Pearl Jam Get Exploratory on the Cosmic, Curious and Familiar Dark Matter

The Seattle band’s 12th album is pensive, anthemic and emblematic of the storied 30-year chemistry shared between Eddie Vedder and Stone Gossard.

Music Reviews Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam Get Exploratory on the Cosmic, Curious and Familiar Dark Matter

Pearl Jam’s 12th album transcends the band’s generational and creative eras over nearly 34 years—it rages and riffs hard, but there are somber, pared-back, folksy meanders worthy of a long road trip within, too. A journey is, in a metaphorical way, what long-time Pearl Jam fans are on with the Seattle-born rockers. Dark Matter is the latest of two recent releases by the touted lords of grunge, following Gigaton in 2020, and the flames of political and creative fury has not fizzled in frontman Eddie Vedder, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron. Rather, the unprecedented levels of gender and race inequality, concurrent wars, climate change, police violence and inflammatory rhetoric from the likes of Trump and other right-wing American politicians have only revitalised the band’s determination to speak up and release a tidal wave of noise in response.

In a mere three weeks, the band wrote and recorded Dark Matter at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios in Malibu with producer Andrew Watt—a musical mind who has a way with pop icons (Dua Lipa, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber) but has also carved out a niche résumé as a “comeback” king via recent releases by The Rolling Stones, Ozzy Osbourne, Iggy Pop and Billy Joel. Watt and Vedder had been in touch over several years before the latter brought the producer on board for his 2022 solo album Earthling, then he convinced his fellow Pearl Jam bandmates to get on board with the producer, too.

Vedder, now 59, and his 60-something collaborators, have an enviable liberty. Pearl Jam could feasibly rest on their laurels, having built a portfolio of albums over three decades that (more than) prove their versatility across the rock ‘n’ roll sphere—from grunge to anthemic ballads to roots to punk. Without the pressure to prove themselves, beyond their own personal drive, perhaps, the Dark Matter title track rages with unbridled fury and passion—nestled alongside exploratory instrumental meanderings. Take the opening track “Scared of Fear,” which rolls in on an ambient, New Age-friendly synth-scape. About 20 seconds in, the metallic whiplash of Gossard’s guitar rips through and Vedder’s immediately identifiable guttural voice wails in. By the final track “Setting Sun,” the album closes out in a similar mood to the way it opened up—soothing listeners with a folksy guitar rhythm, atop the sparse knock of drums. The subtle twang in Vedder’s vocal delivery may leave some people (this writer included) hoping for a full country album from him. In mood, and in its folksy, unadorned moodiness, “Setting Sun” recalls the acoustic adaptation of “Indifference” in 1998, an incredibly moving live duet between Vedder and singer-songwriter Ben Harper.

“Wreckage,” in all its anthemic drama and wailing—near-breathless one-liners delivered like falling dominos over echoey, multi-layered guitar—is borderline-Matchbox 20 circa the late 1990s, as is the underwhelming “Won’t Tell.” There’s a haunted, overwrought quality to both songs that doesn’t quite hit as hard as the title track, which employs Vedder’s versatile vocals to rumble menacingly before unleashing furious outbursts like sonic thunder claps. In a determined undertone, Vedder urges us to “take the breaths from my chest, take the pulse, and I’m outta line, we’re losing time, dark matter.” Having gained momentum, he exclaims “It’s strange! These days! When everyone else pays! For someone else’s Mistake!” It thrills in the same vein that “Animal” did just over 30 years ago. Gossard’s circuit-breaking, wild guitar lines drive the song along on fierce momentum but Vedder, like the Shakespearian actor he sometimes is, times his lines perfectly to land with emotive heft.

It is when the band—and Watt—evoke Pearl Jam’s stunning capacity to rage at the injustices of the world, invoking personal grievances in equal measure, that Dark Matter is at its best (see “React, Respond” and “Waiting For Stevie”), while less on-brand tracks like “Upper Hand,” which enters on a synthesizer intro, embrace novelty with mixed results. It’s fine, it’s O.K., but it feels like frills and bows on a well-tailored suit: needless flounce. “Running,” on the other hand, is a speedy, noodling, two-minute-and-20-second rip-roar (whipping up some classic Gossard guitar wails) as Vedder’s near-shout delivery builds to a crescendo before being unceremoniously cut out. Following up this burst with the bouncy, childlike “Something Special” is a major mood switch, in which Vedder pays homage to his role as a father and the freedom, power and responsibility his children carry as the next generation (“Someday you may find yourself in the place that I now do, and someday you’ll have to let it go / My heart aches and breaks, but I believe in you”).

For anyone over 30, the bygone era Pearl Jam is inextricably entwined with endures in the melancholic, angst-soaked singles from album Ten, as “Alive,” “Even Flow” and “Jeremy” are justifiably grunge anthems. Those early moments, some derived from demos that guitarist Stone Gossard had written for his previous band Mother Love Bone, were a combination of truthful, personal stories and dramatic fictional flourishes all anchored by Vedder’s unique, grizzly-edged baritone. Dark Matter carries that legacy without straying far from the Pearl Jam blueprint of more than three decades. The album title alludes to cosmic mystery, but there’s nothing ambiguous in the chemistry between Vedder and Gossard in particular. A band still in their best form, and as the US election looms and global news is relentlessly dire, their limitless energy to protest, “react and respond” is invigorating.

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