Posts Tagged ‘grunge’

Album Review- Pearl Jam, “Backspacer”

October 29, 2009

Pearl Jam's new record, Backspacer.

From their humble beginnings in the “grunge” movement to the sold-out stadiums and legions of followers today, Pearl Jam have enjoyed a long and varied career in rock music. Their ninth release, Backspacer, has a ton of expectations to live up to. Many critics and fans hold Pearl Jam to a high standard, with the band having had several of the greatest records of the 90s and possibly all time. Their distinctive tone, style, and vocal approach have been rock staples for nearly 20 years now. Going into my third critical listen, there are several pressing questions on hand. Does Pearl Jam still have “it” after a brief hiatus and a lengthy career? Have they continued to develop and progress, have they reached a creative standstill, or are they going back to their roots? And will the music be as chaotic as the multi-colored album cover?

The first track of the album, “Gonna See My Friend,” kicks off the party with promise. Bluesy, boogie-woogie guitar pounds away as Eddie Vedder launches into his singing with the punch one has come to expect from uptempo Pearl Jam numbers. The bass line has an interesting jive to it, and the song has my head nodding and foot tapping. The fast, happy tone of the song offsets the somewhat cynical lyrics, with Vedder lamenting a pain he can’t shake, and wanting to give up.

“Got Some” picks up right where the first track leaves off. It’s another up-tempo rocker with a positive vibe to the music. Bassist Jeff Ament is in top form thus far, holding down the bottom end yet propelling the song. Matt Cameron, as always, is crisp and driving with his percussion. “Got Some” has a bit of a political slant to the lyrics, calling for diplomatic resolve and asking what side the listener’s on.

Backspacer‘s first single, “The Fixer,” maintains the mood set in the first quarter of the album so far. This song is the most optimistic on the album so far, and possibly of Pearl Jam’s entire career. “The Fixer” is a great choice for a single, it’s a great rock tune and is immediately catchier and more accessible than the first two tracks. That’s not a bad thing however, it’s overall a much better song with the lyrics being more cohesive, with a clearer message. This is truly an inspirational tune, it leaves me in a good mood with a smile on my face, a result that most people don’t associate with listening to Pearl Jam music. It seems as if Eddie and the boys have cast aside bitterness and are willing to compromise with others to make life better. That’s a message I would hope nearly anybody could agree with.

“Johnny Guitar” has the best music of any track on the album yet. The lyrics take on more of a “story-telling” approach and seem disposable on the first few listens. Stone Gossard and Mike McCready make up for that with varied guitar textures, ranging from driving blues riffs to funky wah-wah guitar.

I cannot say enough about how much I loved listening to the fifth song, “Just Breathe.” The band finally slows down after four consecutive rockers to start the album.  A delightful wash of acoustic guitars and melodic organ open the song, and Eddie Vedder stretches his folk muscles yet again with a powerful, deep lament in the vein of Bruce Springsteen. The lyrics are phenomenal. I admit that this song brought a tear to my eye the first time I listened to it. “I understand that every life must end/As I sit alone I know someday we must go/I’m a lucky man to count on both hands the ones I love/Some folks just have one/Others they got none.” These lyrics gave me the shiver that music listeners yearn for, this is a song that connected with me on a deep and personal level. An good album can be elevated to a great album with just one of these type of songs, and I’m thinking this may be the case with Backspacer.

“Just Breathe” is a gorgeous ballad that has similarities to Pearl Jam classics such as “Black” and “Daughter,” but it has a refreshing atmosphere that is unlike anything the band has written in their entire career. Eddie Vedder seems to be at terms with his mortality, but in a bright and honest manner. In his middle age, I wouldn’t say he has “lost his edge,” but Vedder has matured since the beginning of his career and it’s reflected in this haunting glimpse at a relaxed, fortunate man who acknowledges that he’s looking down at the rest of his life.

Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam vocalist and songwriter

A snappy drum pattern leads into the chill intro of “Amongst the Waves.” I don’t think I’ve ever gotten this far into a Pearl Jam listening session before having maintained a smile on my face. The metaphors of swimming are reflected in the music, with the guitar patterns emitting a sea-blue color. This song has a romantic tone to it, and one of the finest guitar solos in recent memory cuts through the calm of the track to leave me with a huge grin. I can relate to this song, for it’s seemingly Vedder’s tribute to either a woman who changed him for the better, or salvation through religion. Either way, it’s an incredible song.

“Unthought Known” has a very Everyman tone to the guitars and lyrics. The song isn’t as positive or reflective as the last two, but it has a dreamy texture and includes tasteful piano in the mix. While not nearly as poignant as “The Fixer,” Just Breathe,” or “Amongst the Waves,” this is not a throwaway track by far. Looking back on the first part of the album, I’d have to say Backspacer‘s first truly good song is “The Fixer,” and the album doesn’t drop in quality at all from there on until now.

“Supersonic” isn’t necessarily a throwaway track either. It’s possibly the fastest track on the album with driving basslines and pump-your-fist riffs. Gossard and McCready delight with their guitar chemistry, trading rhythms and solos as only they can. Another track with a positive tone, Vedder screaming about wanting to live life with the volume full… nothing depressing at all here, folks!

“Speed of Sound” moves at anything but; it’s a slower track. It’s also possibly the least optimistic track on the album so far. It’s still positive in parts, just not as overwhelmingly thumbs-uppy as other tracks before it. Just when Vedder sings “somehow I’ll survive,” he realizes that he’s “waiting on a sun that just don’t come.” I wouldn’t say the song is bitter or sad so much as it is an honest reflexion at the ups and downs of life. It’s a great song, and I think that many people could relate to certain lyrics within.

The penultimate track, “Force of Nature,” is the last rocker on the album. It’s in the vein of “Johnny Guitar,” with story-telling lyrics recounting the romance between a siren and a mortal man. Lost love, or unrequited love, the theme and vibe of some kind of missing affection is evident in the track.  Some of my favorite lyrics on the album so far (and my favorite guitar solo; so melodic!) are featured in “Force of Nature.” I’m sure most can agree with this amazing line, “Is it so wrong to think that love can keep us safe?”

“The End” is, well, the end of the album. It revisits the acoustic folk-influenced aura of “Just Breathe,” but this time with a different emotion. The lyrics drip of regret, fright, and sickness. This song comes from the voice of a man who’s dying, reflecting on what his life has become and wondering what his legacy shall be. With a grandfather going through an illness right now, this song hit me especially deep. “The End” made me shed a few tears, but for a different reason than “Just Breathe.” Vedder’s vocals and lyrics are stunning. It’s amazing how a song can make my hands tremble and my eyes salt up with no warning. I wasn’t ready for this track. It’s almost as if Vedder wrote Backspacer with a mostly positive vibe throughout to build up the listener’s mood, only to tear it down with this final devastating track. Eddie Vedder is on a level that many lyricists could only aspire to reach. The last line of the song, and album, rips into me and ends abruptly in perfect fashion. Amazing.

Reflecting over the album as a whole, I think Backspacer stands up to the rest of Pearl Jam’s catalogue and holds its own. It’s definitely one of the most positive records Pearl Jam has created, well, at least until the mind-blowing “The End.” None of the songs are disposable, all of them are good. A few of the rockier numbers have so-so lyrics, yet Vedder makes up for that with a few smoother tunes that seize my heart with their depth and honesty. As I said earlier, songs that have a “shiver factor” can elevate a good album into a great one, and Backspacer features two songs of that nature, “Just Breathe” and “The End.” Also, the album hearkens back to the days of vinyl with the short running length. At just over 36 minutes, the album has a solid flow and a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Literally, on “The End.” While it’s not a concept album, it’s a record that one should surely listen to from front to back at least a few times to fully digest the scope of its content. Just like a good movie with a clear resolution, this album has me satisifed with my listening and living with fuller emotion.

I highly recommend purchasing Backspacer, especially to listeners who enjoy music with their hearts and ears at the same time.

Great album, nothing groundbreaking, a mix of fun and deep lyrics, good musicianship throughout and one of the best vocalists alive.


Pearl Jam.