Pearl Jam: Backspacer

RIYL: You’re kidding, right? Recommended if you like Pearl Jam

Backspacer is Pearl Jam’s ninth studio album in their 19th year of existence. Seemingly out to prove that they’re neither resting on their laurels or mellowing with age, it’s one of their most energetic and exciting albums to date, filled with pop hooks and a strange sense of optimism that may scare the die-hards.

Pearl Jam haven’t been very pop-friendly since Yield. Binaural was experimental art-rock, while Riot Act was dark, introspective and depressing. Their 2006 self-titled effort was definitely a step towards the mainstream, but it was also very angry and aggressive, a sign of the Bush-led times perhaps. But Bush is gone, and with his departure Pearl Jam must feel that it’s okay to be upbeat once more, and maybe even popular again.

The album opens with a drug-themed triple-pack; “Gonna See My Friend,” “Got Some,” and “The Fixer.” Although dripping in drug references, none of the three are really about getting high. The titular friend in the first track is a buddy that’s helping someone get off drugs, and the ‘some’ in “Got Some” is actually music, being dealt out like the addictive substance that it is. As for “The Fixer,” that appears to be Eddie himself, proclaiming his ability to make you rock out. Through the quick three-minute stomper he lets you know he’s your one-stop cure for what ails you, “When somethings dark / Lemme shed a little light on it. When somethings old / I wanna put a bit of shine on it.”

Eddie must be riding high from all that fixing, because he’s in such a good mood he’s actually written a couple honest-to-God love songs on Backspacer, a first for the band. “Just Breathe” is a quiet ballad about a man who realizes how lucky he is to find the one he loves, while “Amongst the Waves” is a bombastic proclamation of love using surf imagery to convey how love can conquer all. It’s corny, cheesy and about one step removed from a U2 song, but they get away with it thanks to Eddie’s touching lyrics and a powerful closing guitar solo. The musical formula is copied successfully with the following track “Unthought Known,” although this time the lyrics return to typical abstract themes that are more common ground for Vedder. After a brief return to rock with the catchy-as-all-hell “Supersonic,” the CD closes with three more ballads, ending with the exceptionally strong “The End.”

Backspacer is probably Pearl Jam’s best album of the decade, an obvious, but not pandering, attempt to regain some of the mainstream attention they voluntarily gave up over the years. The older fans might balk at the idea of Eddie and company courting a new audience, but whatever man; a stadium full of 40-year-olds is depressing. (Monkeywrench 2009)

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