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Pearl Jam “Backspacer” Review

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Pearl Jam Backspacer Review

At that particular time in my life I had heard of Pearl Jam. I was familiar with whatever radio-friendly singles they had in rotation on the local classic rock radio station, and was a casual fan. But my first real introduction to the band came during the 1996 Grammy Awards. At the time I was a big fan of Primus — probably more of the music video for “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” than the band itself, actually — and had my hopes set on seeing the band win the award for “Best Hard Rock Performance” that evening. In the end however, Pearl Jam ended up winning with “Spin the Black Circle” (which was originally released in 1994; c’mon!). The short clip of the winning song which the house played as the band made its way to the stage immediately captured me though, and I ended up buying Vitalogy shortly thereafter.

The point is that everyone has different moments in time when someone or something makes a dramatic entrance into their lives. For some, their Pearl Jam moment came during grunge’s heyday, for others it came in the form of a blistering guitar riff at the ’96 Grammys, but for some other people out there, believe it or not, it likely came when the band unveiled “Got Some” during Conan O’Brien’s debut as the host of The Tonight Show. For those bold enough to call themselves die-hard fans, it’s likely extremely difficult to imagine the idea that there are people who haven’t actually sunk their teeth into a Pearl Jam album. But with 9.2 million people watching that night, chances are high that there was at least one person watching who would fit into that category. And chances are also good that there is one such person who had their Pearl Jam moment that night.

Following the release of a deluxe reissue of the band’s classic debut, Ten, this past spring, information began to trickle down regarding the band’s previously announced ninth studio album. And by the time the band was confirmed as the first musical act on The Tonight Show under its new reign, the internet was already abuzz as someone had leaked a rough recording of “The Fixer” following the Cameron Crowe-directed Target Commercial shoot. From there, fans were treated to the televised live performance, and additional bits and pieces began to fall into place.

The album — while still being an easily recognizable Pearl Jam record — parallels bits and pieces of the band’s previous releases this past decade, but is an animal all unto itself. The first step in shifting the band’s direction was returning to producer Brendan O’Brien for the first time since 1998′s Yield (O’Brien also produced No Code, Vitalogy, and Vs.). The explanation behind the change had less to do with returning to a time period and more to do with the band necessity to be comfortable with someone who they could trust to do the job of trimming its songs down. And after initially reconvening at their first session for the album together in 2008, that’s exactly what he did. Previously the shortest Pearl Jam album had been the record-setting Vs., which runs about 46 minutes. Backspacer is 10 minutes shorter.

This trimming to the core attitude is immediately reflected in the band’s first three — maybe even four — songs on the record. Following the trend set by Pearl Jam, the band ignites Backspacer with the straightforward “Gonna See My Friend,” the previously mentioned “Got Some” and “The Fixer,” and the gritty “Johnny Guitar.” Though not as raw as the opening set of tracks on the band’s 2006 release, these songs nonetheless represent the core of the album’s energy.

“Got Some” and “The Fixer” are the two among the first few tracks that really stick out, though they do so for completely different reasons. “Got Some” is a blazing track that is primarily attractive due to just that: its explosiveness. “Every time you can try/But can’t turn on/A rock song/I got some if you need it,” is a bit of a play on a drug dealer pushing rock (not plural), but ultimately the lyrics are dissolved by the pure enjoyment of the music flowing through the sound of Eddie Vedder’s voice. That last point could be made about “The Fixer” as well, had the song not been slightly slower and oddly funky. Throughout the song Vedder’s voice is highlighted, and despite the lyrics being fairly basic, with each new verse the attraction to them becomes greater and greater, “When something’s broke I wanna put a bit of fixin’ on it/If something’s bored I wanna put a little excited on it/If something’s low I wanna put a little high on it/If something’s lost I wanna fight to get it back again.”

“Amongst the Waves” and “Unknown Thought” both offer a ripple effect, allowing different aspects of the band to alternately take the spotlight throughout each song. Combining an increasingly booming musical presence with uplifting lyrics “Amongst the Waves” eventually blasts through an invisible roadblock and soars, “Riding high amongst the waves, I can feel like I have a soul that has been saved.” Similarly “Unknown Thought” builds slowly, the first two and a half minutes leaning heavily on Vedder’s lyrical focus towards embracing our universal surroundings while the band slowly chimes in behind him. As the song moves forward it again reverts to Vedder’s lyrics, “See the path cut by the moon/For you to walk on/See the waves on distant shores/Waiting your arrival,” before hitting another moment of cohesion before ending the song.

