Sound — 8
Pearl Jam has always been a band of statements whether that has taken the form of fighting back against Ticketmaster or campaigning for human rights and their musical message remain strong as well, even if the delivery is a little quieter in 2009. Close to 20 years has passed since the iconic grunge album Ten was released, and as one might expect, the heavier rock-oriented side of Pearl Jam has dissipated. That's not to say that distorted guitars and driving bass lines don't ever make an appearance on the band's new album Backspacer, but there is more of a mature (sometimes the dreaded adjective is appropriate) approach to the material. In listening to the new songs, it's hard to not think back to those classic jam sessions with Neil Young because they do seem to follow in the footsteps of the Buffalo Springfield singer/songwriter. Backspacer, which was produced by Brendan O'Brien (1998's Yield), has a seamless flow in terms of energy. While some bands might prefer to have an ebb-and-flow to their playlist, Pearl Jam kicks things off with a large dose of energy and ends in the quietest of manners. The opener Gonna See My Friend is a rock tune with a traditional approach, highlighted by some fantastic lead guitar lines underneath the verse. The chorus features some of the heaviest parts with a good dose of distortion and Vedder's lower vocal register harmonization. Got Some is an insanely catchy single that will get stuck in your head for hours to come a sign of an original tune if anything. Got Some seems to feel the most like Pearl Jam's earlier works, and as the second track in the playlist, it draws you in to hear more. Johnny Guitar revolves around the perfect vocal phrasing by Vedder and the singer's engaging storytelling style. A few moments after Johnny Guitar subsides, however, things start taking a mellower turn. Just Breathe is easily one of the most introspective, folksy numbers on Backspacer. It's certainly a beautiful song, but it's fairly basic in its approach, with a song construction that stays fairly consistent. Tracks like Speed of Sound and Among The Waves are also low-key in comparison with a song like Got Some, but Waves does feature an explosion of emotion from Vedder in the ending moments that keeps the song intriguing. Perusing the songwriting credits, you can see the personalities of each member coming through their respective songs. Jeff Ament has a keen ear for a hit single and that aspect comes through on Got Some; Stone Gossard's offerings are more riff-heavy with Johnny Guitar and Supersonic; and Vedder is still somewhat in the Into The Wild zone. Vedder's amazing work on the 2007 film's soundtrack was essentially emotionally charged acoustic material that proved he had a great deal more to offer than the usual Pearl Jam single. We get a remnant of that mindset on Backspacer with the final track The End, which although stripped down and dark in comparison to the other 10 songs, is the highlight of the entire CD.
Lyrics — 9
One of the most appealing aspects about Pearl Jam has always been their ability to find unique stories. Backspacer lives up to their solid reputation, with topics ranging from Johnny Guitar Watson's album cover to the human psyche. The track Johnny Guitar features some of the most entertaining lyrical content with lines such as, Johnny Guitar Watson staring at me; Riding on 3 wheels, a woman on his knee; With a leg under a red dress I wish I could see; Further North a warmth alive & lingering. There are also the usual themes driven by emotions, and The End takes the cake in terms of being the most haunting. After all, it doesn't get quite as cryptic as Vedder's final lines of the album: Before I disappear; Whisper in my ear; Give me something to echo; In my unknown futures ear; My dear; The End; Comes near; I'm here; But not much longer.
Overall Impression — 9
Backspacer at times feels like a conglomeration of Pearl Jam's work throughout the past 20 years. Although the grunge element is pretty much nowhere to be found, the band hasn't completely lost its connection with rock. The impact might not be quite as instant as you might have gotten with a song like Porch or Alive, but after a few listens every song begins to grow on you. While Got Some and Gonna See My Friend are the best at providing that instant gratification you might need with a radio single, it's The End that packs the biggest punch even with a bare-bones acoustic setup.