As you grow ever closer to whatever end you may find, you can notice yourself accumulating a lot of rituals. I have dozens of them. I have a ritual for making coffee in exactly the right way (stir as you pour in the water); a ritual for curating the music I have on my phone (you don’t want to know); a ritual for closing down the pop up ads on an illegal football match stream (less of a ritual and more a fraught exercise in malware avoidance) and most importantly, I have a ritual for new Pearl Jam albums.
I’ve mentioned before what a rabid Pearl Jam fanboy I am. You remember that, right? They were the be-all and end-all of my adolescence, and every two years I used to celebrate the release of a new album in the same way, when, like clockwork, they would arrive. The night before release I’d listen to all the albums back to back, to prepare myself for the inevitable wonderfulness of the newborn. It’s a bit like the nesting that pregnant women do, except nothing is actually achieved.
The first time I did this was with Vitalogy, so I only had two albums to listen to. Then, I got up bright and early on a Monday morning and headed to Our Price in Canterbury, queued up (there was only me there) and ran back to school as fast as my chubby little legs would carry me, in the hope I wouldn’t get beaten for my lateness by a scowling and decidedly un-grunge teacher, clutching the plastic bag carrying the excellently-packaged CD to my sweaty little breast the whole day. For No Code it was similar, but with the Our Price in the Lakeside Shopping Centre, and me giving considerably less of a shit if I made it to college on time. By the time Yield came around it was the Our Price in Sunderland and me not remotely caring if I had lectures that day.
These days a new Pearl Jam album has been out for weeks before I even realise it, encased as I am in the shroud of middle-aged alienation and befuddlement; but the ritual is still there, like a pair of warm slippers. Ten records into their career, however, it now takes a couple of days to get through all the re-recorded classic albums, the two-disc rarities albums, not to mention their 759 live albums, and then the albums proper, all before the main event.
Listening to the band’s entire back catalogue unlocks a flood of memories, feelings and other such mental detritus, like scanning the index pages of my entire life. I recall all the friendships that have revolved around this band over the years, from my best friend in college with whom I shared a radio show, whose jingle was crafted out of a song from Vitalogy. The same one who phoned me out of the blue years later when I was absolutely skint to tell me he’d bought me a ticket to go and see them at Wembley, so that I might finally witness my heroes in the flesh, all because four years earlier, he hadn’t been able to get me a ticket to see them on the No Code tour. I think that still ranks as the single nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.
I thought about my current friend who is about to enter fatherhood and how I know for a fact that his son will spend most of his first weeks listening to this new Pearl Jam album, possibly whilst being read the Morrissey autobiography, proving once and for all that being a Pearl Jam fan is no guarantee of taste. I also thought about how I’ll never fully forgive my mum for taping over the MTV Unplugged VHS I had with a random episode of Coronation Street. God damn you, Mum.
I remembered feeling completely lost and sad after the Roskilde tragedy, when nine fellow fans lost their lives during Pearl Jam’s set. I remember being at the front of the crowd six years later when the band played their first festival since the accident and how overwhelmed by emotion they were and we were, the band bringing a storming set to a close with a tear strewn Yellow Ledbetter that had band and crowd both weeping. Personally, I just had dust in my eye, obviously.
I also thought about how predictable reviewers and other music hacks are when they talk about Pearl Jam’s flagging powers and their lack of decent albums since whichever was the last one they actually bothered listening to. Seriously, they’ve had a purple patch eight albums long, with every new record being well above the standard set by the rest of the American ‘AOR’ market, even the slightly lacklustre last one. Beat that, U2.
Lastly, I looked at my kids and hoped that they too might find something in their teenage years that will last as long for them; that when they inevitably find themselves facing moments of darkness and strife, they have something that will pull them back from the brink, like the song Footsteps did for me.
This isn’t a band to me anymore, it’s a mythos, a thread that has existed as part of my life for so long that I can’t separate it from the rest of what is me. They’ve been part of me for 22 of my 34 years. I’m not sure there’s anything else that can make that claim, besides my actual meat and bones. All of which is to say that if you’re expecting an impartial review from Demon Pigeon dot com then as usual, you are shit out of luck.
So, with back catalogue inhaled and one-thousand-word preamble written (which will likely prevent anyone from making it as far as the actual review), here we go:
It’s great. Best thing they’ve done in ages. Gone is the awkwardness of Backspacer, which now feels like a band trying desperately to get an album out in time for their 20th anniversary. Where that album was filled with passable but forgettable pop tunes, Lightning Bolt is crammed from start to finish with the kind of masterful songwriting that Pearl Jam do so well. If you enjoy hooks, then this is like walking into a giant out-of-town fishing emporium that’s having a BOGOF and a January sale, simultaneously. Five listens in, I am very impressed; the likes of Sirens, Infallible, Mind Your Manners, Yellow Moon and Future Days are all easy contenders for a ranking alongside the greats of their back catalogue. They’ve gone balls-out epic (that’s a noun, not an adjective, kids) for this album, and there’s easily six or seven of the 13 tracks assembled that could fling them back to the top of the singles charts, given the right confluence of events. It’s brilliant, quite frankly.
But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?
All the points out of all the points.