"They've gone out of their way to turn up the dial and make things as heavy as possible": Pearl Jam sweep the pretenders away on Dark Matter

There’s vim and vigour aplenty from Seattle survivors Pearl Jam on album number 12, Dark Matter

Pearl Jam: Dark Matter cover art
(Image: © Monkeywrench)

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It’s impossible to approach a new Pearl Jam album without pausing to think of the entire scene that they came from. Since their last release, 2020’s Gigaton, we’ve lost Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, following the tragic demise of Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Chris Cornell and Scott Weiland, making Eddie Vedder the last of the big-name male grunge singers standing. He always seemed the most outside of the Seattle insiders group, though, less cursed with the lure of addiction or having skin just a layer too thin to cope with the pressures of fame and the world at large. There were always punk ethics in their dealings with the rock machine, yes, but Pearl Jam were unashamedly stadium-ready from day one, which could well be the secret to their longevity. 

More than three decades in, Dark Matter finds them retracing their footsteps, with producer Andrew Watt (who recently worked with the Rolling Stones – a band with even more history – on their comeback album Hackney Diamonds) encouraging them to revisit and reevaluate the fiery, histrionic, dramatic works from their earliest and most loved albums: Ten, Vs and Vitalogy

It’s all there from the instantly recognisable opening jangle of Scared Of Fear, drummer Matt Cameron giving it that familiar colossal wallop to shock the whole thing into life, Vedder, in fine voice, looking back on the idealistic – yet often acerbic – scene that spawned them and acknowledging the loss and the pain the era left in its wake. It’s the essence of Pearl Jam bottled, shook up and uncorked, with Mike McCready’s Catherine wheel of guitar licks hogging attention unapologetically.

The personal-approach flip-side to the clatter of Scared Of Fear comes in the shape of Something Special, probably the band’s most openly sentimental song ever. A jaunty, Itchycoo Park of a musical amble, it finds the frontman offering fatherly advice, support and pure love to his young daughters. ‘We believe in you,’ he croons, setting the song up as their very own take on David Bowie’s Kooks, and somehow coming across as sweet rather than nauseating. 

Something Special, along with the catchy Wreckage – a tasteful, gentle classic rock confection that echoes Tom Petty’s melodicism, R.E.M.’s swooning mid-90s strings and even touches of Fast Car by Tracy Chapman – provide the more delicate strands of the record, the latter a much more upbeat sibling of Daughter from Vs (although the post-disaster lyrics paint an entirely darker picture). 

But elsewhere they’ve gone out of their way to turn up the dial and make things as heavy as possible, not least on the title track. It’s an explosion of pounding drums, jabbing riffs, and Vedder’s fury contained by that beautifully deep vocal delivery, hitting out at the status quo and offering the sober warning: ‘Once heard it said, and it stuck in my head, arrested the press, no one know what happened next.’ At a time when dark forces are conspiring to gag anyone attempting to hold them to account, it’s a potent statement. Running, meanwhile, is a bassheavy, jagged, punky rant in the mould of Spin The Black Circle, completely nonsensical (it seems to be something to do with sewage) but entirely magnetic. 

Vedder has come in for some stick in recent years for sometimes being indecipherable, but his voice is an astonishingly powerful instrument, full of soul, anger, compassion and intelligence. And the merciless duo of guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard are taking no prisoners here, particularly the former. From the new-wave guitar line – and matching, Peter Hooky bass from Jeff Ament – of swooning love song Won’t Tell to the trademark fret fireworks of Upper Hand – a song that fades cinematically into view, dark, echoey and nostalgic – he is an absolute powerhouse, a joy to behold. 

That Pearl Jam have not only survived all these years, but thrived, taking on conglomerates and expectations along the way and continuing to draw vast crowds, is something to be celebrated. Especially as so many of their contemporaries were cruelly denied the chance to do so. 

With Dark Matter, while it could never hope to compete with the incendiary brilliance of their debut and its follow-up, they’ve painted a portrait of a band comfortable in their own skin, knowledgeable about their own strengths, and capable of not only looking back at what was great about the work they made as young men but also recapturing some of the magic that set them on – and kept them on – their path to the top of the game. They have directly inspired some truly dire pretenders to the throne in the intervening years, but Dark Matter sees them sweep those bands away, and reset and reclaim their own signature sound.

Emma has been writing about music for 25 years, and is a regular contributor to Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog and Louder. During that time her words have also appeared in publications including Kerrang!, Melody Maker, Select, The Blues Magazine and many more. She is also a professional pedant and grammar nerd and has worked as a copy editor on everything from film titles through to high-end property magazines. In her spare time, when not at gigs, you’ll find her at her local stables hanging out with a bunch of extremely characterful horses.