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Pearl Jam’s sonic evolution as it fusions grit and grace in ‘Dark Matter’

Pearl+Jam+and+producer+Andrew+Watt+join+forces+to+bring+a+modern+grunge+in+Dark+Matter.
Courtesy of Shangri-La
Pearl Jam and producer Andrew Watt join forces to bring a “modern grunge” in “Dark Matter.”

4.0 out of 5.0 stars
Despite critical appeal never being lost for grunge icon Pearl Jam, 2020’s “Gigaton” was a commercial disappointment, becoming the band’s first album since 2002’s “Riot Act” to not chart at No. 2 or higher in the United States. Seeing this, the band decided to bring on GRAMMY award-winning producer Andrew Watt to help infuse modern magic into the band. This resulted in Pearl Jam’s 12th studio album “Dark Matter” which was released April 19. While the hard guitars and Vedder’s unique vocals are still present, Watt’s history of producing for pop stars is shown through the tendency to opt for more light instrumental starts.

The album’s opening track, “Scared of Fear,” begins with ominous, grandiose sounds that are prominent throughout the album. This is interrupted by an electric guitar going in and out that is joined by a pleasant combination of drums. Lead vocalist Eddie Vedder’s vocals play off the beat perfectly and are shown off even more in the chorus. In the middle of the chorus Vedder sings We used to laugh / we used to sing / We used to dance / we had our own theme,” which is backed by his own vocals overlaid. This creates an emphasis on the vocals that work incredibly well. Prior to the bridge, the guitars really begin to pick up, something that becomes a trend with the rest of the album, but never gets old because of the skillful build up to each drawn out guitar part.

The title track “Dark Matter” does not benefit from the same variety that is shown in “Scared of Fear.” The track is not as grunge as it could be and yet it still manages to obscure Vedder’s vocals and lyrical content behind the guitars and drums. The bridge and chorus are the only real parts where lyrics can be taken in and it does not seem like the band really cares to get those lyrics across to the listener. It would be fine if the song had any power or great guitar riffs behind it, but it fails on both to deliver an average “meh” of a grunge-esque rock song.

“Wreckage” is ultimately the highlight of the album and not because it is a hard grunge track, but because it is a fiveminute track that perfectly executes a soft rock sound. Vedder lets his vocals take over in the first half of the song with acoustic guitar and minimal drums taking him through the chorus. Vedder ends every sentence carrying out the note and ends each pre-chorus with beautiful backing to add more power to the sound of the song. The song steadily brings the listener from a calmer instrumental to a more emphasized one that plays well off Vedder’s repeated “Combing through the wreckage” on the outro. 

“React, Respond” and “Running” both deliver on the fast paced grunge you would expect out of 90s Pearl Jam. “React, Respond begins with guitars that move the song forward at a steady but speedy rate and allow for Vedder to move quickly through his verses with distorted tones. The “Don’t react, respond” chorus is repetitive but builds off each other in different variations of tone change which keeps it fresh. The last “respond” is belted as more of a screech that fades into a sweet guitar shred that carries the song out with a bang. 

“Running” is the fastest of the two songs in both lyrical speed and length at just 2:19 in run time. The song begins with guitars breaking in and out to prepare the listener for Vedder’s intentionally crazy vocal expressions. Vedder sings in verse one “Got me running, got me running, but the race, it never ends / Got me running, or else I’m done in / You got me coming as you’re going and the chase, it never ends / I’ll be running ’til the second coming,” describing a never ending despair he cannot seem to escape. The slow down in lyrical speed during the bridge helps set up for a more intense ending that builds off a more prominent electric guitar riff.

“Won’t Tell” and “Setting Sun” both build off the soft rock direction with “Won’t Tell” going for a more heartfelt theme of only letting one person access the fullness of his heart. The lighter guitar and lighter vocal tones play off the lyrical content, which makes for a nice break from the less lyrically full songs on the album. “Setting Sun” begins with acoustic guitar and light vocals from Vedder that feels like a folk singer on the front porch of a ranch. This goes on until the bridge where Vedder really stretches out the “somehow” lyric and the guitar is heightened while being joined by drums. It is a tale of two songs in one, but the build up lasts far too long and when things actually get going, the listener is already gone.

Overall, “Dark Matter” is a great mix of the grunge that made Pearl Jam known and the soft rock style that fits Vedder like a glove. The band sets out to appease two genres and in some songs, combine them to make an interesting dynamic that allows for dramatic tone shifts to be had. While it may not be a classic, Pearl Jam set out to make an album that grunge heads and pop leaning rockers could bond over and they somehow found a way to do just that.

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Billy Wood
Billy Wood, Sports Editor
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  • M

    Matt LukinApr 29, 2024 at 9:45 pm

    “We used to laugh, we used to sing
    We used to dance, we had our own SCENE”

    Reply
  • D

    DONALD M. PASTRECKApr 26, 2024 at 7:29 am

    TIME will TELL ..

    Reply