Pearl Jam Make a Case for Sticking Around on 'Dark Matter'

BY Nicholas SokicPublished Apr 18, 2024


If we're using the long-outdated framework of criticism as consumer guide, then a review of the latest Pearl Jam record is largely irrelevant. Given they're over 30 years into their career, you're likely either already a fan – albeit with the usual caveats that come with that sort of timeline – or they are simply too old and irrelevant to bother with, another consequence of their longevity.

By the same token, many of us still paying attention to Pearl Jam in 2024 wonder whether a new album from the Seattle rockers is necessary. Not long after the start of the century, they pivoted focus to their live shows, where latter-day studio stiffness dissipates into strapping arena-rock marathons. 2020's largely nondescript Gigaton did little to assuage concerns over their studio output.

All that is to say Dark Matter comes into the world with more trepidation than unabashed optimism. Luckily, it's probably their best album since the turn of the new millennium. Eddie Vedder went so far as to call it the best work the band's ever done – an archetypal statement for a late-to-middle aged band, and one that's almost never true. But at its best it's far closer to the sort of comeback album that reminds listeners why they loved the music in the first place, instead of the hollow nostalgia of past glories.

Songs like album opener "Scared of Fear" and the title track may make you think otherwise — they're the sort of traditionally beefy rock that sounds good in the moment and evaporates shortly after. The similarly heavy tracks "React Respond" and "Running" elicit the same feelings of bland anonymity that plagued Gigaton. But producer and superfan Andrew Watt, who worked on Vedder's 2022 solo effort Earthling, manages to bring out most of what works about latter-day Pearl Jam.

That means the mid-tempo pop rock of "Won't Tell," the rootsy "Wreckage" and "Got to Give," which must be inspired by Vedder's true heroes, the Who. The crown jewel belongs to "Waiting for Stevie," which is as anthemic as anything the band has put out, alongside the likes of "Alive," "Better Man" and "Sirens." Vedder's soaring vocals on the contradictions of love and stardom, given propulsion by Matt Cameron's drums, make way for Mike McCready's muscular guitar outro. While the song doesn't break new ground in the band's oeuvre, you don't want it to. Instead, it's a stirring reminder that these old guys can still make your heart beat a little faster.

One aspect that always set Pearl Jam apart from their imitators was their insistence on earnestness, often at the cost of cool –— whether in their failed effort against Ticketmaster or their anti-George W. Bush screed "Bu$hleaguer," released in 2002 at the height of Iraq War bloodlust. 

That same earnestness shines brightest on "Something Special," Vedder's ode to his daughters. Some may decry the song as corny, but it is forthrightly so. And to be honest, there's something special about a band forged in tragedy, that began with Vedder singing about a father he never knew, now able to vocalize these sentiments unique to his current perspective as a family man pushing 60.

It'd be nigh impossible to argue the band hasn't faded with age. But they're still here, they're still alive and by all available evidence, they're better for it.

(Republic Records)

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