Review: Pearl Jam moves forward with ‘Backspacer’

09.20.09 8 years ago

AP Photo/Mark Humprey

God bless Pearl Jam.  In “Backspacer” the quintet has made a solid rock and roll album that sacrifices none of its guts and glory to include plenty of heart and soul.

Hear it here.

Opening canon blast, “Gonna See My Friend,” is a Stooges-meets-the-Who slab of rock whose rawness is propelled by Matt Cameron’s relentless drumming and Eddie Vedder’s baritone as he growls “I’m sick of everything/I’m gonna see my friend/make it go away.”  The “friend” could be drugs, could be liquor, but whatever it is, I’ll have one of whatever Eddie’s having.

There’s an urgency to many of the 11 songs here that hasn’t been present in Pearl Jam’s music recently. Some of the credit surely goes to Brendan O’Brien, who’s producing the band for the first time since 1998’s “Yield.”  (He also produced “Vs.” and “Vitology.”) Additionally, he plays keyboards and arranged the strings on the beautiful album closer “The End.”

“Backspacer” is the band’s shortest of its nine studio albums and its first where the songs were written before the quintet entered the studio. Both moves serve the music well.  The set’s brevity–36 minutes–keeps the songs lean and mean, with all fat trimmed off. Finishing them before the band entered the studio gives them a sense of confidence.

Eighteen years since the release of the group’s debut “Ten,” Pearl Jam still has a vitality and verve with no sign of complacency. In fact, if anything, on “Backspace,” the band’s first album released on their own label, Monkeywrench, they sound like they’ve been given a new lease on life as they tear through such songs as “Supersonic,” a fast-paced, exuberant rock and roll blast that ricochets around the room, and first single, “The Fixer,” one of the group’s few truly upbeat tunes.

“Johnny Guitar” is a strange brew of funk and rock that frequently switches tempos and recalls Elvis Costello-not the most obvious of Pearl Jam influences. “Unthought Known” rocks, but at the same time features some of the most lushly romantic thoughts ever expressed by Vedder:  “Fill the air up with love or black with starlight/ see the path cut by the moon/for you to walk on/see the waves on distant shores/awaiting your arrival.” Water is also referenced by Vedder, an ardent surfer, on the relatively poppy “Amongst the Waves.”

Gentle ballads “Just Breathe” and “The End” have Vedder contemplating both grace and his own mortality. “Under every thing/just another human being/I don’t want to hurt/There’s so much in this world to make me bleed,” he sings on “Just Breathe,” oozing vulnerability. Musically, the sparse, acoustic tune would have sounded right at home on the “Into the Wild” soundtrack, but lyrically it is about loving someone as opposed to “Into the Wild’s” theme of pulling away.

On “The End,” Vedder, his voice caressed by strings, achingly sings of dying and how he wishes to grow old. He yells from the bottom of a well, but no one “hears before I disappear.” The song’s sudden cessation will leave you catching your breath.  As will much of “Backspacer.”

“Backspacer” comes out Sunday, Sept. 20 and is available at Target, independent record stores, iTunes and the band’s website.

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