The SPIN Interview: Pearl Jam Dark Matter Producer Andrew Watt

Pearl Jam – Dark Matter
Monkeywrench Records/Republic Records

The ninth track on Pearl Jam’s 12th studio album, Dark Matter, is called “Something Special,” and it’s by far the most controversial—as far as Subreddits and message boards are concerned.

“And further proof / That you’re phenomenal / You better believe it that / You are something special,” Eddie Vedder earnestly pronounces during this ballad, in his serene and characteristically masculine burr. Engulfed in the Sturm und Drang of the rest of Dark Matter, this slightly ungainly quasi-lullaby could potentially come off as corny and off-script.

But the Haterade-guzzlers and false heads are dead wrong on this: “Something Special” is probably the best track on Dark Matter. If you love swarming and sprawling ‘90s hard rock jams, Pearl Jam is—naturally—for you. But if you’re raring to be aurally bearhugged—beset by a hard-won attack of sentimentality—Pearl Jam is commensurately for you.

When Pearl Jam broke out, clobbering emotional intensity was their stock in trade. That remains so. Across the decades, has that ability inclined or declined? Dealer’s choice. Enter the young and perpetually enthusiastic superproducer Andrew Watt, who worked on the Stones’ snappy comeback Hackney Diamonds, as well as similarly reenergizing albums by Iggy Pop and Ozzy Osbourne. He coaxed out their wildest facet—the Pearl Jam that would let their hair down, and sprawl out on “Alive” or “Animal”—in the most apeshit sense possible.

How so? Behold the climax of the high-flying title track, where guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament, and drummer Matt Cameron comprise a runaway train, with Vedder as the hair-on-fire conductor. The crescendo of “Running,” meanwhile, is even more hair-raising. An ocean of ink is currently being spilled about Watt’s powers of galvanization—but rest assured, the hype is warranted. 

If you’re Pearl Jam neutral or averse, this is simply a more intense and focused version of the band we’ve known for three-plus decades. But if you’re already sold, there’s something here for every strain of Pearl Jam fan—whether their high-flying arena rock (“Scared of Fear,” “Dark Matter”) or rough, strummy power ballads (“Wreckage,” “Upper Hand”) are your bag. And the moody, interstitial ambient moments recall both agreed-upon classics like Ten and dark horses like No Code.

Is Dark Matter that different from immediate predecessors Backspacer, Lightning Bolt, and Gigaton? Not really. But is it somehow Pearl Jammier, in an ineffable sense? Yep—in fact, it’s something special. – GRADE: A-

You can check out Dark Matter on Bandcamp and elsewhere.

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