27 Apr 2024

Review: Dark Matter by Pearl Jam

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 27 April 2024
Pearl Jam

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The 1990s saw an explosion of guitar bands who, in the wave of Nirvana’s massive commercial success, ostensibly turned up their nose at the glam-rock antics of the prior decade, leaning instead into punk energy and nihilism. These bands were labelled ‘grunge’ - and the second most popular of them was Pearl Jam. 

The Seattle natives were different, though, with one eye on bands of yore, a fondness for guitar solos and other traces of the excess other acts had abandoned. 

Listening to their 12th album, Dark Matter, that’s still the case. The release has been hailed as their heaviest music in some time, and at times sounds more like their contemporaries from 30 years ago. The album is at its best, though, when the band feels most relaxed, and embrace their transition into dad-rock.

The verse on ‘Won’t Tell’ is pretty standard grizzled rocker, but the chorus lifts up into something much more expansive and lovely. Pearl Jam were always open to a broad range of influences, openly championing Neil Finn and Crowded House, as well as Neil Young. 

The band members' average age hovers around 60, but if there has been any deterioration in Eddie Vedder’s voice, it’s hard to spot. His success gave rise to many inferior imitators, some of whom made careers from emulating that unique vocal tone, which - perhaps unfairly - tarnished his reputation.

Regardless, all these years later he’s in phenomenal form on tracks like ‘Waiting For Stevie’, one of several that feel like travelling back in time to the era of plaid flannel.

Production on Dark Matter was handled by Andrew Watt, who has helmed records for everyone from Miley Cyrus to Ozzy Osbourne. He also plays guitar for Eddie Vedder’s solo shows, and produced his 2022 album Earthling

Watt has a co-writing credit for every song on Dark Matter. He seems like a hands-on producer, having also co-written with Justin Beiber and Post Malone, as well as the Rolling Stones. 

According to guitarist Mike McCready, Watt “kicked [Pearl Jam’s] a*s’’ during the three weeks of recording - a time apparently much shorter than usual. There’s definitely a welcome urgency here, as well as songs that seem to take their cue from other, riffier acts from the 1990s.

To my ears there’s a hint of Soundgarden to that song, the title track ‘Dark Matter’; maybe even a speck of Rage Against the Machine. I often think it’s a mistake for older bands to try to fight the passage of time, or recapture past glories, but this feels more lateral. 

The way Watt treats the drums does feel nostalgic though, treble and reverb dialled way up. It’s also worth mentioning those drums are played by Matt Cameron, who was a member of Soundgarden until they split up, when he promptly joined this band.

Near the end of Dark Matter, the band deploys its two best songs, neither of which feel particularly like classic Pearl Jam. There’s a playfulness to ‘Something Special’ that is welcome after all the angst preceding it.

If nothing else, they're to be commended for sticking to the basics. There’s obvious grandiosity in the songwriting, but a lack of bells and whistles in the production. The closest they get is the wide array of bass types used by Jeff Ament. No synths or drum machines are heard, just the reassuring sound of hard-panned electric guitars.

With two songs to go, they fire off ‘Got to Give’, another atypically chirpy cut, which doesn’t just offer up some optimism, but proves that 30 years on, this band can still surprise.