You’ve heard the rumors, and the rumors are true: Pearl Jam have finally released a “pop” album.
Yet the phrase “pop” doesn’t mean what you think it does in the world of Pearl Jam. For certain purists, “pop” is just another way of saying that Pearl Jam have “sold out”, a theory that’s only furthered by the fact that Backspacer — the group’s ninth studio album — is getting the premiere of its physical release through big box corporate retailer Target, a sure sign that the group is now chasing the Almighty Dollar instead of their values, lurching forward as if their infamous battle with Ticketmaster never even happened. As if that isn’t enough, there are some that gladly point to lead single “The Fixer” as undeniable evidence that the grunge-pioneers have shed their white-knuckle trademark rock sound for something infinitely more accessible and upbeat, as if Eddie Vedder & co. are now desperate for a gigantic radio hit …
… to which the following response is generated: so what?
When Pearl Jam released their iconic debut album Ten back in 1991, few would have guessed that the group would become unintentional godfathers of the ’90s grunge explosion, entering the gigantic world of mainstream rock radio before Kurt Cobain even had a chance to let the door shut behind him (which is incredibly ironic given that Ten came out a whole month before Nevermind did). Though Pearl Jam soldiered on — racking up #1 albums and radio hits in equal measure — things began winding down as the millennium came to a close, and their 2000 release Binaural was arguably the moment when the group hit rock-bottom, having finally released a disc that tried to sound like what the group thought people wanted to hear in a Pearl Jam album, instead of making the record that they actually wanted to make. That’s a theory that gains traction when you look at the rejected songs from the Binaural sessions that wound up on the 2003 rarities comp Lost Dogs — tracks like “Sad” and “Hitchhiker” that proved to be some of the poppiest songs that the group had penned in years.
Yet it seems that Pearl Jam was very conscious of the fan reaction to Binaural, and it is from this point onward that the group began getting a bit looser with their legacy, starting with the release of 72 “official” live bootlegs from their corresponding European and U.S. tours from that same year. In 2002, the group released Riot Act, a solid if not truly spectacular album, failing to reach the heights of Ten or Vs., but still showing the group taking steps in the right direction, opening up their sound a bit more instead of letting themselves get weighed down by their own legacy. This was soon followed by a contribution to the Big Fish soundtrack, a two-disc career retrospective called rearviewmirror, the aforementioned Lost Dogs rarities set, and two more rounds of live bootlegs. It’s as if Pearl Jam had finally embraced who they were, and were doing nothing but celebrating that discovery.
As such, their 2006 record — simply titled Pearl Jam — was nothing short of a revelation. For the first time in their career, guitarist Mike McCready was the principal sonic architect, and McCready made his intentions clear: he wanted to reconnect with the band’s early sound, penning powerful rockers that were more melodic than angst-ridden, more soulful than distortion-fueled. It was, in short, the album that patient Pearl Jam fans had been waiting for, and boy did it deliver. Shortly thereafter, Eddie Vedder released his first-ever solo album in the form of the Into the Wild soundtrack, and the group’s crowning achievement (Ten) was given the deluxe reissue treatment, not only reminding everyone just how influential that record was, but also showing that group had now officially moved beyond it — as great as Ten was, Pearl Jam were not going to let that disc define them any longer.
Which leads us to the novel thing about Backspacer: there isn’t a single disc in the group’s entire back catalog that it can even be compared to. Though individual songs can be referenced in order to give one an idea of what Backspacer sounds like (“Last Exit” from Vitalogy and “Wishlist” from Yeild being chief among them), Backspacer is its own unique entity: a scrappy little rock record that barely lasts 37 minutes, making it the shortest and most up-beat album in Pearl Jam’s cluttered discography. Yet, more critically than that, Backspacer is the sound of Pearl Jam actually having fun again, and it’s hard not to picture Vedder sporting a huge goofy grin on more than a few of these tracks, here rocking out with more passion than he did during his three-song stint as the Doors’ guest vocalist during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1993.
Backspacer starts off with the lurching strut of “Gonna See My Friend”, a ferocious little number that sounds like it was made by a much younger band, one that worshiped at the altar of ’70s album rock instead of participating in the ’90s Seattle grunge scene. Though the band’s love of their heroes has been apparent in just about everything they’ve done — ranging from their massively successful take on Wayne Cochran’s “Last Kiss” to their cover of the Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me” from the soundtrack to the 2007 Adam Sandler movie Reign Over Me — never before has Pearl Jam made such a direct, deliberate homage to their influences. Hell, “Supersonic” even manages to do the sounds-ridiculous-on-paper feat of marrying the non-stop guitar strum of a Ramones song with a Tom Petty chorus and solo-filled bridge that would make Jimmy Page (and the makers of Guitar Hero) proud. It even concludes with a “yeah yeah yeah” chant …
… and that’s not the only time they use it either. “Yeah” makes up for a majority of the lyrics to the chorus of “The Fixer”, an unbelievably catchy rock single that even uses handclaps during its verses. No, this is not the same Pearl Jam that made No Code — far from it, in fact. As visceral as Pearl Jam was, it in no way could have prepared anyone for the radio-friendly pockets of joy that make up Backspacer, an album that moves from one Bic-lighter stadium anthem (“Amongst the Waves”) to another (“Unthought Known”) without as much as batting an eye.
Oh sure, some songs fall back on some tired rock clichés (“Force of Nature” relies on that wah pedal just a bit too much, just as how “Johnny Guitar” feels like a pastiche of other, less-interesting early-Pearl Jam rockers), but these moments are often over before they even have time to register, instead allowing us to just sit back and enjoy the six-string spectacle all around. Lyrically, Vedder focuses less on worldly woes and instead tackles relationship issues, getting caught up in his own contradictory promises to his lover during the lush folk-pop ballad “Just Breathe”, wanting to make things better for everyone during “The Fixer”, and then suffering the pangs of sexual inadequacy during “Johnny Guitar” (as in: “Oh and I had my disappointment / ‘cos for years I had been hopin’ / That when she came / She’d be comin’ just for me”). In short, Vedder has become vulnerable again, and for a record that’s so musically outgoing and forceful, the dichotomy between these two sides works extremely well.
Which leads us to why Backspacer is such a contradictory little album. Make no bones about it: this will not go down as Pearl Jam’s best album by any measure, but that’s because it’s not supposed to be. This is Pearl Jam’s “fun” record, a disc that was likely just as exciting as record as it is to listen to. Tracing things from Riot Act onward, it’s become apparent that Vedder & co. have truly rediscovered their passion for what they do, and even when Backspacer missteps, it never feels like it’s going to fall: it will just restudy itself and then crank the guitars back up to 11 all over again.
During the album’s closing song (the aptly-titled acoustic number “The End”), Vedder warns us that “The end comes near”, and just as the string sections swell during his declaration “I’m here”, all the music suddenly drops out, and Vedder — by himself — ominously warns us “But not much longer”. Then the album, rather abruptly, ends. Fans can read into this as much as they want, but if Vedder is actually telling us that Pearl Jam’s days are truly numbered, then we truly have a tragedy on our hands here: we’re about to lose a band that — after years of being lost in the alt-rock wilderness — have finally re-discovered who they are, and sound stronger than ever because of it.