Throughout the ’90s, Pearl Jam were one of the biggest and most creatively restless bands in alternative rock. The didn’t make videos. They released albums on vinyl. Their records were getting increasingly weird. They made an accordion jam about bugs. In short, they went out of their way to zig whenever the world said it was time to zag.
Yet, over of the past decade-and-a-half, they’ve served up increasingly predictable imitations of the past. It gives them a reason to embark on another tour. And hey, the shows will be great — they’ll probably play “Even Flow.” Some folks might even check out that new album. But no one is putting 2013’s Lightning Bolt on their list of favourite PJ releases.
This is totally understandable and expected for a band of Pearl Jam’s vintage. But their name is now synonymous with the kind of complacent, stadium-friendly dinosaur rock against which they once positioned themselves as the antidote.
Gigaton, their 11th album, feels like baby steps away from this narrative. In the press release, guitarist Mike McCready called its creation “a long journey” through “emotionally dark and confusing times.” The finished product doesn’t necessarily reflect its apparently tumultuous birth, though Eddie Vedder has never been a very literal lyricist. But Gigaton does at least feel like the band wanted the end product to sound like something beyond just another new Pearl Jam record.
Lead single “Dance of the Clairvoyants” is a noble failure, easily the least Pearl Jam-sounding Pearl Jam songs in years (it isn’t even based around a guitar riff), but its dance-punk groove is a mid-oughts time capsule. Thankfully it proves to be a rare misfire. “Quick Escape” borrows some of Tame Impala’s early psych-rock stomp, while the ambient “Alright” is a great showcase for the keyboard work of Boom Gaspar.
The rest of Gigaton embraces (relatively) barebones production aesthetics, allowing the band to lean into their long-held garage rock tendencies. And while “Who Ever Said” and “Superblood Wolfmoon” don’t live up to some of their barnstorming ragers of the past, they at least capture the spirit, if not the substance, of past triumphs. On the flip side, “Seven O’Clock” is a pretty good slow-burning power ballad, while “Comes Then Goes,” is a worthy addition to the band’s collection of acoustic numbers.
Calling Gigaton a return to form is a matter of expectations: diehards will claim they never faltered, while fans who checked out 20 years ago, when things got weird, will find lots to like but little to love. Perhaps the most notable group likely to be inspired are Pearl Jam themselves; too long in the rock hinterlands, the band finally seem reacquainted with their creative powers. Let’s hope they keep using them. (Republic Records)