Fans of Pearl Jam — those who kept listening long after “Vitalogy” and their mainstream grunge days — will argue until they’re blue in the face that Pearl Jam is relevant these days.
Declining album sales (compared to their platinum grunge days) and a music industry that tends to award for tabloid status before abilities provide an argument against that assertion. Sold-out tours and suggestions that Pearl Jam is the Grateful Dead of our generation support it.
The band shook off back-to-back disappointing records (“Binaural” and “Riot Act”) with an impressive comeback in 2006 with their self-titled album, “Pearl Jam” (better known as the one with the avocado on the cover), and with “Backspace” — their ninth studio album in 18 years — the momentum continues to build.
Even more refreshing, lead singer Eddie Vedder seems to have pushed his political agenda aside to write songs about fixing the world, breathing in and taking in the moment, dreaming big and rocking hard. He even fits in a song about losing his love to a man named Johnny Guitar.
In other words, Vedder’s having fun. Having somebody not named Bush in the White House seems to have done him some good.
“Backspacer” comes out of the gate hard with a quartet of up-tempo, guitar-driven tracks. “Gonna See My Friend” is the pounding opener that “Brain of J.” wishes it could have been on “Yield,” which happens to be my favorite Pearl Jam release. “Got Some” has a “Severed Hand” feel, and when Vedder pleads to listeners to “Get it now, get it on before it’s gone … let’s everybody carry on, carry on,” he sounds like the 15-years-younger, “Spin the Black Circle” Vedder we loved.
It’s easy to assign new Pearl Jam songs to previous albums, as you can hear elements of the past mixed in with the new. Track 3, “The Fixer” (the first single released) and Track 4, the aforementioned “Johnny Guitar” break from that trend, though. If “Johnny Guitar” belongs anywhere, it’s on the “Lost Dogs” B-sides album, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a quirky, fun song with lines like “Johnny he be having lots of women. The reason he be smiling known to him.”
It’s also my favorite on “Backspacer.” For now.
The rest of the album is a mix of anthems like “Amongst the Waves” and “Into the Wild”-inspired tracks like “Just Breathe” and “The End.”
“Unthought Unknown” is a hidden gem as well, similar to “Love Boat Captain” or “I am Mine” from “Riot Act,” except where those songs tended to hit you like gentle waves … this one hits a crest when Vedder yells, “You will be no one’s rival.” A great mix of vocals, guitar and piano … this one may soon become my favorite. Depends on the mood.
“Backspacer” isn’t without its sore spots. “Supersonic” and “Force of Nature” don’t quite hit the mark, and “Speed of Sound” does little to enhance or detract from the total package.
Still, as a fan — again, somebody who stuck with them through the highly underrated “No Code” — “Backspacer” ranks high on the Pearl Jam album hierarchy. And I like the positive direction … I may even vote liberal if it means better Pearl Jam.