Pearl Jam, Dark Matter review: The band wisely abandon the pursuit of relevance in search of something timeless

The alt-rock legends have been around since 1990  (Danny Clinch)
The alt-rock legends have been around since 1990 (Danny Clinch)

When you’ve been in the game for three decades, staying relevant is a tall order. Seattle-based grunge rockers Pearl Jam know this all too well. Since their breakthrough record, Ten, 33 years and 11 albums have passed by, now including their latest LP. Wisely, Dark Matter sees the band abandon the pursuit of relevance in search of something timeless.

Across 11 songs, Pearl Jam – vocalist Eddie Vedder, drummer Matt Cameron, bassist Jeff Ament, lead guitarist Mike McCready, and rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard – traverse a variety of alt-rock sounds, from the sharp, scratchy guitars that tear through album opener “Scared of Fear” to the hopeful pop-rock sensibility of “Something Special”. Written about Vedder’s children, the latter is elevated by some ambitious and unexpected chord progressions.

Recorded at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios in Malibu, Dark Matter is a tremendously well-produced record – sharp and crisp when it needs to be, and looser when the songs allow. “Wreckage”, the album’s angsty but layered third track, veers into tuneful, Americana-adjacent territory, becoming ever so slightly muddy. Credit to Grammy-winning producer Andrew Watt (collaborator of artists such as Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and The Rolling Stones) who serves as collaborator here.

Lyrically, there is always going to be a slight Marmite quality to some of Vedder’s lyrics, which come across as both vague and a little blunt. On “Running”, he sings: “Dictator… love hater/ Lost in the tunnel and the tunnel ain’t no fun/ Now I’m lost in all the s*** you’re flushing.” It’s imagistic but pointedly unpoetic – broody while prosaic.

The pacey title track is built around forceful classic-rock guitar riffs: a nimble, screeching solo highlights McCready’s first-rate musicianship. The aptly named “Setting Sun” closes out the album – a winning folk-rock number lamenting lost love. “The cast was made to reset broken bones/ But there’s no such thing to fix a love gone wrong,” croons Vedder.

Indeed, much of the record has this feel of elegy – songs cover broken relationships and are steeped in the innermost thoughts of broken people. It can be uncomfortable to hear such lyrics emanate from a band whose members are now nearly 60. But Pearl Jam have never been a group who strove for comfort. They found their voice instead in anger, in confrontation. Musically, Dark Matter is some of their catchiest and punchiest material in years. It’ll have you nodding your head – but it’ll never let you get comfortable.