Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pearl Jam - Backspacer (September 20th, 2009)

I'll admit, when I first got this album I was pretty apprehensive. Pearl Jam's nearly flawless 2006 self titled has influenced me so much that anything less than perfect would never suffice. This sense of foreboding was not helped by early reviews declaring Backspacer was heavily influenced by Pop and New Wave. Now, one can absolutely take new wave influences and craft them into something wonderful (see the Red Hot Chili Pepper's excellent 2002 release By The Way), but this seemed like such a strange fit for the group that brought us Even Flow or Animal. Pop, on the other hand, just terrified me. I'd seen their performance of Got Some on Tonight Show on June 2nd (link), and was rather confused. This was not the rough-and-ready Pearl Jam I'd known and loved in 2006, this was something else entirely.
Needless to say, the curiosity was killing me all summer. So, when I finally got my grubby little hands on this album, I was ready to be shocked, confused and upset. The real surprise here was that I was not, at all.

Backspacer is a very different album from anything else Pearl Jam has ever released for one reason: its happy. From their very inception as a band, Eddie's lyrics have always been very deep. From the terrifying story of Jeremy (Ten) to the politically charged World Wide Suicide (self titled), no Pearl Jam album has been without some angst, until now. Instead of loud, angry anthems, Backspacer features shorter, more concentrated material with an element of fun so large it works its way into your mind until you can't put it down.
As soon as the first track (Gonna See My Friend) began to roll, all my fears of anything too pop-ish melted away. Matt Cameron absolutely outdoes himself here- the percussion is top notch, the guitars roar as loud as they always have, and Eddie's screams are as powerful as ever. This is Pearl Jam as we've always known them, just a little happier.
Got Some is a bit more of a departure. Its verse is rather sparse, and more rhythmically based on a funk-like guitar riff by McCready. Its chorus roars as loud as the last song, and sews the piece together nicely. The Fixer, the next track (and their first single from the album) is about the happiest track Pearl Jam has ever released. Here, the feel of the album really shines through: the lyrical optimism, happy-go-lucky feel, a few poppish-claps even a synth (1:17) leave the track feeling like nothing Pearl Jam has put out yet. Many fans have been immediately turned off by this one, but don't judge the entire album because of it.
Its at this point I realized something, each track I'd head thus far all clocked at almost exactly three minutes. In fact, almost every song on the album is very short; then entire album clocks in at just shy of 37 minutes. Without a doubt, the theme of this album is tighter, undiluted songwriting.
Just Breathe is another departure. It heavily evokes the feel of Eddie Vedder's 2007 soundtrack to Into The Wild, to the point where it would feel almost more at home there. Featuring Eddie solo on acoustic guitar backed up with some strings (and attributed entirely to him,) I consider this one of Eddie's solo pieces. It still serves as one of Pearl Jam's most tender moments, and its placement on the album is near perfect.
Amongst the Waves is pure optimism, and Supersonic is a loud, happy harder rock tune about one's love of music. Speed of Sound feels somewhat out of place, and is the only track on the entire album that hasn't grown on me. Force of Nature is a loose, fun, more laid back tune that feels like it should be longer than it is (4:05). The album ends on a low key. Its final track, "The End", is another Vedder-penned solo acoustic song, featuring some of the most emotional, powerful lyrics on the album.

When I first picked up this album, I wasn't expecting to rate it more than 2/5. However, its proved itself a very strong addition to Pearl Jam's already impressive catalog. Fans may fear it, as its definitely the most pop-ish album by the Seattle quintet yet, but don't fret, its more raw than The Fixer would have you believe.

Track Listing:
  1. "Gonna See My Friend" - 2:49
  2. "Got Some" - 3:02
  3. "The Fixer" - 2:58
  4. "Johnny Guitar" - 2:50
  5. "Just Breathe" - 3:36
  6. "Amongst the Waves" - 3:59
  7. "Unthought Known" - 4:09
  8. "Supersonic" - 2:40
  9. "Speed of Sound" - 3:34
  10. "Force of Nature" - 4:04
  11. "The End" - 2:58
Highlights: Got Some, Amongst The Waves, Supersonic
Overall: ★★★½

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