Does the world need a new Pearl Jam album?

It’s a pointed question, but a necessary and relevant one nonetheless. Though they likely would never admit such a thing publicly, I suspect the band members have pondered it among themselves more thoughtfully than any fan or music critic. In the past 20-odd years, as their recorded output slowed to an irregular trickle, new music has taken a backseat to performing live. The shift made sense: Pearl Jam remains an elite arena-rock attraction known for marathon shows that balance loose playfulness with well-honed instrumental firepower. But in the studio, they can come across as stiff and uncomfortable. All of the joy they exhibit on stage instantly evaporates. Take their 2020 effort, Gigaton, which was assembled over several years from a mountain of material that each PJer worked on individually. On paper, it scans as a laborious effort. As music, it was scarcely more fun.

You know who I bet has never questioned whether the world needs a new Pearl Jam record? Andrew Watt, the 33-year-old super-producer who has earned a reputation as a record doctor for aging rock bands. He’s the AARP Antonoff, the Doogie Howser of Rick Rubin’s, the guy who puts the “child” back in Desmond Child. Last year, Watt helped The Rolling Stones deliver their first studio effort in 18 years, and it was way better than anyone other than Mick Jagger could have expected. The year before that, he worked with Ozzy Osbourne and the relatively fresh-faced 50something-year-old Eddie Vedder on their respective solo records. The latter partnership — Watt subsequently joined Vedder’s solo band — ushered the producer into the Pearl Jam fold, and the result is Dark Matter, the band’s 12th LP due Friday.

In the past, I’ve expressed mixed feelings about Watt. His fan-boyish methodology — such as wearing a different band T-shirt corresponding with the group he’s currently working with each day in the studio — verges on corny. (“We ignored that,” Vedder later said of Watt’s sartorial-oriented cheerleading.) And the plastic-y, slicked-up sound of his records is more Max Martin than Brendan O’Brien. But I don’t doubt his sincerity, or the vitality of the music he’s able to glean from his patrons. He’s a rock-star whisperer with a knack for inspiring his heroes to rekindle the lost magic of their distant primes, as well as a proxy for all of the frustrated fans who haven’t given up on the hope of one more (last?) great record.

How does this translate for Pearl Jam? Let’s talk about “Waiting For Stevie,” a highlight of Dark Matter and my favorite Pearl Jam song since Barack Obama’s first administration. The title refers to Stevie Wonder, one of the many guest stars corralled by Watt for Vedder’s 2022 solo LP, Earthling. While they were literally waiting for the iconic legend to show up to the studio, Vedder and Watt cooked up a number than can only be described as an amalgam of all the stirring moments you remember from every great early-’90s Pearl Jam anthem. If the song didn’t work, I would dismiss it as cynical, quasi-A.I. nostalgia. But “Waiting For Stevie” absolutely does work as a screamingly effective revival of this band’s strengths. The guitar part is chunky and catchy, like the lick from “Black” played 25 percent faster. Vedder’s vocal soars like like a surfer navigating the waves off the coast of San Diego. As the song hits the climax, Mike McCready steps forward and rips an extended outro guitar solo like he’s reinventing “Alive” in real time. It’s more rousing and (yes) joyous than this band has sounded on wax in years.

“Waiting For Stevie” is such a likable, immediate song that it should come as no surprise that Pearl Jam did not put it out as Dark Matter‘s first single. The band opted instead for the title track, a lumbering and riff-heavy grinder that conforms with the advanced promises about the record being “a lot heavier than you’d expect.” (A misguided impulse to prove their “heaviness” has hampered Pearl Jam from their earliest days. Remember that “Spin The Black Circle,” and not “Corduroy” or “Better Man,” introduced the public to Vitalogy.)

A truism of late-period PJ records is that the songs that attempt to rock the hardest are usually the least compelling, and that’s true of “Dark Matter” and the album’s other consciously “heavy” tracks. (I refer to the second single, “Running,” as well as the nondescript album openers “Scared Of Fear” and “React, Respond.”) The difference with Dark Matter is that even the weakest material still sounds pretty great. And that’s due entirely to Pearl Jam working with relative quickness and leaning on their chemistry as a live band. (It was recorded in just three weeks at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio, where Martin Scorsese filmed interviews with The Band for The Last Waltz, a bit of trivia that naturally appealed to Vedder’s “classic-rock nerd” sensibilities.) The secret sauce of Pearl Jam’s classic albums in the ’90s was the presentation of their raw live sound with only a bare minimum of studio refinement. While Dark Matter never affects the raggedness of Vitalogy and No Code, it does approximate the flinty energy of those records in ways that their 21st-century output typically does not.

Above all, it sounds like Pearl Jam actually enjoyed themselves this time. Which might be why the best tunes often sound like homages to their favorite artists (as well as their former selves). “Wreckage” is another song worked up by Vedder and Watt that falls in line with the Tom Petty heartland-rock tributes that dot Earthling. “Won’t Tell” is a mid-tempo number from Jeff Ament that cross-pollinates the uplifting pop-rock of Yield with the stadium-sized sweep of aughts-era U2. “Got To Give” similarly reworks “In Hiding” as a Who’s Next-style browbeater, while “Upper Hand” evokes the slow-boil surge of “Present Tense.” All of these tunes will be welcome debuts on any future Pearl Jam setlist.

Dark Matter isn’t a complete return to form. The reliance on outside writers is kind of alarming — along with Watt’s significant contributions, touring member Josh Klinghoffer also played a major hand in composing the charmingly bouncy parenthood ode “Something Special.” It’s not checked-out or craven like a late-period Aerosmith album, of course, but the extra help does underline how challenging it’s been for Pearl Jam to make Pearl Jam records in the past 15 years. But for now, I’m choosing to focus on the very real pleasures that Dark Matter provides. After all these years, it’s still a delight to hear these five guys gather in a room and lock into the kind of invigorating rock song that elevates your heart an extra inch or two.

Dark Matter ends with exactly that kind of song. “Setting Sun” opens like a textbook downbeat Pearl Jam album closer, in the vein of “Indifference” or “All Those Yesterdays.” But over the course of nearly six minutes, it pivots toward a different sort of Pearl Jam number, the kind that simultaneously puts a lump in your throat and a pump in your fist. As the rhythm section of Ament and Matt Cameron slams against McCready and Stone Gossard’s majestically weaving guitars, Eddie once again lifts his voice and dares you to lift yours. “Let us not fade,” he bellows, and it feels like a prayer and a promise. If Pearl Jam can keep up their end of that bargain on Dark Matter, what’s our excuse?