Home Music Music Album Reviews

Pearl Jam Dig Deep and Find a New Light on ‘Dark Matter’

The group worked with producer Andrew Watt for its rocking, reflective 12th studio album, and made one of its best LPs

Pearl Jam

Danny Clinch*

It kicks off with a big emotional bang: “We used to laugh/We used to sing/We used to dance/We used to believe,” Eddie Vedder sings on “Scared of Fear,” the rocking opener from Pearl Jam’s 12th studio album, one of their best and most personal records ever. When it came time to work on their follow-up to 2020’s Gigaton, band members headed out to Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios in Malibu and worked with versatile producer Andrew Watt, who helmed Vedder’s 2022 solo album, Earthling, and has worked with everyone from Iggy Pop to pop superstars like Miley Cyrus, Dua Lipa, and Post Malone.

Gigaton was a Trump-era statement that showed how well PJ could keep their trademark anger feeling fresh and relevant close to 30 years after they began their run. But here, the band has mostly traded the lengthy, politically charged grunge of Gigaton for something a little more introspective, vulnerable, and often, surprisingly poppy. After more than three decades in the game, here are middle-aged men grappling with life and trying to make sense of it all — one anthemic chorus and seething guitar solo at a time.

“We’re still looking for ways to communicate,” Vedder told listeners at an L.A. preview of the new tracks. “We’re at this time in our lives when you could do it or you could not do it, but we still care about putting something out there that is meaningful, and we hopefully think is our best work. No hyperbole, I think this is our best work.”

Dark Matter is jam-packed with fist-pumping rockers, stunning songwriting, and melodies tailor-made to be shouted with the windows down. Heavy-hitting thrasher “React, Respond” keeps the momentum at full blast, with punchy guitars and head-banging percussion that nearly combusts as Vedder delivers a maniacal, almost Ozzy Osbourne-size laugh before the song even considers releasing its grip. The band introduced fans to the new project with two lead singles: the thrilling title track and the two-minute punk banger “Running.”

But Dark Matter shines brightest in its most restrained moments. Take the heartbreaking highlight “Wreckage,” a laid-back stunner complete with empathetic, Springsteen-inspired vocals, and lyrics that seem to be about holding on to a fading relationship. “Combing through the wreckage/Pouring through the sand/Surrounded by the remnants/What we could and couldn’t have,” Vedder sings.

The U2-like pop surprise of “Won’t Tell” might make longtime fans do a double-take — one of the group’s catchiest cuts in ages, with radio-friendly hooks, a tender Vedder vocal, euphorically shimmering guitar licks, and golden bridge. The slow-burner “Upper Hand” sounds like it could be a newly recovered ballad the band might’ve recorded back in the Nineties, but now with a heavier dose of wisdom. The track reaches a fiery conclusion as Vedder belts “Help to carry me hooooooome” over one of Mike McCready’s many bracing guitar solos and Matt Cameron’s explosive percussion.

“Something Special” is a sweet, easygoing rock lullaby with lines like “If you could see what I see now/You gotta know I’m looking up, oh so proud/The one I used to hold is oh so special.” Then comes “Got to Give,” which opens with peaceful acoustic strumming before it kicks into a proper uptempo Who-esque send-off. “Let’s get to the point we can believe that we are better together, you and me,” Vedder pleads, reaching his breaking point and ready to move forward as the music swells around him. “Can take on anyone/If you can see/Something’s got to give.”

Dark Matter ends on a meditative note with “Setting Sun,” a hopeful, transcendently gorgeous nightcap that feels like the band took a drive down from Shangri-La at the end of the day to sit in the sand, and reflect for a while as they watch the waves crash along the PCH. “May our days be long until kingdom come,” Vedder howls. “We can become one last setting sun/Am I the only one hanging on?/We could become one last setting sun/Or be the sun at the break of dawn/Let us not fade/Let us not fade.” But with Dark Matter, the band has rarely sounded more essential.

From Rolling Stone US