Album review: Pearl Jam – Dark Matter

Seattle legends Pearl Jam make a grand statement with explosive 12th album, Dark Matter...

Album review: Pearl Jam – Dark Matter
George Garner

Rock purist first, savvy marketeer last, Eddie Vedder has always seemed like he would rather eat his favourite surfboard than issue a ‘singer says new album is great!’ style proclamation about Pearl Jam. That’s precisely what made his uncharacteristic words at a playback for this record so intriguing. “No hyperbole,” he said, “I think this is our best work.”

Given his band has delivered classics like Ten and (insert your own preference here, 10 Club members), it was a bold assertion. Clearly, Eddie feels they have an ace up their sleeve this time. About that. While the title of Pearl Jam’s 12th album refers to the hypothetical cosmic webbing holding the universe together, the ‘Dark Matter’ binding proceedings here is Andrew Watt. Known first for producing pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Dua Lipa, he’s increasingly been spearheading rejuvenative records for Ozzy Osbourne, Iggy Pop and The Rolling Stones. Having already worked on Eddie’s 2022 solo outing Earthling, he now tackles his ultimate goal: producing his favourite band.

At a taut 11 tracks, Dark Matter conspires to distil 32 years of Pearl Jam doing the sonic evolution into one totalising whole. It nails the brief. A boisterous slice of their Avocado era can be heard in the crunchy power chords of brilliant opener Scared Of Fear, while React, Respond captures Eddie’s therapeutic mantra keeping pace with a zig-zagging groove à la their early years.

Other adrenalised entries abound – Running summons the spirit of Backspacer’s giddiest moments – but, crucially, there is much more besides. Throughout, the songcraft keeps you guessing. Just when you think you have the mid-paced gem Upper Hand sussed, it starts accelerating out of nowhere. Best of all, and destined to become a fan-favourite, Wreckage is a gorgeous Tom Petty-esque entry so instantly anthemic you’re unlikely to clock that it floats through eight verses before the chorus kicks in. That’s all before Eddie projects the ‘holding on’ bridge so hard that his voice is presumably still reverberating around the studio walls.

Perhaps best understood as a collection of songs detailing innocence lost and wisdom gained, Dark Matter moves deftly between moods, whether chewing on indignant rage on the title-track (not to mention Matt Cameron drumming his arms off), to calling for reconciliation on Got To Give. The range of subjects is staggering. Waiting For Stevie tells the story of a young woman finding refuge in live music over a bright, slinking guitar line while Won’t Tell… Well, that one will keep you busy wringing your interpretation from its spectral lyrics.

The album’s curveball is Something Special. Presumably called so because a certain title had already been cherry-picked back in 1993, it’s a dedication to Eddie’s daughters. To hear him in full-blown protective, fearful, boyfriend-warning dad-mode is by turns funny and sweet. ‘We did the best… the best we could,’ he reflects on the Beatles-y jangle. In their early years, Pearl Jam’s earnest nature was often used – unfairly – to lampoon them. Yet their unflinching sentimentality remains their greatest asset. It would be an unfeeling soul indeed not to be moved by the sound of a man who started his career mourning the father he never really knew singing, now, as the dad who has given everything.

Dark Matter is many things. It’s thrilling. It’s moving. It’s surprising. It’s a band still operating at the peaks of their powers. ‘Let us not fade,’ repeats Eddie at the end of elegiac closer Setting Sun. There seems little risk of that. Pearl Jam said it took three weeks to record Dark Matter. In truth, it’s the kind of record that takes a lifetime to make.

Verdict: 5/5

For fans of: Foo Fighters, The Gaslight Anthem, Alice In Chains

Dark Matter is released on April 18 via Monkeywrench/Republic

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