Pearl Jam has been quiet since wrapping up its "Backspacer" tour in 2010. But the grunge band, which rose through the Seattle scene and turned into a juggernaut courtesy of its pure arena-rock ambitions, began touring Oct. 11 in support of its latest album, "Lightning Bolt."
The tour opened with a sold-out show in Pittsburgh, where Pearl Jam had been rehearsing all week.
The band's "Lightning Bolt" has its quick strikes early on, starting with the single, "Mind Your Manners," that takes listeners back to the fury of the "Vs." song "Spin the Black Circle."
Guitarist Mike McCready said he wrote the slashing rocker with the Dead Kennedys in mind, but the lyrics are certainly more Eddie Vedder than Jello Biafra: "I caught myself believing/that I needed God/and if it's out there somewhere/we sure could use him now ... Go to Heaven/That's swell/How do you like it/livin' Hell."
In a documentary feature that accompanies the release, Vedder said with a laugh, "If you pay attention to what's going on on the planet, I feel like I can find something to be angry about pretty quick."
The album was recorded in two sessions with more than a year's break between. It started in early 2012, when members hooked up in Los Angeles with producer Brendan O'Brien, who has now produced eight of the 10 Pearl Jam albums, going back to 1993's "Vs." They worked on six or seven songs, and then went their own ways: Vedder hit the road with a ukulele; guitarist McCready worked his side bands Walking Papers and Mad Season; Matt Cameron, Pearl's fifth drummer, went back with Soundgarden; guitarist Stone Gossard ran his studio and put out an album with the band Brad; bassist Jeff Ament did side projects with Tres Mts. (with members of King's X and the Fastbacks) and RNDM (with Joseph Arthur).
Producer O'Brien admitted to Rolling Stone in July that it was frustrating: "To be honest, I would have loved to have gotten back together sooner than a year and a half between sessions. I think it was very doable, but they're going to do what they're going to do."
He explained that in the early days a Pearl Jam writing session often meant getting together and jamming through things. Now, they generate music off on their own and bring in pieces to finish as a band.
He said of Vedder, "He still pulls out the same typewriter from the same little brown suitcase he's been using for 20 years. It's remarkable how much he approaches it the same. I know he's a different guy since he's a family man now, a father, but all that looks the same to me."
One of the keepers on the album is the power ballad "Sirens," one of the more sentimental Pearl Jam songs you'll ever hear, one that reflects Vedder's life as a middle-aged family man. Hearing sirens in the distance, he gets a flash of his own mortality: "Oh, it's a fragile thing, this life we lead, if I think too much, I can't get over/ When by the graces, by which we live our lives with death over our shoulders."
It began as a McCready instrumental that bounced around in the singer's head before he wrote the lyrics.
"When I first heard it, I teared up a little bit," McCready said in a live fan chat in Seattle last week. "It was very emotional and beautiful -- much like Eddie approaches lyrics that we can all feel. It was a very cool process that I am very grateful and proud of."
As it goes on, the record is less lightning bolt and more starry night, enough so to absorb "Sleeping By Myself," a folky song Vedder was playing on the ukulele tour that's more Wilco than Pearl Jam.
"Yellow Moon," borrowing just the title from the Neville Brothers, is a moving ballad with another emotional Vedder vocal and an uncharacteristic space-rock guitar solo.
Although Pearl Jam is a shoe-in for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when its number comes up in three years, Vedder sees the band's legacy in the faces of fans.
"Watching everybody together at the shows, together at Wrigley," he said in the chat. "To me, that's the legacy part. We are in awe of that happening around the simple thing of making music. That's the wonderment."