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  • Writer's pictureKarl Blakesley

ALBUM REVIEW: Pearl Jam - Dark Matter

A rock record that doesn’t push the boat too far away from the safety of the shore

A band that needs no introduction at this point, grunge pioneers and rock giants Pearl Jam have returned this week with their twelfth studio album, Dark Matter.

It arrives four years after Gigaton - an album that showed promise based on the strength of lead single 'Dance of the Clairvoyants', but ultimately ended up a bit underwhelming. This has sadly been the case for a lot of Pearl Jam’s post-90s output, where there are moments that suggest they might finally be back to their best, only to leave you feeling a little lukewarm. Sadly, this is still the case with Dark Matter.

Written and recorded in just three weeks, the concept for Dark Matter supposedly came from a wave of inspiration that led frontman Eddie Vedder to bring in acclaimed producer, Andrew Watt, who he had just worked with on his 2022 solo effort, Earthling. On Dark Matter then, the resulting opus from those whirlwind sessions, Eddie Vedder has declared: “no hyperbole, I think this is our best work.” Sorry Eddie, it is not. For me, although there are moments that come close to their peak on Dark Matter, overall, it ultimately ends up feeling like a bit of a mixed bag.  

Whilst it is a more consistent work than previous effort, Gigaton, Dark Matter is a record that also just plays it too safe at times. At points on this record, Pearl Jam shine like they haven’t in years, while in others it sadly all feels very pedestrian. The result is an album that has a couple of real high points, then a lot of moments that you would say are just ok-to-good, with cliched lyrics or unadventurous instrumentation letting them down.

'Scared of Fear' is a catchy and inoffensive opener to kick things off, building nicely to a string-shredding climax courtesy of guitarists, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready. It’s then bassist Jeff Ament who takes the helm on 'React, Respond', with Vedder howling a stuttering, Metallica-esque chorus over Ament’s vicious bassline. Speaking of Vedder’s vocals, they are a bit all over the place on this track - sometimes good and sometimes not so good. In certain moments they are a bit incomprehensible and grating, then the next minute he’ll be unleashing a powerful screech over some towering guitar riffs, swiftly making your jaw drop and hairs stand on end.

'Inoffensive' on album number 12: Pearl Jam (photo credit: Danny Clinch)

'Wreckage' then might be my favourite of the whole record. Whilst by no means groundbreaking, the passionate vocal harmonies and overall sentiment of the song end up leaving a positive impression that brings you back in for repeat plays. The title track was a strong lead single and still sounds great here too, with Eddie’s bellowing vocal cries and the thunderous guitar work all building to a truly electric final minute.

Those two tracks arguably mark the record’s peak and after that is when things start to unravel a bit. 'Won’t Tell' with its waiting for your message to come…” refrain can’t help but feel a little corny and generic. 'Upper Hand' thankfully offers a mid-album reprieve, beginning with 90 seconds of ghostly guitars that gift a welcome interlude. Once it does get going though it’s another track that drags, despite the best efforts of Gossard and McCready who once again deliver with their intricate guitar work. 'Waiting For Stevie' is then when the album really threatens to overstay its welcome, with Pearl Jam sounding like they are just going through the motions at this point. With lyrics like “she could trust her messenger for love”, it also retreads the same seemingly hollow statements of 'Won’t Tell' just a couple of tracks prior.

However, just when the album starts to test your patience, there is a knight in shining armour in the form of 'Running'. Without a doubt the best moment of the second half, it is the song where Pearl Jam sound at their most alive and visceral, delivering a two-minute, full throttle blast of energy that really picks things back up. Its short-lived, however, as 'Something Special' sadly doesn’t live up to its name, instead aiming to be uplifting and inspiring, but ending up quite dull and plodding. 'Got To Give' suffers the same fate, with Eddie vocally giving it his all but once again the lyrics end up mostly feeling a bit empty.

'Setting Sun' is then a perfectly fine climax to the record, which sort of sums up my feelings on the album in general – it is all perfectly fine. Nothing is too inoffensive, and the first half presents a few moments worth revisiting. However, this is mostly what you would expect from Pearl Jam on their 12th album and third decade into their career – a rock record that doesn’t push the boat too far away from the safety of the shore. That daring nature has sadly been subdued and too many times it veers into slightly dull territory as a result.

So, while more ardent fans will likely find more to enjoy about this record than me, I’ll remain waiting for another Pearl Jam to hopefully come and surprise me again.

Rating: 5.5/10

Dark Matter was released last Friday (19 April) via Monkeywrench Records/Republic Records

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