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Pearl Jam’s new album disappoints with repetitive disaster

Diana Martins

For a band marching on 33 years past their legendary debut, Pearl Jam have proven themselves to be remarkably versatile. Where many-a-band find themselves thrown into the quicksand trap of declining into legacy acts, retiring to nostalgia-oriented touring circuits with the odd irrelevant flopping of new material every few years, Pearl Jam continues to be successful with their new albums. At the very least, they continue to make an effort to break new ground with each record. 

Four years ago, Pearl Jam released “Gigaton,” an album that proved that middle age does not mark the death knell of good material for an older act. At the very least, “Gigaton” established that Pearl Jam are more than capable of making great albums long past their period of super-stardom. But now, four years later, Pearl Jam returns with an album that finds itself stuck with a new, odder direction. The biggest change between this album and the last comes in the producer’s chair. Whereas “Gigaton” was produced by relative no-name Josh Evans, for “Dark Matter,” the band has brought in Andrew Watt, a pop producer who got his big break by producing for such “rock legends” as Justin Bieber and Post Malone (though he did produce lead singer Eddie Vedder’s solo album “Earthling” in 2022). Watt is a refined pop professional whose popisms hamper the album repeatedly, the slick mainstream production unintentionally stripping the most interesting elements of the band away. Pearl Jam always worked better with either muddier production or with more experimental elements and Watt has neither; the modern rock radio-orientated mixing gives the album’s rock tracks a sterile, edgeless sound to them.

The album can be safely divided into two camps: the generally dull mainstream rock tracks, and the far more interesting alternative cuts. For the former, the opening track of the album, “Scared of Fear,” practically epitomizes the production problems. With the vocals drowned out by generic “rawk” instrumentation, the “get-up and go” of the song never takes off. The struggles continue to the other hard rock songs on the album, namely “React, Respond,” “Dark Matter” and “Running”. All three songs are besieged by overbearing, repetitive and unintuitive guitar, and Eddie’s singing always dissolves into incomprehensible caterwauling and that only reinforces the misery. “Running” in particular, the album’s eighth track, is the worst offender, going beyond simple “rawk,” into dangerously overbearing “RAWK,” a disaster of the highest order.

But then, even in the grimmest circumstances, rays of light shine through the storm. “Wreckage,” for example, is ten times softer and ten times better than the last two, with its gently upbeat guitar and breathtaking melodies letting the song soar. Similarly, “Won’t Tell,” “Something Special”, and “Got to Give,” the fifth, ninth and tenth flips respectively, are similarly solid in their light upbeatness. Still, both are stuck in the mid-2010s, with Watt’s pop credentials coming out in full force, holding the two inches back from greatness. The other predominantly acoustic song, “Waiting For Stevie,” is also hampered by poor production, though the refinement of Watt’s production primarily is what holds that track back.

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The best songs, however, outright buck the rock genre. “Upper Hand,” the sixth song, opens with a beautiful ambiance that unites haunting melodies and slowly building hallucinatory guitar to great effect, the most psychedelic on the album. Even the vocals are great, with Eddie’s vocals playing off the trippy guitar and reverberating synths perfectly. The album’s finale, “Setting Sun,” the fittingly titled last track, opens with a primal drum beat, accompanied by light acoustic guitar strumming shortly. However, with the inclusion of a beautiful, dreamy synth that greatly elevates the song, which then perfectly partners with Eddie’s singing, which takes a low, melancholic rumble. Pearl Jam have always been great with psychedelic rock, and these two are handily the best song the album. And with a few folky strums on the acoustic and Eddie’s soft sighing, the album closes.

I do think Dark Matter is a good album at the end of the day, mainstream rockisms aside. Despite some rough patches and poor production choices, the album’s more diverse songs are truly inspired, and I would love to see songs like “Wreckage,” “Upper Hand” and “Setting Sun” become fan favorites in years to come. But the issue is that Pearl Jam is a great band and they make great albums. “Vs.” is a great album. “No Code” is a great album. “Yield” is a great album. “Backspacer” is a great album. “Dark Matter” is not. I know Pearl Jam can make better albums. And that’s what hurts the most about this one.

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About the Contributors
Thor Nelson, Staff Writer
Thor Nelson is a writer for the Stargazer. He is a Junior at North and has been on the staff since 2021. Thor engages in student journalism because informing the student and teacher body of current developments in their school helps produce a healthy environment of learning.
Diana Martins
Diana Martins, Staff Writer/Media Team
Diana is a staff writer and member of the media team for the Stargazer. She is a Freshman and this is her first year on staff. Diana engages in student journalism because it helps them to practice writing and learn new skills.

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