Pearl Jam’s New Studio LP Dark Matter Is a FIne Collection of Undeniably Great Songs, But Does the Vinyl Edition Meet Our Audiophile Standards?

The prospect of experiencing — and reviewing — a new Pearl Jam album is both exciting and daunting. The group came onto the scene as the height of the so-called grunge movement at the outset of the 1990s. issuing a quartet of now-classic hard-rock albums. And, as is the case for so many artists of the rock era, living up to that kind of early-established legacy — and trying to top those early releases — is easier said than done.

Just consider the initial albums of artists like Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Marshall Crenshaw, and so many others who have at times struggled trying to reclaim — or prosper beyond — earlier career glories. Creating follow-ups that are artistically satisfying as well as financially successful while still appealing to their core fanbases is a noble and difficult balance to strike. It’s a high mountain to scale!

And that brings us back around to Pearl Jam and their new studio LP, Dark Matter, which was released on April 19, 2024. While we don’t know all the pertinent DNA that went into the making of Dark Matter, we do know that it was crafted at several different locations, including Shangri-La Studios in Malibu, California, GT Studios in Seattle; Henson Studios in Los Angeles, and Jump Site Studios in Seattle. It is also fair to presume that Dark Matter was likely recorded at least in part in the digital domain.


Production was helmed by Andrew Watt, who has delivered hit recordings for the likes of The Rolling Stones, Miley Cyrus, Ed Sheeran, Iggy Pop, Justin Bieber, and many others. Dark Matter was mixed by Serban Ghena, a 20-time Grammy winner for artists including Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars. Mastering is not specified directly in the album credits, but, out on the interwebs, we’ve found Matt Colton as being credited with the job (until we can confirm otherwise, at least).

Dark Matter was issued on Pearl Jam’s own Monkeywrench label via Republic, the latter of which is under the broader UMe label umbrella. Accordingly, the vinyl edition of Dark Matter is a well-pressed on dark black standard-weight vinyl that is also well-centered and quiet. Manufactured in the Czech Republic (according to stickers on some copies of the album), Dark Matter was likely made at GZ.

The cover art is made to a very high-quality standard — thick, sturdy cardboard, and fine print quality — and the LP packaging includes a lyric booklet as well as a sheet of stickers in the left pocket of the gatefold, with the LP itself in a black, plastic-lined sleeve in the right. I paid about $45 for my copy of Dark Matter at Amoeba Music here in San Francisco, which I feel is a wee bit steep for a single LP. That said, Dark Matter can be found for $39.99 here, as well as via the same Music Direct link that’s near the end of this review, just ahead of the tracklisting section. (A yellow-and-black version of Dark Matter was also released as an RSD 2024 Exclusive edition [15,000 copies], which you can search for here, if so inclined.)


Taken on its own as a musical statement, I really do like Dark Matter. It’s the first Pearl Jam album I’ve connected with since May 2006’s eponymously titled LP on J Records. (That’s sporting an avocado on the cover amidst a mostly blue background.) After September 2009’s Backspacer LP, on Monkeywrench/UMG — which I also enjoyed, and have been revisiting of late — I kind of lost track of the last few new Pearl Jam studio releases, I must admit.

Listening to Dark Matter at once feels like hearing from an old friend, yet it sounds of-this-century-modern — though, thankfully, without resorting to ever-gimmicky effects like (ugh) Auto-Tune. Akin to AC/DC and several other artists in the rock & roll universe, Pearl Jam has created quite a catalog of music, if at times interchangeable. And if Dark Matter strives to reclaim earlier glories by hailing back to the energies of their early classics, in many ways, it achieves that goal — with some caveats.


Dark Matter certainly has its share of buzzsaw, overdriven, slashing/thrashing metal-leaning mini-epics. But there are also a number of interesting twists and turns along the way that help keep things fresh-sounding and interesting. As with the best Pearl Jam albums, the songs earworm their way into your subconscious with catchy hooks and infectious melodies.

In that sense, Dark Matter is a quick grower in terms of likability. Some of my favorites so far are the pop leaning songs such as “Wreckage” (Side A, Track 3) and “Won’t Tell” (Side A, Track 5). “Upper Hand” (Side B, Track 1) kicks off like a lost U2 moment from their The Unforgettable Fire era (circa 1984-85), only to break into chugging bluesy churn ’n’ burn musical terrain somewhere between Neil Young & Crazy Horse and later-period Led Zeppelin.

“Running” (Side B, Track 3), in contrast, is about as speed-metal punky as the band gets, and this sounds no worse than a vintage Dead Kennedys or Ramones blitzkrieg with its blistering power chords and propulsive drive. And though “Waiting for Stevie” (Side B, Track 2) is a good song, unfortunately, it sounds pretty compressed and harsh — to the point where it was a sonic breaking point that made it hard for me to enjoy it as much as I would like.


This seems like a good time to discuss the 60,000lb pink elephant in the room — sound quality. Like the recent album he produced for The Rolling Stones on Geffen/Polydor, October 2023’s Hackney Diamonds (which I reviewed here), Andrew Watt did a relatively fine job achieving a cohesive band sound, the feel of a group of musicians connecting and rocking out together. But he also delivered a sonic aesthetic not all that different from that of Hackney Diamonds, an album that sounds fairly one-dimensional from the audiophile perspective. Of course, that leaves a bit of a void for those of us who seek superior sound with a wide dynamic range and a broad soundstage.

