Returning to producer Brendan O’Brien for the first time since 1998’s Yield (O’Brien also produced No Code, Vitalogy and Vs.), Pearl Jam was looking to cut the fat from their budding set of new songs. The plan may have worked a little too well; at 36 minutes, Backspacer leaves little room for the indulgent experimentation of some their previous albums. In fact, the thread of sociopolitical discontent that pervaded so much of Vedder’s writing in the past has been put on the backburner, thankfully, leaving the singer open to explore new – and more universally appealing – lyrical frontiers.
Much of the Backspacer‘s instrumental work was completed without Vedder, ensuring that the singer’s soul-searching acoustic Into The Wild flavors didn’t bleed too heavily into the fabric and allowing for interesting new dynamics between the players. Sure, there’s still plenty to gripe about, and while some of the band’s finest work has risen from the mores of sociopolitical outrage (Insignificance, Whipping, W.M.A., Grievance, etc), Backspacer finds the group looking inward, walking narrative lines that yield to the music’s natural energy, rather than guiding the song itself towards a specific agenda.
In a four-part opening blast, Vedder, Gossard, Cameron, McCready and Ament set the train back on the track that many had felt they’d gone off after 2002’s age-embracing Riot Act. Unlike their most recent self-titled release, they don’t sound like aging men grasping for the spark of youth any longer, but rather empowered by their rediscovered strengths and acceptance of the current stage of their lives. This energy is genuine, the passion reinvigorated, and the formulas are put through a new filter.
Ripping open with a screaming riff, the galloping wail of Gonna See My Friend will whip the Pearl Jam diehards ecstatic before the seconds hit double digits. The song is brimming with precisely the kind of high-octane power and frantic energy that makes their live shows among the best you’ll ever see. Airtight and free of partisan division, everyone can get on board with this punchy ode to escape… unless narco-fix narratives aren’t your thing.
Rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard addressed the band’s political flag-waving tendencies in a recent interview: “We’ve made a couple of political and pointed records, the last two in particular, and just to move away from that is great, because it allows you to go back to that when you need to and it refreshes everybody,” he said, “and it comes down to a beat and a melody and your friends and a lyric and a poem and something that’s important to you.” Of course, Vedder hasn’t completely abandoned the activist within – he’s simply layered the message a bit to avoid overwrought preaching. The call-to-action flare of Got Some delivers much more punch and color than 9.2 million of us first saw in the song’s debut on the premiere of The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien earlier this summer, with a build to rise the thermostat. When he screams “Have you heard of diplomatic resolve?”, the message isn’t being crammed down your throat, but the intent is clear.
The Cameron and Gossard-penned highlight Johnny Guitar is a stretch for Vedder, with a rapid-fire vocal cadence entirely new to the prolific singer. It serves the song in fantastic fashion, creating a new flavor from a familiar mix of ingredients that will derail the expectations of even the most devoted Pearl Jam aficionado.
After four tracks, with Vedder’s trademark brooding discontent having been traded for optimism with flares of New Wave and Surf Punk, it’s clear that Pearl Jam are looking at new horizons with hopeful eyes. The tonal shift at the fifth track is a traditional downtempo step for the band, at which point the rock seekers and casual fans will likely tune out. The delicate acoustics of Just Breathe follow the initial framework of Vedder’s acoustic instrumental Tuolumne from the gorgeously introspective Into The Wild soundtrack, but with a lovesick narrative that’s bound to tug the tear ducts of anyone who’s come close to losing the compass of one’s own heart. The naked vulnerability of the song, wrapped in the warmth of raw love, will no doubt serve as a reminder to the lucky ones of the rare lightning in their bottle.
Following suit is Amongst The Waves, striking an earnest pop-ballad chord with a Chariots Of Fire sparkle. “If not for love I would be drowning / I’ve seen it work both ways, but I am up / Ridin’ high amongst the waves / I can feel like I, have a soul that has been saved / I can feel like I’ve put away my early grave / I gotta say it now, better now than too late” The unabashed appreciation for second chances of the heart is anything but Rock N’ Roll, but anyone still digging for adherence to modern rock doctrines in Pearl Jam’s music is entirely missing the point of this band. What makes PJ special, what separates them from their contemporaries is the fact that their music is always, above all else, a matter of heart.
Following that line is Unthought Known, which opens like a hybrid of Wishlist and Love Boat Captain before rising like a tide, building on keys and drums as Vedder delivers some of his most poignant, poetic and nakedly optimistic imagery to date. Chronicling mankind’s tendency to get lost in the labyrinthian prisons of our own minds, he offers words of personal resolve and spiritual incentive. “See the path cut by the moon / For you to walk on / See the waves on distant shores / Waiting your arrival,” he suggests with ever-increasing intensity, insisting that life has more to offer than the immediacy of the routine discomfort and misery too many of us find ourselves trapped in with daily rituals and dreams defeated, traded for whatever passes for comfort these days.
The punk-pop cheese of Supersonic, which shares a chord arrangement with the No Code ugly-duckling track Mankind, is saved by a positively funkalicious breakdown that finds Gossard and lead guitarist Mike McCready flexing new muscles together. The mirror-staring mortal realization of Speed of Sound is a stark contrast by comparison, a heartbreaking take with minor-key changes that add a melancholy icing to the regretful yearning.
The lost-heart tale of Force Of Nature contains a potency akin to Binaural‘s most heartfelt moments, scanning the horizon for a love’s return that never comes, waiting forever on the shoreline of his own unrequited dreams. It’s a fitting segue into the crushing final track The End, a final-goodbyes reflection of a man facing an early grave and the guilt associated with the burdens he leaves behind:
“I just want to hold on / I’m not worth your love, enough / I don’t think there’s such a thing / It’s my fault, I’ve been caught, a sickness in my bones / How it pains to leave you here with the kids on your own / Just don’t let me go / 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’s ear / My dear, the end comes near, I’m here, but not much longer…”
The drop into nothingness that follows hits like a cannonball to the heart. It’s a devastating, abrupt ending to a record that began as a screaming fit of optimism, leaving the attentive listener desperate to start it all again, to escape the album’s harrowing conclusion. Thankfully, a dropped needle or mouse click can accommodate, restarting the cycle on an album that proves Pearl Jam have hit a new stride and are still finding potent new strengths as a band, nearly two decades into their career.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.