevitably will be compared to its superior '90s work. "Pendulum" suggests a subtler, more promising way forward. A few more tunes like that, and the golden-oldies circuit won't swallow the band anytime soon.
3 stars (out of 4)