Album Review: Pearl Jam, ‘Dark Matter’

    You can’t really labour over the kind of thunderous, sweeping rock music that’s become Pearl Jam’s bread and butter. One of the many promises the band made in promoting Dark Matter was that “it’s a lot heavier than you’d expect,” and the first singles that were released from the album, the title track and ‘Running’, seemed to be specifically selected as evidence. But what’s most refreshing about their 12th LP isn’t how ferocious it occasionally sounds – those songs are good enough, but they’re far from the record’s biggest standouts, and they tend to find the band at their most effortful, straining to prove a point that’s increasingly irrelevant. What all eleven tracks do showcase is a group that’s locked-in and working more loosely than they have in a very long time. You can compare Dark Matter to various moments in the band’s discography, but the thrill of it – who would have thought – is that it captures the energy of them being in a room together, which yields compelling results irrespective of what style or era they fit into.

    That wasn’t the case with 2020’s Gigaton, which saw Pearl Jam return after a seven-year gap with an ambitiously introspective and spacious album the band pieced together over several sessions. That album’s experimental and vulnerable moments have grown on me, but it’s not an approach that would have worked for an album with a more unified vision like Dark Matter. Instead, the band recorded the new LP in just three weeks at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios in Malibu; the first session actually took place at Andrew Watt’s Beverly Hills studio, where Eddie Vedder wrote and recorded his 2021 solo LP Earthling and was feeling so inspired that he invited the rest of the band come down from Seattle. ‘Waiting for Stevie’ literally came about while they were waiting for Stevie Wonder – a guest on Earthling – to show up at the studio, and it just so happens to be the best song on the album: at once raw and radiant, a balance Vedder masterfully handles in his vocals before Mike McCready delivers a piercing guitar solo over Matt Cameron’s uproarious drums.

    That sense of urgency may come as a result not just of them being in the same room, but being in the studio with Watt, who is known as both a super-producer and a superfan of the artists he works with – a list that includes everyone from Iggy Pop and the Rolling Stones to Miley Cyrus and Post Malone. In the interview where McCready called Dark Matter “a lot heavier than you’d expect,” he also said Watt “really kicked our asses, got us focused, and playing, song after song,” which sounds like the truer statement. More importantly, though, Watt seems equally enthusiastic about every side of the band that manifests instead of steering them in the direction of a certain type of Pearl Jam record. Sure, mid-tempo songs like ‘Won’t Tell’ and ‘Wreckage’ may feel like an extension of Earthling, but they carry more charge than most of the material on 2013’s Lightning Bolt. ‘Wreckage’ is particularly stunning; though Watt’s production is a little too pristine, Vedder is still capable of pouring tons of emotion just by focusing on the phrase “holding on.” And though ‘Something Special’ only ambles by pleasantly, ‘Upper Hand’ veers into moodier, slow-burning territory while achieving a Pearl Jam ballad’s classic trick of kicking your guts and lifting your heart at the same time.

    As rapidly as it was assembled, Vedder and company still take care to bring the album full circle. Opener ‘Scared to Fear’ is one of those rockers that could be a bit more fiery, but it’s fitting when Vedder sings, “We used to laugh/ We used to sing/ We used to dance/ We used to believe.” Rather than simply beginning the album on a defeatist note of nostalgia, it’s an admission that seems to power Dark Matter into life, which is where Watt’s gleaming touches feel apt. First, Vedder corrects himself by letting out a frenzied laugh on ‘React, Respond’, and towards the end of the album, he comes around to declaring, “Let’s get to the point/ We can believe.” You’re never fully convinced we’re there, but it’s the reaching, the ragged faith, that renders it the most invigorating Pearl Jam record in decades; that will always be more central to the band’s core than making heavy, or stripped-back, or vaguely experimental music. Emotionally, though, I will say that the closing track, ‘Setting Sun’, was a lot heavier, yet no less hopeful, than I expected. “We can become one last setting sun/ Am I the only one hanging on?” Vedder sings on ‘Setting Sun’. Instead of scrambling for evidence, he offers another plea to the collective: “Let us not fade.” You can’t help but take it to heart.

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    You can’t really labour over the kind of thunderous, sweeping rock music that’s become Pearl Jam’s bread and butter. One of the many promises the band made in promoting Dark Matter was that “it’s a lot heavier than you’d expect,” and the first singles that...Album Review: Pearl Jam, 'Dark Matter'