The last time Pearl Jam released an album with 2020's Gigaton, the world was just entering lockdown mode because of COVID-19. The tough and confrontational record almost seemed to have an idea that something was up, something more than the political divisions and general uncertainties that plagued humankind since the last time they put out a record in 2013. It's like they knew an apocalypse was looming.

With cutting lyrics and slicing riffs, Eddie Vedder and the band delivered their most satisfying album since the '90s. Their 12th LP, Dark Matter, comes musically and thematically close to Gigaton; if there's an overriding complaint, it's a familiar one about Pearl Jam records this century: Repeat plays don't have quite the impact of the era-defining triptych of TenVs. and Vitalogy.

But producer Andrew Watt - who worked on Vedder's 2022 solo album, Earthling, and has since helmed records by Ozzy Osbourne and the Rolling Stones - takes the most direct path, crafting a Pearl Jam album for people who miss how the band used to sound in the mid-'90s. Dark Matter isn't the second coming of Ten or even 1996's No Code, but like Gigaton, it's a serviceable facsimile to the years when the group helped define '90s alt-rock.

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Pearl Jam wastes little time making their point. The opening track, "Scared of Fear," features blurring guitars and an arena-made melody straight from their golden period. "We used to laugh, we used to sing," Vedder sings with chest-pounding reflection. "We used to believe." "React, Respond" is ever more straightforward in its punk-leaning Vs. look-back, complete with a Roger Daltrey-like scream from superfan Vedder and strangled guitars fighting for the spotlight during the song's climax.

Other tracks find an engaging balance between the old and new. The midtempo "Wreckage," like other songs on Dark Matter, attempts reconciliation amid conflict: "I no longer give a fuck [about] who's wrong and who's right." The similarly paced "Won't Tell" is all opened and shut doors. Like he did with the Stones and Osbourne, Watt brings new life to Pearl Jam in their third decade. The title track's shout-back chorus was made for the radio; "Running" charges forward for 140 seconds like it has something to prove. Even though the album's second half loses some of its melodic muscle, Dark Matter, like Gigaton four years earlier, finds Pearl Jam wrestling shared doubts about the future. More often than not, they claim a tentative victory.

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Gallery Credit: Michael Gallucci

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