Pearl Jam – Backspacer

January 01, 1970



Normally, when things in the world are pissing them off,
most respectable bands rally against the grain to create the fiercest, most
poignant material of their careers (examples: Jefferson Airplane circa Volunteers, R.E.M. in the Reaganomics-riddled
‘80s, Fear of a Black Planet-era
Public Enemy). So then, how does one of the most vital bands of the 1990s react
to eight long years of enduring the corporate, imperialist greed of their own
worst enemies: Bush, Cheney and the Neo-Con Death Cult? They go ahead and make
the same milquetoast album three times in
a row


Certainly, nobody can argue over the sentiments Pearl Jam
displayed on 2000’s Binaural, 2002’s Riot Act and 2006’s self-titled effort. This
trilogy of titles did, in fact, harbor some dashing moments of adventurous
brilliance, particularly the arty, understated Riot Act. In fact, if you put the best songs of each of these
albums together you have yourself one helluva masterpiece. Unfortunately, the overload
of sameness spread equally across these records seemed to have fallen on
indifferent ears by just about everyone beyond the most hardcore acolytes of
the Ten Club. Indeed, if there was anything to be said about Pearl Jam’s
aughties period, it is the presumption that the creative consciousness of Eddie
and the boys fires on all cylinders when things are going their way in Washington. Just look at
their winning streak while Bubba was leader of the free world for proof.


And now, with George Bush back on his ranch, Barack Obama in
the Oval Office and Brendan O’Brien once again behind the boards, the band
delivers Backspacer, a taut, tight 37
minutes of the best music Pearl Jam has crafted since Yield. With all due respect to Tchad Blake, who produced Binaural, and Adam Kasper, who helmed Riot Act and Pearl Jam, but O’Brien is Pearl Jam’s George Martin.  He knows the ins and outs of how this band’s
sound better than anyone else. Just refer back to the reissue of Ten that Legacy Recordings released
earlier this year and hear how much better PJ’s debut sounds on that second
disc of the deluxe edition under the auspices of his expertise. And by taking a
brief reprieve from his duties as Bruce Springsteen’s go-to studio wizard to
return to production chair for his old pals for Backspacer, he helps redirect Pearl Jam’s focus on creating the
kind of major chord monoliths that had been nefariously pilfered from their
canon by such fifth-rate hacks as Creed and Nickelback during the years the
group meandered down the rabbit hole of complacency.


Right from the start, they kick off with their most
ferocious right-left-right combination since their “Last Exit”/”Spin the Black
Circle”/”Not For You” trifecta off their cerebral 1994 classic Vitalogy:  Album opener “Gonna See My Friend” finds
Pearl Jam screaming back into punk rock mode with 2:49 of pure vitriol in the
spirit of singer Eddie Vedder’s late compatriot Johnny Ramone. It is quickly
followed by “Got Some”, a Jeff Ament-penned rocker that has all the earmarks of
quintessential PJ, one that finds Vedder literally surfing the song’s
fast-paced groove as effortlessly as he did on “Rearviewmirror” and “Do The
Evolution”. “The Fixer”, Backspacer‘s first single, is odd-time power pop
revolving around lyrics that could easily be construed in reference to a
fractured relationship as much as our nation’s lofty expectations of our new
president.  Elsewhere, shades of the
muted beauty of both the band’s mellow 1996 classic No Code and Vedder’s folky, reflective collection of songs for the
soundtrack to Sean Penn’s 2008 film adaptation of author John Krakauer’s 1996
nonfiction bestseller Into The Wild can be heard throughout Backspacer as
well. Both “Just Breathe” and the album’s lovely closer “The End” are two of
the prettiest songs Pearl Jam have ever recorded, while the mid-tempo “Speed of
Sound” harbors a mid-period Elvis Costello feel.  


Like Steel Wheels was for the Rolling Stones or Cloud Nine for George Harrison, Backspacer is Pearl Jam’s mid-life masterstroke, an album
that reclaims the Seattle
greats’ well-deserved spot on the top of the rock ‘n’ roll mountain. Let’s just
hope they hang out up there for a while and take in the scenery. After all, we
still have at least another three-odd years left of Obama in office.


“Got Some”, “The Fixer”, “Speed of Sound”, “The End” RON


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