The problems start to multiply as you turn up the volume to play Dark Matter loudly — something one tends to want to do with a hard-rocking record like this one! Don’t get me wrong — Dark Matter does indeed sound good, but it comes across as oddly one-dimensional much of the time. Even though it is, of course, a stereo LP, Dark Matter might as well be in mono, given the relatively indistinct spread of the electric guitars and strategic, consistent placement of drums, bass, and lead vocals dead-center.


I didn’t experience a lot of noticeable aural pain listening to Dark Matter at standard volumes — an unfortunate side effect that does happen on some very poorly made modern digital releases such as Queens of the Stone Age’s August 2017 LP on Matador, , an album I found basically unlistenable. But when I tried to crank up Dark Matter even louder, the music just became a flat wall of harsh blurriness. This is really a shame, given how good the musical content of the album itself is.

For perspective, I went back to some of my early Pearl Jam vinyl, via their original pressings from the 1990s. When turning up the volume on a track like “Glorified G” (Side 1, Track 4) on October 1993’s Vs on Epic, for example, I heard a sense of sonic depth of field, the sound of live drums played in a big studio, the roar of electric guitar amplifier tones, and a relatively cinematic, wide-band sense of separation. The high end was crisp and clean, but it never fatigued the ears. Likewise, the acoustic guitar on the plaintive “Daughter” (Side 1, Track 3) is quite rich sounding against the considerable burn of the distorted electric guitars. And then there is that sense of air around Eddie Vedder’s vocals. In short, these Vs tracks breathe.


Fast-forward back to Dark Matter. When I play “Scared of Fear” (Side A, Track 3), I hear a great song that is constrained, constricted, and condensed into a tight box of indistinction. All the depth and detailing I imagine was there on the original master mixdown now feels clipped and curtailed. I have to assume the album was recorded properly, but this overarching sense of compression — dare I say, brickwalling — is happening in the mastering stage. The original recordings probably sound amazing.

If the powers that be do have to take this somewhat extreme approach to ensure that a new album does well on modern streaming media, then so be it. But it would be great if they could also have the sensitivity to create a separate master for vinyl, the acknowledged physical medium for better sound (and actual sales).


Of course, I understand the need for a band like Pearl Jam to adjust their sound for the times. I get it that younger listeners may actually like this hard, sawtooth-edged, uncomfortably crunchy production aesthetic. Some might even say this 21st century Pearl Jam release is not made for older fans like those of us who grew up with the band, but I don’t really buy into that mindset.

At any rate, all of this exposition is shared to show why we must give the Sound of the Dark Matter LP a 5.5 rating, even though the Music is a solid 8. Pearl Jam’s Dark Matter is simply a great album that just doesn’t sound especially great from the audiophile perspective. If you’re a Pearl Jam fan, collector, and/or completist, then, by all means, order up your copy today and enjoy the music for what it is. That said, I hope that someday, the band will follow the direction of Rhino’s High Fidelity LP series and remaster their 21st century releases with a bit more finesse and honor on vinyl to better represent the musicality within.

Mark Smotroff is an avid vinyl collector who has also worked in marketing communications for decades. He has reviewed music for, among others, and you can see more of his impressive C.V. at LinkedIn.

Music Direct Buy It Now



1LP (Monkeywrench/Republic)

Side A
1. Scared Of Fear
2. React, Respond
3. Wreckage
4. Dark Matter
5. Won’t Tell

Side B
1. Upper Hand
2. Waiting For Stevie
3. Running
4. Something Special
5. Got To Give
6. Setting Sun


Pearl Jam, Mach 2024. Photo by Danny Clinch.

PeterPani's picture

Yesterday, I listened to Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter. After 7 tracks I stopped with severe listening burn-out. The volume of every voice, every instrument, any noise is on the same level all the time. It does not matter, whether Beyoncé is whispering or crying: it is on the same volume level. Additionaly, the final mix might be 22 kb/s on 8 bits. It‘s hissssss until somebody crashes the off button.
I really doubt that music in this sound quality can ever become a classic.
Would we still listen to e.g. The Beatles with such a bad sound quality?

Tom L's picture

But...if I was to name artists who "struggled trying to reclaim — or prosper beyond — earlier career glories" I don't think Bruce Springsteen would come to mind. Greetings from Asbury Park is excellent but just the 12th best-selling Springsteen album and he certainly grew exponentially as an artist after that. Costello is a slightly better example. His My Aim Is True does top his sales numbers because of the popularity of "New Wave" bands at that time but he also became a much more accomplished singer and songwriter as time went on.

Tom M's picture

I'll say nothing about the quality of the music - it's OK. Well played, but forgettable just like everything else they've done since Yield. On the sound side, this is one of their worst-produced albums, period. Producer Andrew Watt squashes all sense of nuance and space out of the recording. The drums in particular sound awful. Overcompressed to the point of absurdity and distorted. And underproduced - the snare sounds like it's triggered with the most generic, stock sample imaginable. Compared with the gorgeous texture and sense of location that Brenden O'Brien used to give their albums. This one's a hard pass - actually painful to listen to.