Dark Matter

When a veteran artist turns to a young-gun producer for a shot of contemporary savvy, it usually signals a desire to revamp their sound or embrace a new era. Sometimes it works: Jack White brought some bluesy grit to Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose; St. Vincent nudged Sleater-Kinney in a sleeker, icier direction. And sometimes it doesn’t; remember when Danger Mouse tried to steer RHCP into an album of lush space-funk? But generally, at least, a spirit of reinvention animates the proceedings.

Pearl Jam, though, seem to have hired Andrew Watt to help them sound more like… Pearl Jam. The 33-year-old producer, who was born a few months before Ten was recorded, made a name working with Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber but has since become a sought-after studio whisperer for rock elders, slickening up recent Rolling Stones and Iggy Pop albums without embarrassing his heroes. He even produced Eddie Vedder’s last solo album. With Pearl Jam, Watt seems to have served more like an accountability manager. “He really kicked our asses, got us focused and playing, song after song,” guitarist Mike McCready told an interviewer, emphasizing the album’s heaviness; Vedder told fans he believes “this is our best work.”

Alluring testimonials, but the reality is less dramatic. Dark Matter plays like another solid late-era Pearl Jam record, reliable but not revelatory, with the requisite well-honed mix of generic fist-pumpers, roiling ballads, and mid-tempo gems where Vedder gets a chance to howl and yearn and babble in the upper registers as only Vedder can. As ever, he evokes a potent balance of pain and perseverance, but the album is marred by boilerplate rockers that try to confront fascist dread with platitudes and banal expressions of resistance.

The title track, in particular, makes for an uninspiring lead single. A grinding, metallic rocker that’s sophomoric in its simplicity, it feels indistinguishable from the band’s legions of corporate-rock imitators. Vedder’s railing against right-wingers and press suppression seems well-intentioned: “No tolerance for intolerance or/No patience left for impatience no more” is a nice sentiment, but doesn’t exactly hit with the same provocative thrill as “I’ll never suck Satan’s dick!

The punk quickie “Running,” a fast blur of sewage metaphors and Guitar Center-core power chords, isn’t much better, while “React, Respond” thrashes and shakes like a Vs. outtake with the eccentricity sucked out. Again, Vedder is animated by righteous rage, but a frustrating vagueness dogs the lyrics, as though he’s speechwriting for a DNC keynote: “The light gets brighter/As it grows/The darkness it recedes,” he sings in “React, Respond.” It’s hard to imagine anyone but the most devoted heads differentiating these songs from deep cuts on, say, Backspacer. They’re “heavy,” sure, but not in the way that leaves a real impression.

The promotional emphasis on these high-octane rockers seems baffling, because the heart of Dark Matter—the songs that remind you what made this band so special in the first place—are the slow-burners. The searching, six-minute “Upper Hand,” in particular, is a centerpiece. After a long, ringing fade-in reminiscent of Joshua Tree-era U2, it blossoms into a bluesy cousin of “Yellow Ledbetter,” and a launchpad for some of McCready’s most soulful soloing to date. It surely ranks among the best Pearl Jam songs this century. “Wreckage” is both world-weary and hopeful, the kind of generous midtempo ballad that could belong to any era of the band’s discography. Its layered tapestry of backing vocals delivers a climax worthy of the arenas they’ll play this summer.

Then there’s “Waiting for Stevie,” which originated when Vedder and Watt were idly waiting for Stevie Wonder to show up and record a part for Vedder’s last solo album. Despite the red herring title (the lyrics seem to be about depression and self-doubt, not Stevie Wonder), the song is a meaty, anthemic rocker of the kind the band has largely shied away from this side of Y2K. It has already become a favorite in the PJ fan community, though its tinny, compressed production gives it an unpleasant sheen and suggests that live versions will be superior.

As Dark Matter draws to a close, survival seems heavy on Vedder’s mind. “I’ll be the last one standing,” he sings on “Got to Give,” a Who-like bundle of ringing power chords where the singer sounds more and more like Roger Daltrey the higher the song builds. “Am I the only one hanging on?” he wonders on the somber closer, “Setting Sun,” an elegy seemingly for a departed friend.

Who can blame him? At 59, the man has outlived a shocking number of his grunge contemporaries. It’s been two decades since Vedder eulogized Layne Staley on “4/20/02,” three since he destroyed his hotel room after learning Kurt Cobain was dead, and still, seemingly every time Pearl Jam returns with a new album, another grunge icon (most recently: Mark Lanegan) has suffered an untimely demise. This band’s longevity is a wonder. They are unwitting standard-bearers for a long-passed movement. Their inessential albums feel like luxuries in a reality where their peers never got to make an inessential album. On this one, they fall short of reinvention, which also means they are still—improbably, unmistakably—Pearl Jam.

If Dark Matter has an overarching theme, it’s the search for hope and perseverance in a shattered world—and that’s a world where the existence of any new Pearl Jam album, even an uneven one, is a small miracle.

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