Wednesday 8 May 2024

Pearl Jam - Dark Matter (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Apr 2024
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I was born in 1971, so my formative musical years were the eighties, from the early post-punk days when my favourite artist was Adam Ant to my thrash years in the second half of the decade, where Nuclear Assault had taken over that mantle, via an incredibly varied ride through NWOBHM, hair metal and the various nascent forms of what became extreme metal. I'm also English, so my idea of alternative rock is the journey the eighties took from Bauhaus through the Wedding Present to the Stone Roses rather than what the US produced a decade later. In other words, I'm not really a part of the target audience for Pearl Jam.

However, all that said, I rather enjoyed this. I can listen to the big hits well enough, but they don't wow me. My favourite experience with Pearl Jam was the blistering stripped down version of Bob Dylan's Masters of War that Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready performed at Dylan's 30th anniversary concert. I'm not sure what I expected from a quintessential nineties band in 2024, but there's a lot here and very little of it fits with what I thought I might hear. That's a good thing in my book, just in case you're new here.

Scared of Fear bursts out of the gate like a hard rock song, with a real urgency to it. It may well be my new favourite of their original songs. That continues into React, Respond, which has an almost punky edge that's clearly alternative but kicks it like hard rock too. The bass of Jeff Ament is very prominent here, so much so that it leads the way for serious chunks of the song. The chorus is just as vibrant and bouncy as I tend to think Pearl Jam aren't. And, while Wreckage is softer, more laid back, that bounce never quite leaves the album. This is a much happier album than I ever expected it to be.

Upper Hand may be the epitome of just how upbeat it gets. It's not happy, not precisely, but it's a heck of a lot closer than the opposite. And, with that note that underpins this entire release, I can start throwing out names, because I heard a lot of other people here that I didn't expect from the band with a professionally downbeat singer like Vedder at the mike. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for his vocal talents and have no problem with depressing delivery. Leonard Cohen's first two albums are among my favourites, as are Joy Division's. However, I don't think of him as a singer who can be happy. It's simply not an emotion he channels. This proved me wrong.

It's also worth mentioning that he has such an iconic voice that he stamps his authority over every song he sings, whether it's Pearl Jam's or not. However, he drifts into territory already owned and I could easily hear these songs sung with different, just as established voices. Won't Tell is alt rock in the sense that U2 are alt rock. Can any of you remember that far back into the annals of musical history? Something Special has a pop mentality to it that prompts me to imagine Amy Winehouse singing it. Got to Give reminds me of Bruce Springsteen and the closer, Setting Sun, feels like it's a laid back seventies pop song with a country tinge, maybe something that Neil Diamond could sing, without changing the acoustic guitar and orchestration. And then the Boss could cover that.

Some of it remains entirely alternative in the particular sense that Pearl Jam helped to define in the nineties. React, Respond starts that and Dark Matter continues it with emphasis. This one's a far more edgy song than React, Respond. It's Vedder's vocals and Matt Cameron's drums that do it for me on this one, but much of it is driven by Jeff Ament's bass, just like React, Respond. Of all the alternative songs here, though, I think Dark Matter is the one that rings truest to what I was expecting, an edgier and more modern take on what they did back in the day. However, the one I'd pick over the others is Running, which is so full of energy that it's almost punk. It's absolutely not what I expected from them, but they do it very well indeed.

So I enjoyed myself and I'm continuing to do so five or six listens in. The songs get stronger and the feelings that this is upbeat and versatile don't go away. Now, I'll always pick the eighties over the nineties and my grounding is always going to remain British, which may explain why I tend to enjoy a lot more of what I hear from European bands today than American ones, whatever the genre. It has to be said right here though that this surprised me, enough that I ought to dive into the Pearl Jam back catalogue, which is a lot more substantial than I expected. I know of their nineties stuff, even if I haven't heard it all, perhaps up to 2000's Binaural, but this is their sixth album since then for twelve overall and maybe I'm finally getting on board. I wonder when I should have started to pay attention.

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