By David M. Goldstein | 16 November 2009
Give Pearl Jam this: though far removed from their quadruple-Platinum salad days, Backspacer at least proves that they’re not phoning it in. It’s their ninth full-length album and their first entirely self-released, the fact of which recently led bassist Jeff Ament to bellyache in SPIN about the newfound stress of self-promotion, lest Pearl Jam fans fail to realize that Backspacer exists. To which this admitted Pearl Jam apologist says, C’mon now, son! No intensified amount of promotion nor lack thereof is going to alter the fact that Backspacer, like every Pearl Jam release post-Yield (1998), will quietly go Gold before being reduced to placeholder status, a footnote to supplement the three-hour Caucasian bro-hug that comprises their live shows. Even Backspacer single “The Fixer” was recently splashed all over the FOX broadcast of the 2009 World Series alongside broadcaster/major tool Joe Buck’s declaration of “I got that new Pearl Jam, and it’s fantastic!” No matter. Everyone who is going to own Backspacer probably already does, provided they’re within driving distance of a Target.
So it’s to their credit that Backspacer is still far better than it has to be and a heck of a lot more fun than 2002 career nadir Riot Act. It’s a bratty little brother to their 2006 self-titled disc (overrated by me, but still holds up) where they found their grungy footing again, and pretty enjoyable for at least twenty-eight of its thirty-seven minutes. Shit, based on Backspacer‘s first three songs alone, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Eddie V and co. may have accidentally stumbled onto some late career mojo. Said triptych blasts out of the box with “Gonna See My Friend,” which, despite being one of their textbook “We’re so punk rock!!!” moves a la “Spin the Black Circle” and “Lukin,” is extremely catchy, splashed with plenty of the Vedder vocal cord shredding that fanboys crave. “Got Some” is similarly frantic, though of a more paranoid ilk, Eddie straight-facedly asking, “Are you dropping bombs / Have you heard of diplomatic resolve?! YEAH!” These two are rounded out by the victory lap of “The Fixer,” a brightly produced (Brendan O’Brien back in the house, y’all!), Grohl-esque pop-rocker where Fixer Ed wants to “fight to get it back again!!” and the listener would do well to join the fray. It’s their best single in recent memory and a nice finish to a very satisfying ten minutes.
While nothing else on Backspacer quite captures the adrenaline surge translated above, enough chestnuts for the faithful remain, primarily in the guise of “Unthought Known” and “Amongst the Waves.” The former, a surging anthem with a deftly placed chord change at the peak of the bridge, is a less shambolic version of Riot Act‘s “Loveboat Captain.” “Waves” is a welcome “Alive”-style slow burn that explodes into Mike McCready guitar pyrotechnics and is generally the type of song that Pearl Jam doesn’t seem interested in doing anymore, replete with Eddie’s latest batch of surfing metaphors. It should be a welcome addition to the live show. The mindless fun of “Supersonic” is OK too, despite Stone Gossard using the exact same chord progression he forged on the No Code (1996) deep track “Mankind.”
Backspacer wouldn’t qualify as a latter day Pearl Jam record without some egregious filler tacked on at the end, so it’s of little surprise that “Speed of Sound,” “Force of Nature,” and “The End” are less than hot. These songs come off as ridiculously lazy, even from the same dudes responsible for such modern day catastrophes as “Bushleaguer” and “1/2 Full.” A trio of overproduced shoulder shrugs suffering from way too much B. O’B., Backspacer‘s final songs serve minimal purpose aside from pushing the listener back to “Gonna See My Friend” that much quicker. Pearl Jam kind of lurched to a finish too, alright, but at least it ended with the considerable awesomeness of “Inside Job.” Granted, Eddie probably realizes these songs suck; even the titles are odious (“Speed of Sound”; really dude? Ever heard of Coldplay?).
Pearl Jam fans have sort of come to expect mediocrity from the latter halves of their heroes’ albums, but Backspacer demonstrates that Eddie and the boyz are still capable of enjoying themselves in the studio. And in a few instances, they sound positively carefree, likely the product of an Obama-era in which Ed no longer feels compelled to waste valuable stage time (justifiably) demolishing a Dubya mask with his mic stand. A little more effort at the end would have been appreciated, but so long as you’re content with paying full price for what’s essentially twenty-eight minutes of listenable music, Backspacer works as a fun little rock n’roll record.