Three out of Five Stars
This has to be one of the most difficult things I have ever written on here.
On one hand I had to make sure that on one hand I gotten over the initial disgust of seeing them in a Target commercial and on the other hand I had to make sure I was over the initial euphoria that comes with seeing one of their live performances.
So yes, I am sticking with my initial review I gave on facebook after this album leaked, three out of five stars. 60%, a passing grade.
To my ears this record is composed of 4 excellent songs, 4 okay songs, and 3 bad ones. Very similar to every release they’ve had this decade in that respect.
But before I get to Backspacer, I have to say a few words about another highly anticipated 2009 release, one that dropped in January. Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream.
Both records were produced by Brendan Obrien, both records were promoted by national campaigns (Bruce by his Super Bowl appearance, Pearl Jam by their Target deal). Both releases underwhelmed me upon first listen and continue to do so in part because they both sound tossed off and underdeveloped. Even more troubling, they lack the very depth that these bands are known and loved for.
Backspacer is better than Working on a Dream though (which I would probably give 1/5 stars for those wondering). Much better.
Backspacer starts with a 4 song punch reminiscent of Vitalogy. The merely adequate “Gonna See My Friend” is followed by the SUBLIME “Got Some” – Devo inspired riffs paired with a set of lyrics that are ambiguous in all of the right ways and one of Vedder’s most inspired vocal performances on wax. Period.
“The Fixer” is also excellent. Probably the 2nd best single of the year (“Shampoo” by Elvis Perkins being the first). Its chorus is powerful enough to make you forget about the mad lib verses (If somethings bland, let me put a little spice on it - if something's blurred, let me put a little clear on it). “Johnny Guitar” is great because its different, clever and fun.
“Just Breathe” is where the record loses momentum. It has a real dentist office quality to it and should have been relegated to B-side duty.
Eddie insists that “Amongst the Waves” isn’t about surfing - but really, he has to see why people would be confused. “Riding high amongst the waves” may be a relationship or life metaphor but it conjures up the image of Eddie in a wet suit catching a wave and smiling ear to ear. An image that makes you smile, especially when it was paired with the crunchy riffs of “Big Wave” from 2006’s “Pearl Jam”. I’m not a huge Radiohead fan but do you know what Thom Yorke does in his spare time by listening to his records? Neither do I, and thats how I like it. Unless its something where he wakes up sucking lemons. In that case………ew.
“Unthought Known” suffers from the same phenomenon that “Amongst the Waves” does, it sounds like the band is TRYING to write another anthem for its fans like “Alive” or “Betterman”. The lyrics are a bit too self helpy and derivative of some of their past work (I’m thinking “Present Tense” here) for me to buy into it. Eddies 110% commitment to it almost gets me there on certain listens though. Certainly in concert.
“Supersonic” is a fun Ramones pastiche. “Speed of Sound” is a really interesting song thats become a repeat listen of mine. It suffers from, again, underdeveloped lyrics and some odd production choices (the demo version isn’t perfect either, but is essential listening for Pearl Jam fans) but possesses a strong, driving melody and some very powerful imagery.
“Force of Nature” is at best forgettable and at worst an exercise in butt-rock.
“The End” is the 4th excellent song in this group. Intensely evocative and cinematic with Ed’s voice in rare form, literally wrenching emotion out of every syllable.
Sometime around the early part of this decade the media and fans began comparing Pearl Jam to jam bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead, citing their rabid fans, epic rock shows and sub par releases. Its a comparison that I agree with at this point, I’ve been compiling my 50 favorite records of the decade and only one Pearl Jam release is a lock (Binaural) with their 2003 collection of rarities Lost Dogs probably making the cut as well. But how many Pearl Jam shows would be in my top 50 concerts seen this decade? Oh, all of them.
Think back to the some of the best records this band has released: Vitalogy for instance. What made this band so great was their ability to mix their experimental and self indulgent tracks like “Bugs” with punk meets classic rock scorchers like “Last Exit” and flat out classics like “Betterman”. None of their releases this decade have come close to doing that. A few songs on Backspacer have the punk ethos, a few songs on Pearl Jam have the anthems and a few songs on Riot Act are great exercises in creativity but none of them really stand the test of time or would really demand attention if anyone besides Pearl Jam released them.
Is it unreasonable for me to expect this band to release a classic album at this point in their career?
In a word, yes.
Looking at some of their influences: Bob Dylan and Neil Young have released some quality work well into old age but have both had their share of awful, unlistenable records. Bruce Springsteen has released at least two awful records into his 40’s and has had to essentially jettison the qualities of his music that hes best known for to remain relevant (Solo records The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils and Dust. Playing with a folk band doing Seeger Sessions. Magic and The Rising were excellent, but that would be only 2 E Street records in almost 20 years so you catch my drift). The Who are sill touring (surviving members that is), but are essentially a tribute band and haven’t done anything artistically relevant since that concert for New York on VH1 shortly after 9/11. Tom Waits is a great example of an artist aging gracefully but hes only had a handful of releases this past decade and has turned to acting as an additional creative outlet.
Looking at their peers: They are essentially the last of the Seattle scene standing. Chris Cornell had some mediocre releases with Audioslave and severely tarnished his legacy with a Timbaland produced solo album. Dave Grohl has done some interesting projects (Queens of the Stone Age etc) and has had massive commercial success with the Foo Fighters. But lets face it, The Foo Fighters have been incredibly stale since There is Nothing Left to Lose in 1999 and weren’t anything like Nirvana conceptually anyway. Trent Reznor and Billy Corgan (not Grunge acts obviously, but broke at similar times) have drifted in and out of semi retirement, released some decent stuff and from what I hear put on pretty good shows but haven’t had the same level of output as Pearl Jam in terms of frequency and quality.
Is it lamentable if this band keeps releasing records with only a few songs that stand alongside their best work - but keep playing epic rock shows that only a very small amount of bands can compete with?
Seeing them in Seattle and Portland in September made that entirely obvious to me. This is a band that still has musical integrity, punk rock attitude and will always be more than the some of its parts. I’d still like to see them make a record that goes in a different direction (think electronica, or country or a bell to bell punk rock record) or see Eddie Vedder do a full fledged solo project (ideally one made up of all punk songs done with an outfit like Zeke or C Average) but even if they don’t: this band will always be a HUGE part of my life. And one worthy of all the superlatives that a music fan can offer.
But just like when the Blazers will inevitably lose a hard fought game to a Western Conference rival this year for lack of effort. I listen to this record and can’t help but think……
They could have done better.