Pearl Jam (J-Records, 2006)

Pearl Jam needs no introduction to anybody who followed rock music in the early nineties. They differed from most of the other acts in the barrage of alternative and grunge music from that time, in that their lyrics often addressed social and political issues without getting caught up in the narcissistic self-absorption that dominated the era. (Ironically, I knew more than one Nirvana fan who complained that Pearl Jam's music was too depressing, if not suicidal.) Fifteen years removed from the runaway success of their debut album Ten, Pearl Jam have successfully outlived the initial hype, surviving being put on a throne by some and unjustly maligned by others. Now Eddie Vedder (vocals and guitar), Stone Gossard (guitar), Mike McCready (guitar), Jeff Ament (bass), and Matt Cameron (drums) have re-emerged with their seventh new studio album, simply called Pearl Jam.

Pearl Jam opens with the blistering "Life Wasted," about breaking out of the cycle of self-pity and self-abuse. The next song, "World Wide Suicide," is more directly political. "Medals on a wooden mantle, next to a handsome face that the President took for granted, writing checks that others pay," Vedder sings, and nobody has to ask what he's getting at. Most of the lyrics on the album continue along similar lines. Unfortunately, in several of the songs it's impossible to discern what Vedder is singing about without frequently referring to the lyric sheet; naturally, this compromises the lyrics' impact. Musically, Pearl Jam remains a hard rock band at its core. The band is equally effective at making aggressive, punkish songs like "Life Wasted," and more extended, developed pieces like "Gone" and "Inside Job." Still, for all the attention Pearl Jam has gotten over the years, there are better bands at what they do. The Soundtrack of Our Lives brings more musicality to a similar mix of hard rock styles, and Pearl Jam can't make loud, angry political songs singable the way Midnight Oil could.

In short, Pearl Jam continues to be a good band with a strong sense of purpose and no small amount of staying power. They've always fallen a bit short of being a great band in my estimation, though. Even with a couple of good songs and some strong statements, their new album doesn't push them over the top in that regard.

Overall grade: B

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