The Same Old Song: Pearl Jam, Lightning Bolt and the End of Alt-Rock

Rock and roll may never die, but future generations might have to visit it in a museum to understand why anyone ever cared about it. Amid the cultural ubiquity of pop and hip-hop, rock music has become a forgotten relic. There are still rock bands making good music—Wilco, Radiohead, Queens of the Stone Age—but they’re working at the margins of a sound that used to dominate.

Pearl Jam is a prime example of how rock lost its footing. The band’s 10th studio release, Lightning Bolt, is a perfectly fine addition to its canon. But that’s part of the problem. It isn’t ambitious in any way; it’s just “fine.” Whereas rock music was once a formative influence on the counterculture, drawing on R&B and the blues to suggest sex and rebellion, its current state is of a conservative sound doggedly determined to stay within acceptable parameters. Even at its loudest, Lightning Bolt comforts the ear and soothes the mind. Instead of challenging the status quo, Pearl Jam makes nice with it.

When Pearl Jam began in the early 1990s, it was part of a wave of new bands that combatted the preening nonsense of hair metal. Labeled alt-rock, groups like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins made rock records that had more soul and introspection than their tight-pants, party-hearty predecessors in Poison, Warrant and Mötley Crüe, adding punk, metal and angst into the mix. Multiplatinum success followed, as did a naive hope that rock would reach an elevated plane beyond the egomaniacal ravings of Axl Rose. The classic-rock bands of yore, including the Rolling Stones and the Who, had lost their cachet, and newer bands such as U2 and R.E.M. were trying to bridge the gap between rock’s past and future. A next-generation group like Pearl Jam gave smart rock fans faith that we were moving into a vital new era that would ensure the music’s continued evolution.

Twenty years later, alt-rock is a meaningless label. Most of the bands that formed in the 1990s are gone or forgotten. (It’s telling that the era’s most popular long-term group, Foo Fighters, actually got its start from the ashes of another band of the time, Nirvana, but without that group’s sense of danger and urgency.) Pearl Jam stands alone: Though not nearly as influential as it once was, it’s the only group that hasn’t broken up, faded away or fired most of its members. It ought to be a success story, an example of a socially conscious band that stuck to its guns and continued to make music the way it wanted, ignoring trends and surviving a record industry that largely abandoned rock bands in the 21st century.

But Lightning Bolt isn’t the sound of defiance or triumph; it just sounds like a musical style that’s dug a hole in the ground and refuses to come out. We’re living in a time in which the predominant bands are indie-rock groups (e.g., Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend) that traffic in a more sensitive, progressive, nuanced sound. In comparison, Pearl Jam is a traditionalist clinging to that old notion of rock and roll. Though there’s not a lick of meathead misogyny or power-ballad bombast on Lightning Bolt, front man Eddie Vedder and his crew struggle to carry the torch for a genre that’s shriveled into irrelevance. Pearl Jam doesn’t seem to know, or care, where rock music can go from here.

This treading-water feeling pops up on the first track, “Getaway.” Over a typically grungy riff, Vedder shouts down the people he views as destroying society, including the “holy rollers sitting with their backs to the middle,” an unsurprising takedown of right-wingers from an outspoken liberal. But Vedder’s solution is to let things be: “It’s all right / I got my own way to believe / It’s okay.” Between the pat garage-rock arrangement and the singer’s c’est la vie philosophy, Lighting Bolt’s opening salvo sets the stage for an album that’s less interested in changing the world than it is in finding its place in it.

Such a relaxed attitude isn’t surprising in a band that’s been around so long. Vedder turns 49 in December and has two children; it would be understandable if he and his graying cohorts engaged in some dad-rock. And to be fair, Pearl Jam has demonstrated in the past how alt-rock can grow old gracefully, learning from the example of Neil Young to speak honestly about aging, politics and mortality with a subtlety on recent albums that wasn’t so apparent in early best-sellers like Ten and Vs.

But Lightning Bolt’s mid-tempo maturity has its limits—something Vedder doesn’t seem to fully understand. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, he came across as everybody’s cranky out-of-touch uncle, expressing his displeasure with this year’s MTV Video Music Awards and the spate of new pop acts. “These pop songs almost feel like tabloid journalism, in a way,” he said. “It’s crap that people seem to like. And I don’t know if it has meaning.” When asked about rock’s current relevance, he insisted that young pop stars could learn a thing or two by adding “natural elements” to their music: “When there’s a pop song that seems a little bit better than others, it’s usually one that has some real guitar, real drums in it. I still feel like the best stuff has natural elements.” It’s that old saw that “real” music can only be made by “real” instruments: an archaic mind-set that completely misses how hip-hop rewrote the rules of popular music 30 years ago.

