(J Records, 2009)
by Paul Stephenson
Contrary to popular belief, Pearl Jam have never really been away. Certainly they’ve had periods where they haven’t been as visible as others, but a new album by these once ‘kings of grunge’ is as reliable as people telling you that The Stone Roses were a really important band, while you sit there and try not to bellow obscenities in their face.
Unless their sound has you wanting to run to grab the cotton wool and jam it in you ears (Eddie Vedder is cursed and blessed at the same time to have a voice that makes half the people drawn in by its lush richness, the other half contemplating killing sprees) Pearl Jam are a very easy band to be a fan of. Over the years they have proved themselves to be better than any other band at treating their fanbase as a family, from suing Ticketmaster to lower ticket prices, to their impeccable fan club (which gives away a Christmas vinyl every year which is worth more than the price of admission) to making every gig they do available to download.
This trend continues with this album, which gives you access to two full concert downloads from the website along with lavish packaging. Of course all of this is nothing without a good album at its core, and thankfully Backspacer doesn’t disappoint.
Opener ‘I’m Gonna See My Friend’ sets the stall early. Punkier and more upbeat than the last few albums, it brings to mind the Ramones jamming with early REM. Next song ‘Got Some’ is the kind of song Green Day would be making if they hadn’t decided to morph into U2. ‘The Fixer’ calls to mind Ryan Adams and Springsteen at their most upbeat, a perfect summery pop song.
Every song on this album is a perfectly crafted 3-minute marvel, and over the course of the full 11 songs they manage to cover the breadth of all that is good about rock music, without ever sounding anything other than themselves. ‘Johnny Guitar’ is the most obviously Pearl Jam tune, with its angular riff underpinned by the always fantastic drumming of Matt Cameron.
‘Just Breathe’ is reminiscent of Eddie Vedder’s solo album, a lovely little tune that leads into the sparkling ‘Amongst The Waves,’ before the epic ‘Unthought Known’ dazzles with one of the band’s trademark big choruses. ‘Supersonic’ picks up the energy levels again, sounding like the Who jamming with the Ramones. This movement of moods continues perfectly until closer ‘The End,’ which ends the album as a neat summation in the event it turns out to be their last, a trick they have played for years.
Musically the band are as taut and angular as ever, with Eddie Vedder’s lyrics twisting their way around the tunes to make them vital and exciting. For a band as political as Pearl Jam it was inevitable that the removal of Bush would have an impact, and while lyrically there are nods to hope here and there, it’s in the overall optimism and joy in these songs that this is most reflected.
My only complaint is that too many of these songs have a slightly throwaway nature to them. There is no ‘I Am Mine’ or ‘Elderly Woman..’ here to anchor the album, and as such it’s a little forgettable, albeit eminently listenable. It may win them over a few new fans, but realistically if you didn’t like them before this isn’t going to change your mind. For fans, however, this is a fine continuation of form from one of the most reliable bands around.