Thursday, 24 September 2009

Pearl Jam - Backspacer Album Review 2009

So glad to get this to review for The Music Magazine. A welcome return for Pearl Jam.

Backspacer is the ninth studio album (if you don’t count b-side compilation Lost Dogs) from US band Pearl Jam. In recent years the band has thrown away the shackles of serious polished rock music and returned to the garage days of previous incarnation Mother Love Bone (they so should have kept that name). The band's last release, the eponymous album of 2006 went by largely unnoticed but was well received by those that cared to listen, as was Riot Act four years earlier. Before this, Binaural and Yield attempted (with limited success) to recapture the sounds and production of Pearl Jam’s most popular album, the wonderful debut Ten. But even though Backspacer continues on from the previous album, it throws in a few echoes from the past...

One of the only problems with Backspacer is a difficult early obstacle to overcome. At the core of Pearl Jam is Eddie Vedder. His voice is described as a rough baritone, equally at home screaming out as it is delicately crooning. He does both very well. Or he did. Here, however, and not always, Vedder is either making bad choices or straining to get his voice where he wants it. It is hard to believe that in search of something more honest and open, the band’s singer is compromising a key sound. The first half of the album suffers slightly from 'screechy' vocals. Thankfully this isn't a huge distraction. Johnny Guitar is a real problem and that's only because it's just not very good. The only fault.

Backspacer manages to balance the gritty with the melodic without getting too anthemic. Much of this is down to the reintroduction of producer Brendan O'Brien. There was a time when songs like this would be subjected to layers of production, swathes of guitars and plenty of gloss. Not anymore. The album is tightly edited and has a refreshingly short running time of just over thirty five minutes. It is very much a case of what was taken out over what was left in. The punchy stary-eyed Supersonic is just about right, as is opener Gonna See My Friend, a song seemingly about finding your dealer when things get tough and inevitably finding help. This leads neatly to Get Some, and a similar subject: "I got some if you need it..." but with Vedder ultimately finding music. And a sublime, if short, guitar solo...

First single The Fixer, with its disjointed slow-then-fast verse structure and empty chorus is an odd choice to 'promote' Backspacer but an elegant simplicity results in a decent middle-of-the-road rock track. It covers just about every style Pearl Jam can cope with. This is the best of the first half before a massive mood change. Just Breathe is one of two gorgeous soft acoustic heart-breaking love songs. Again, Vedder's voice is cracking with emotion but the change of pace and direction is startling. Time after time Pearl Jam move between dirty rock and mushy ballad, each time retaining just enough credibility. The sudden ending adds to the heartbreak. But the best is just around the corner. Amongst The Waves is exceptional, up there with the band's best. It's a soaring epic that feels like an outtake from Binaural or Yield given a modern take. A brilliant chorus: "Riding high amongst the waves; I can feel like I have a soul that has been saved; I can feel like I put away my early grave..." of a man being given a second chance lifts the album just when it needs it. More great guitar work pins the centre before Vedder is back, as passionate and committed as ever. If this isn't enough Unthought Known is almost as good, lacking the predictable structure but avoiding the big anthemic stadium moments.

Into the last three songs and Speed Of Sound is another beautifully crafted song, framed with some more excellent guitars and piano. Yes it's bordering on soft rock but most bands who only have this never sound this good. Force of Nature threatens a return to the gritty start of the album but a great vocal melody from Vedder transforms it into another classic. More intimate storytelling about holding a relationship together: "One man stands along, awaiting for her to come home; eyes are closed, you cannot know but his heart don’t seem to roam". Closing with The End, predictability becomes a last surprise. Following on from Just Breathe, The End has Vedder serving up even more emotion for part two: "Slide on next to me, I’m just a human being; I will take the blame, bust just the same; This is not me you see; Believe I’m better than this". More proof that Vedder's song writing is maturing with time. The final words form a sudden finale: "My dear The End comes near. I’m here. But not much longer".

A new Pearl Jam album will always come with certain expectations. Ten was such a great debut, an anti-grunge masterpiece that challenged Nirvana’s Nevermind but lost every time. Fans will always want the next album to capture the wide-eyed intensity of the first few albums. From Ten, through the trials and troubles of Vs. and into the dark menacing Vitalogy (the band’s finest hour) and the wonderfully diverse No Code, Pearl Jam always deliver something special. Backspacer has that something, and it has the intensity and the passion but the band is always held to a higher standard because of the early heights. This is the reason no one wants to trawl through a new U2 album. Nothing will be as good as The Joshua Tree and then Achtung Baby. When you go to a Radiohead gig you don’t want to hear In Rainbows. You want High & Dry and Fake Plastic Trees and you don’t care if the band aren’t into that anymore. Every new REM album is treated with the same level of stomach churning anticipation. Long gone are the days of Life’s Rich Pageant, Green and New Adventures In Hi-Fi. What we now get is Reveal and Accelerate even when we would settle for another Automatic For The People...

So back to Pearl Jam. Success does change bands. They don’t become lazy and complacent. They don’t stop trying. But they do move on, trying something different and challenging each other. So why shouldn’t the same challenges be levelled at the listener? With liberation from a record label, the freedom to do what you want, and the knowledge that fans will still buy your music is what band’s like Pearl Jam now have. The industry is not what it used to be. Pearl Jam will not make another Ten, or a Vitalogy and it's taken three albums, but this is further proof that the band is still a potent force. Backspacer is vibrant, uplifting, emotional and honest. Not bad for a band on the verge of a tenth album.
-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

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