Oct 14, 2009 Web Exclusive
As they were for many people my age (40> X > 30; people who were somewhere between emerging teens and graduating from college when Ten was released), Pearl Jam was a touchstone for my youth and my musical independence. But the band, as it did for many people, lost me. They became so concerned with how they were perceived, and in fact, so concerned that people bothered to perceive them at all, that they remade and recast themselves as a machine set to purposeful failure.
A funny thing happened, of course, in that some of their fans were so devoted that they hung on, record after record, for the drips and drabs that showed how amazing the band could be. Popular wisdom (an oxymoron if ever there was one) said that the band's losing battle with Ticketmaster sapped their energy, and the demands of their record label sapped their creativity. Really, though, nothing changed Pearl Jam as much as their own insistence on being a blue-collar, chugging rock band, suitable for bars and clubs, and not the high-flying, leap-from-the-rafters, arena monsters they aspired to with their earliest work.
So here we are, nearly 20 years after the release of Ten, and Pearl Jam has attained their wish of chugging along, although they're still playing arenas and stadiums, because there are still enough people who adore them to fill arenas and stadiums. I am by no means condemning those people. Pearl Jam, at its finest, can still write a breathtaking song. The question for the last 15 years or so has been, do they want to?
Backspacer would seem to be one of their last great hopes. They are out from under their record contract. They seem to recognize their place in the world, and perhaps, perhaps, what they have missed becoming.
No song could be more emblematic of Pearl Jam's internal struggle than "The Fixer" an excellent, melodic song that contains many of the elements the band has been purposefully ignoring for far too long—shifting textures, layered melodies, propulsive drive, lead singer Eddie Vedder doing some actual singing; Vedder's voice has been the band's main weapon since its inception, and he yanks and tears at his vocal chords something awful at times rather than simply singing. "I wanna fight to get it back again," Vedder sings on "The Fixer," and it feels like a rallying cry for the band.
It's been a long time since Pearl Jam has felt this lively and immediate. Does it measure up to their best work? No. But the little sideline guitar licks in "Supersonic," the vocals in "Amongst the Waves," the lyrics and keys (piano and synth) in "The Fixer," and the mounting tension of "Unthought Known" gives one hope that Pearl Jam is headed in the right direction.
Even where things go wrong, there's reason for optimism. The opening "Gonna See My Friend" indulges the band's periodic delusion that they're more punk than they really are (which is not at all) but it's impossible not to believe that the song would be a full minute shorter on some of their other albums, and the changes would have been removed for a more flattened approach.
I still root for Pearl Jam, and listen to each of their albums with the hope that I'll get the same charge I did from Ten and Vs., and perhaps the greatest testament to Backspacer is that it's the most difficult album in a long time to immediately dismiss. Instead of taking the middle of the road, where they've dug themselves quite a rut, Pearl Jam seems like they're finally ready to choose a side. Hopefully. (www.pearljam.com)
Author rating: 5/10
Average reader rating: 7/10