It’s songs like these last two that lend themselves as evidence of the band’s decision to “rehearse” at bassist Jeff Amment’s home in Montana; something Pearl Jam hasn’t done since Ten. As Vedder explained in a promotional Backspacer short, the concept of playing and writing together before hitting the studio was “all based on the idea… ‘let’s write the songs before we record them.’ ” But just as the album seems to level off, we’re given “Supersonic.”

“Supersonic” opens with a riff that essentially adds a slide to that from “Mankind” before continuing the trend that was set by the album’s first string of tracks. Unlike anything on the record to this point, the song breaks down half way through into a fun trade-off between Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, the guitarists blending a heavy jam under a solo, before kicking back into the chorus of the track.

Ten years ago, had you asked what I thought Pearl Jam would have sounded like as its members grew into their early to mid-40s? My response would have probably been something close to what “Speed of Sound” and “Force of Nature” sound like. The songs are on par with much of the band’s output this past decade, but don’t necessarily reflect the same cohesion that is represented through the majority of the record. From there, the album ends with Backspacer‘s second best delicate, brooding love song.

It’s funny that the album’s opener, “Gonna See My Friend,” was described by Vedder as something of a drug song, while the aptly titled “The End” tells a heartbreaking tale that is easily translated as something of a “drug song” itself. The track rests primarily on Vedder and an acoustic guitar, building up as a tale of lovers coming together, before their relationship collapses, “Help me see myself, ’cause I can no longer tell/Looking up from inside of the bottom of a well, it’s Hell, I yell/But no one hears before, I disappear, whisper in my ear/Give me something to echo in my unknown future/You see, my dear, the end, comes near, I’m here, but not much longer.” While its pace and tone isn’t entirely different, the gentle sadness of “The End” is ultimately trumped by the album’s best track: the equally sentimental “Just Breathe.”

In first listening to Vedder and Corin Tucker’s rendition of Indio’s “Hard Sun,” released in 2007 on the soundtrack to Into the Wild, I felt as though I had found something that had touched me far deeper than much of anything had in quite some time. The lyrics are one thing — beautiful and deeply moving — but it was the execution of the song that resonated within me. And if “Just Breathe” had been developed along those same lines — Vedder performing a rendition of someone else’s song — I’d say the exact same thing; however, this isn’t someone else’s song.

“Oh, I’m a lucky man to count on both hands the ones I love.” Connecting various aspects of life that are easily overlooked, Vedder continues the song by defining aspects of common ground that we all—at some point in time—share, “Under everything, just another human being/Yeah I don’t wanna hurt, there’s so much in this world to make me breathe.” After assessing the value of finding the humanity within us, strings accompany Vedder as he casts out a line that is repeated throughout the remainder of the song, “Everything that you gave, and nothing you would take.” Vedder himself has called “Just Breathe” the closest thing to an actual Pearl Jam love song, and after boldly addressing that for which he yearns the band safely chimes in, and the song ends as he quietly confronts their mutual morality. Each step in the song enables a touching moment that creates a bond between the songwriter and the listener, and as Vedder carefully allows his love to know that her selflessness is what he finds most beautiful in her, “Just Breathe” — which is lodged in the middle of the album — reaches its “Hard Sun”-moment.

Neither Pearl Jam nor “Spin The Black Circle” are for everybody. Had I not been so fixated on the television set that evening, I might not have developed the intrigue to explore a band that has since become one of my favorites. Chances are good that the majority of the viewers watching that episode of The Tonight Show didn’t make it through the entire episode, didn’t find Pearl Jam to be of their taste, or ended up completely forgetting all about it a few days later. But for some, that had to be their moment; their moment in time when Pearl Jam’s music reached out to them and secured their attention. And to those people I say Backspacer won’t be a bad place to start. It essentially covers the music that the band has made as it has transitioned through the past two decades, while not allowing you to forget that this is Pearl Jam in 2009. While at times there are songs that pull away from the body of the record, Backspacer demonstrates that the band still has fire, it still has cohesion, and above all it demonstrates that Eddie Vedder is still lyrically able to crush giants. What Vitalogy was to me, I hope Backspacer is to at least a few new Pearl Jam fans.