PEARL JAM – Reflections on ‘Dark Matter’…

Dark Matter, Pearl Jam

I don’t think too many people, other than absolute PJ die-hards, would claim Pearl Jam are as potent now as they were in the past. 

Which is no slight against the Seattle giants – no act still making music into their fifties is still going to be firing on all cylinders. Things level out, things tame.
Speaking as a PJ super fan since I was a teenager in the mid-90s and wearing out my Ten, Vs, Vitalogy and No Code cassette tapes, I haven’t entirely enjoyed a new PJ album for many years.

Gigaton didn’t really do much for me – though I acknowledge that maybe I needed to give it more time.
Apart from two songs, I didn’t like 2013’s Lightning Bolt: which was really the album that felt like the spark was gone.
In my opinion, the last great album was 2000’s Binaural – a deeply underrated album in popular discourse, but which has always stood as an absolute classic in my opinion.
And that was a quarter of a century ago.
The 2006 ‘Avocado’ album had some really strong stuff on it too: and 2009’s Backspacer had a few superb gems on it.
But, for me, Binaural was the last Pearl Jam album I properly loved as a whole, complete entity.
Having sat with the current PJ album, the significantly hyped Dark Matter, for a month or so now, my impression is the same as it was on the first few listens.
Which is to say, it’s a great *sounding* record. Probably the best sounding PJ record in a long time.
Not necessarily in terms of the songwriting in all cases, but definitely in terms of the production, the mixes, and the musicianship.
It’s a really fulsome, complete sound, even on songs that I don’t necessarily find that engaging.
‘Dark Matter’ and ‘Running’, for example, sound sharper and heavier – sonically – as anything PJ has released in decades.
And his production really gets the best out of the inimitable Matt Cameron’s drumming, for one thing.
And there are four or five tracks I haven’t stopped listening to – Dark Matter, Scared of Fear, Running and React Respond are, to me, the standouts.
And that’s really the best you hope for from artists that are this far down the line of their careers.
There’s nothing revelatory or eye-opening here: but some solid PJ fare from, to quote what Eddie Vedder once told Jools Holland, ‘purveyors of the art form of rock n’ roll’.
And there’s no better, more reliable or consistent purveyors of that art form in music today than Pearl Jam.
There’s something comforting and dependable about that: especially after – and again, just in my opinion – quite a few years of arguably below-par output from a musical entity that really has nothing to prove, given its immense body of work.
Even the fact that Pearl Jam is still going all this time later, still filling out arenas, and still garnering headlines and still making people excited about new releases, is feat enough.
The fact that they’re also still capable of putting out tracks as addictive and as vital-feeling as ‘Scared of Fear’ is simply a bonus.
Again, Pearl Jam is a band with nothing to prove. Its vast discography is overflowing with greatness, regardless of what the band does today or tomorrow.
I went to a Pearl Jam special event at the Outernet building near Tottenham Court Road in London back in May. And although the gallery/multimedia-experience was a touch underwhelming, two things were evident.
First, the better tracks from Dark Matter hit differently when you hear them properly loud (and maybe accompanied by colourful 360 degree visuals, which the Outernet specialises in).
And second, people of all ages were coming in and out of the venue for hours to listen to the Dark Matter tracks or to watch footage of PJ live performances on the screen: from teenagers who weren’t born yet during the grunge era to fifty year-olds with greying beards and beer bellies still loyal to one of their favourite acts.
There were even some disputes about which live clip to select from the video menu: a Spanish woman wanted to switch from ‘Yellow Leadbetter’ to ‘Porch’.
“You don’t turn off ‘Yellow Leadbetter’. Ever!” a middle-aged dude with a New York accent complained, only half kidding.
But it shows how much Pearl Jam has created in three decades. And how they’re, arguably, the preeminent rock n’ roll band of the last two decades – certainly in terms of longevity, frequency and quality of output, and their vast and devoted fanbase.
Certainly when I was a moody, problematic teenager, sitting next to the cassette player and listening to the hiss and crackle as my Vitalogy tape played, I didn’t imagine that Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard and co were still going to be putting out music decades later.
Or that it would still be such an event.
It’s a hell of a feat.

S. Awan

Independent journalist. Pariah. Believer in human rights, human dignity and liberty. Musician. Substandard Jedi. All-round failure. And future ghost.

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