Pearl Jam: Dark Matter – Eddie Vedder and co return with a tempestuous back-to-basics album

Producer Andrew Watt helps grunge stalwarts with what he did for The Rolling Stones last year: roll years back while avoiding parody

Dark Matter
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Artist: Pearl Jam
Label: Republic

Pearl Jam were the great enigmas of the early-1990s grunge scene. Eddie Vedder’s band emerged as contemporaries of Nirvana, but their music looked backwards more than forwards. Their idols were Led Zeppelin and The Who, not Pixies and Sonic Youth.

Nor did they have any time for the Gen X aversion to “selling out”. They regarded success not as a betrayal of deeply-held principles but as sensible career progression. Yet they went where none of their peers would have dared by boycotting Ticketmaster over its outrageous service charges.

They lost that battle. Yet along the way they acquired an enduring halo of righteousness. Pearl Jam have also, to their credit, demonstrated a willingness to take their fans out of their comfort zone, as they did with Gigaton, their doomy (some might say plodding) album from 2020. It’s all change again as they return with their 12th album, Dark Matter, a tempestuous back-to-basics undertaking made with the Rolling Stones producer Andrew Watt.

Watt is already part of the Pearl Jam extended family, having collaborated with Vedder on his 2022 solo release, Earthling. That project was a chummy jam-rock affair with contributions from Elton John and Chad Smith, the Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer. It had a lightness of touch absent from Pearl Jam – a switch-up the singer found so invigorating that he talked his bandmates into allowing Watt to oversee their next record together.


You can see why Watt’s work is so appealing to rock stars of a particular vintage. With last year’s Hackney Diamonds he coaxed the Stones back to their classic sound while deftly steering them away from self-pastiche. They sounded like the Stones of yore – but never to the point of parody.

He conjures similar magic on Dark Matter, a slab of rock’n’roll protein self-consciously in the tradition of the early Pearl Jam classics Ten and Vs. Although nowhere near as urgent as those LPs – this is audibly the work of wealthy men in late middle age – it nonetheless lands its blows with gusto.

Vedder and company come out swinging on the album’s opening track, Scared of Fear, where bulldozing guitars grapple for prominence against the frontman’s throaty rumble. That melodrama is cranked up further yet on React, Respond, a crunching punk number dominated by Mike McCready’s wrecking-ball guitar playing.

There are missteps, as is perhaps inevitable from a group on their 12th LP. Vedder, once the long-haired outlaw of grunge, goes full embarrassing parent on Something Special. It is a Valentine to his daughters sure to have them rolling their eyes and mouthing “Daaad” in mortification.

Still, after that one indulgence they are back on course on Closer Setting Sun, a power ballad that glimmers with an autumnal sheen. It confirms that, 30 years in, Pearl Jam are still conversant with rock’s golden rule: be loud and uncompromising – and always sing it like you mean it.

Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about television and other cultural topics