This is the mind-set of too much modern rock. The major new rock acts of the last decade—Jack White, Kings of Leon, the Black Keys—aren’t pointing a way forward but burying themselves in a comforting past. (And this is to say nothing of the horrible platinum bands—Nickelback and Creed—that stole Pearl Jam’s solemn earnestness while dumbing down that band’s passion and distinctiveness in the name of radio play.) If 1990s alt-rock strived to give classic rock an infusion of youthful bravado—a by-product of a generation’s growing disenchantment with the cynical materialism and excess of the 1980s—that era’s personal expression and collective agony has given way to a nostalgia for sounds that signal the primitivism of rock’s yesteryear. (People don’t love Jack White or the Black Keys because they sound like the future; people love them because they sound like the past.) No wonder far-more-adventurous pop and hip-hop artists overtook alt-rock in the national psyche—and no wonder Vedder grumbles about the kids on the MTV awards not playing real instruments.

With that in mind, it’s disappointingly predictable that Lightning Bolt mines such small terrain. The introspection that once led to songs of exquisite melancholy (the Ten breakup anthem “Black”) or musings about perpetual restlessness (No Code’s “Off He Goes”) has now settled into navel-gazing. When Vedder condemns American exceptionalism in the deceptively jaunty “Infallible,” his words have little sting: “Want a third second chance / Put your faith in big hands / Pay no more than a glance / All good things come to an end.” He sounds disengaged, his disgust merely routine. On the pseudo-boogie of “Let the Records Play,” he pledges allegiance to his outdated form of music consumption, imagining a scenario in which a metaphorical doomsday is fast approaching and the narrator “puts his records on and with his blistered thumb hits play… and lets the drummer’s drum take away the pain.”

Pearl Jam has been saluting traditional rock since its inception. (Don’t forget that Nirvana fans back in the day were snide about Pearl Jam’s more commercial, arena-rock aesthetic.) But whereas the band once championed rock’s soul-liberating virtues—such as on Vitalogy’s cheeky demonic tribute to vinyl, “Spin the Black Circle”—on Lightning Bolt the musicians are so enamored by rock’s strictures they seem unwilling (on unable) to rattle anyone’s cage.

Unlike pop and rap, which overwhelmingly value youth and novelty over longevity, rock has long since entered middle age, allowing veteran bands to confidently chart the stages of their lives (and ours) through their music. And even when Pearl Jam stopped channeling the zeitgeist in the mid-1990s, it kept making strong, underrated records like Yield and Backspacer that had a scruffy integrity to them. But with Lightning Bolt, that integrity mostly translates into solid craftsmanship, some good tunes and no surprises. Pearl Jam still is tweaking its sound with satisfying results—the echo-y “Pendulum,” the touching piano-and-strings ballad “Future Days”—but the sonic evolution is done in such incremental, ultimately insignificant ways that it barely matters.

While other popular music reverberates with the pulse of modern life—the buzzy futurism of pop, the cosmopolitan sweep of hip-hop—rock has become akin to country music, celebrating its own past and detached from the outside world. Hence the references to record players on Lightning Bolt: It’s a cultural signifier, not just for a bygone mode of music-listening but also for the industry’s pre-internet era, when rock was still an important part of the conversation.

It’s not as if other musical styles are singing about original topics. But even if they’re not incorporating “natural elements,” these artists are trying to find new ways to express those sentiments. Bands like Pearl Jam salute Young’s longevity and individuality, but they tend to overlook his weird streak—his willingness to do out-of-character records like his synth-rock experiment Trans or rock-opera Greendale. Pearl Jam has occasionally pushed into weird terrain, such as on the Tom Waits-ian accordion number “Bugs” from Vitalogy, but for all its maturity and thoughtfulness, Lightning Bolt is indubitably the work of the same band that gave us Vs., except without the freshness.

Pearl Jam sells enough records and is a popular live draw, so it’s understandable that the band would lose some of that drive. Vedder, for one, sounds as if he’s happy to give up that fight—just as he’s happy to have lost the angst of his youth. “All the demons used to come around / I’m grateful now they’ve left,” he sings on the album-closing love song “Future Days.” “I can see our future days / Days of you and me.” No one’s saying aging alt-rock musicians have to pretend to be eternally 21 in order to remain vibrant. But at its pinnacle, alt-rock gave us hope that rock and roll wasn’t just going to be about youthful abandon—it would actively engage in the wider world, tackling not just love but also war and identity. In the end, rock has lost its rebellion and the fire that powered its furious momentum. On the single “Sirens,” Vedder confesses, “It’s a fragile thing / This life we lead / If I think too much / I can’t get over.” Such vulnerability and candor once made Vedder a rock star. Now, like alt-rock itself, it’s an indication of a man painted into a corner.


Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. His new biography of Wilco, Sunken Treasure, is available now on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo by Danny Clinch