Pearl Jam – Dark Matter (Monkeywrench/Republic) Album Review

Pearl Jam’s 12th studio album DARK MATTER is a brighter affair than the artwork and lead single suggested; a buoyant effort bristling with the band’s signature chemistry and dynamic. In part a natural extension of the sonic territories explored on 2020’s Gigaton, other parts a conscious effort to harness the elements of their sound that defined musical culture in the early 90s.
Produced by Andrew Watt, the sprightly 33-year-old who has garnered a reputation for assisting old rockers in the studio to reconnect with the essence of their former glories (see last year’s Rolling Stones’ Hackney Diamonds). Watt is a self-proclaimed Pearl Jam mega-fan and described by band members as boasting an encyclopedic knowledge of their studio and concert recordings.  While a large faction of the Pearl Jam fan base would reject the idea that the band was in any need of help to make inspired music, the band do appear to have brought into Watt’s vision of the band with each band member being afforded the space to lean deeply into their individual characteristics.

Guitarist Stone Gossard provides several overdriven spacious riffs across the album. An early example being the up-tempo opener Scared Of Fear where his riffage serves as the foundational bedrock for his band mates. Similarly, in the middle eight of the album’s closer Setting Sun, he delivers an unexpectedly massive circular chord progression that almost entirely diverts the meditative country warmth that came before it. These moments are a welcome reminder that Gossard is the guy who composed almost all the music on TEN, as opposed to being a third guitarist in the band who is mindful not to clutter an existing arrangement with his contributions.

Mike McCready carves out energetic electric guitar parts and scorching solos in literally every track. DARK MATTER’S centerpiece, Upper Hand, starts out sounding like the guitar from Where The Streets Have No Name if it were possessed by the ghost of Syd Barrett. The song shifts abruptly into a mid-tempo southern rock infused ballad, where McCready’s Stevie Ray Vaughn and Hendrix influences are thoroughly indulged. McCready’s playing sounds loose and carefree, channeling the influences that come most naturally to him, seemingly unconcerned with aligning his playing to a particular aesthetic. It is perhaps no surprise that songs written prior to Pearl Jam’s mega-fame such as Yellow Ledbetter and Say Hello 2 Heaven are the first that come to mind. Upper Hand morphs again into double time for the outro where McCready leads a full band charge with his neck work for a full minute until the end. It’s an inspired section that sounds closer to an extended jam on an old favourite in front of a packed arena, rather than a new song being tracked in the clinical confines of a studio.

Despite an increased gravel factor to his lower register, the intensity of performance by front man Eddie Vedder across DARK MATTER shows no sign of slowing down as he approaches his 60th year on Earth. The chorus of the title track punctuates defiant lyrics between blunt stabs of heavy guitar; the track feels ready for a stadium of pumping fists, the very thing Vedder appeared to actively avoid for the most part of his musical career. It’s a welcome return, however the track is the exception not the rule on DARK MATTER and we are largely served an extension of the Vedder fans are accustomed to in the 21st century.

Vedder appears to have his telecaster in hand in full singer-songwriter mode in songs such as Wreckage and Got To Give, both driving slabs of highly melodic heartland rock.  His voice taking centre stage while the dynamics of the band rise and fall beneath him to coincide with the momentum, longing and release delivered by his words. The emotional resonance heightened further still by shimmering and brightly lit production touches.

Elsewhere, Vedder digs deeply into his punk rock roots, emphasising rapid, syllabic phrasing of his words. Running leans heavily into the straightforward and comfortable fun of Ramones-style punk rock, proving to be an effective energy injection to the back half of the record.

React, Respond is a post-punk number that harnesses the angular jerking energy of Gang Of Four. An overtly thick bass line from Jeff Ament and bouncing stabs of guitar characterise the verses. A tense and restrained section bridges the verse, like the increasing tension of a loaded slingshot, before firing an off-beat and danceable indie-rock chorus. The song concludes with a scorching metallic guitar finale that breaks into momentary static while ping-ponging back and forth between the left and right speaker. A genuinely white-knuckled, exhilarating listen.

Drummer Matt Cameron shows flashes of Soundgarden intensity. Most notably in the climbing outro of Waiting For Stevie where rapid precision fills muscle Vedder’s repeating lyrical resolve out from the centre of the listener’s attention. The song has a false ending before a colossal drum roll where you can picture Vedder jumping with his guitar from the drum rise and landing in unison with the final chord. It’s a little goofy, but if you have ever seen the band live, this is a climactic moment often reserved for the biggest of finishes.

DARK MATTER does suffer from two significant flaws. Most obviously, the song Something Special is a cringe inducing, overly sentimental tune that would feel more at home in an animated Disney scene than on a Pearl Jam record. The music is clumsy and plodding and the lyrics entirely lacking in nuance: further proof that you’re phenomenal, you better believe it that you are something special. Words that fall far below Vedder’s usual ability to spark a listener’s thoughtfulness and reflections on their own relationships. The only other Pearl Jam track to misfire so horrendously was 2018’s Can’t Deny Me; thankfully that tune was rightfully relegated to a one-off digital track.  Something Special felt disruptive to the enjoyment of the back half of the record giving the (perhaps false) impression that the leanness of DARK MATTER’S 11 song track list was less a trimming of the fat and more a scraping of the barrel.

A sit down with the lyric sheet suggests that the words leave more to be desired. At his best, Vedder’s lyrics are direct enough to quickly land the general theme, yet vivid in metaphor and description that resist a singular interpretation of meaning. I’m hoping the lyrics on DARK MATTER will take shape and reveal more in time, however my initial impression is that much of the lyrics were rather ordinary. Perhaps due to an overreliance on nature tropes and the redeeming powers of love, but also Vedder’s comment that he used only lyrical material that arose during the recording sessions, Thereby staying in alignment with his band mates and producer who were also birthing entirely new ideas on the fly during the brief recording sessions.

There are still lines that punch through the mix and lodge in the consciousness. For example ‘You’re now like the water and the water will find it’s way’ from Wreckage. Or ‘for in my dream you told me to let the longing go and the promise I still hold won’t tell a soul’ from the song, Won’t Tell.

Despite the general criticism, Vedder’s delivery consistently remains emotionally affecting and his keen sense of melody subtlety pushes the songs into unexpected and welcome terrain.

DARK MATTER proves that Pearl Jam are a band whose strength lies in the interplay of their collective energies. Moreso than any other album, the members appear to be huge fans of one another and have created the conditions for each individual member to take the spotlight and carry a song home. In Pearl Jam lore, the balance of power in the band shifted from Gossard to Vedder around 1994; thirty years later, it seems that Vedder is letting go of the reigns. To that effect, DARK MATTER effectively captures the alchemy of each member playing their heart out.

Chris Warne


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