Sound — 8
Pearl Jam. They need little introduction; giants from the 90's alternative/grunge movement, their debut release "Ten" firmly implanted them as legends. Throughout a long and ever-changing career they have produced a wide variety of albums, constantly evolving, sometimes alienating older fans but gaining new ones and this is an important thing to remember when approaching Backspacer. When I first heard this album I was massively disappointed, it seemed Pearl Jam had lost their edge, lost their aggression, the lack of solos and "poppier" sound was nothing like what I expected. But then I realised that's where I was going wrong; I was expecting something from Pearl Jam. It sounds strange, I know, but Pearl Jam are a band that has never been driven by a desire for commercial success, they've only ever done what they wanted to do, regardless of what everyone else said. They've always made albums they were happy with and you've got to remember that every time you approach a new Pearl Jam album. So, my first two or three listens of this album were disappointing, but then I found myself singing "The Fixer" all day so I came home and listened to it again and it started to grow on me. If you take 36 minutes out of your day and dedicate them to listening to this album you'll hear an organic, straightforward rock record with an unstoppable energy and beautiful simplicity. It might not be the next Ten, but it sounds like Pearl Jam are actually enjoying themselves in this album. Another noteworthy aspect of Backspacer is the production, courtesy of Brendan O'Brien whose credits speak for themselves. There is great clarity led to each instrument while still maintaining cohesive, driving sound. This album features the usual line up that we've come to love from Pearl Jam. Stone Gossard on rhythm, Mike McCready on lead and Eddie Vedder on vocals and rhythm guitar. Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron provide a solid rhythm section on bass and drums respectively. Now a track-by-track: 01. "Gonna See My Friend": this album opener really sets the tone, it bursts out of the gates with a driving, galloping energy. All the signatures are here, a growling bassline, energetic drumming, layered guitar work and Vedder's howling vocals. 02. "Got Some": one of the leading songs from the album, played on a variety of live shows. Got Some is an excellent song, opening with some nice, rapid drumming from Cameron and a little guitar hook. The verses are mainly vocals, bass and the bass drum with little guitar accents here and there. Simple, but effective. 03. "The Fixer": the lead single from the album and for me at least, a real double-edged sword. This is without a doubt the most pop-oriented Pearl Jam song to date, it even features a little bit of synth work here and there. But it's a cheerful, upbeat and happy song. It'll get you singing along and I really like Vedder's vocal performance. 04. "Johnny Guitar": another energetic, driving song, though it isn't quite as catchy as the first three songs it's still a decent number, but nothing about it is immediately recoginisable. A nice little bit of wah guitar in between the verses and over the chorus but ultimately it feels a little like filler. 05. "Just Breathe": and suddenly Pearl Jam pull a total 180 and go down the introspective, acoustic route. This is a very calming, simple song and it offers a welcome respite from the pounding energy of the four preceding songs. Some excellent acoustic work, carried along by minimal bass and some strings here and there. Vedder's vocal performance is full of meaning and emotion. 06. "Amongst The Waves": this is my personal favourite song from the album. It's the most "complete" sounding song, it moves from gentle, slow opening to upbeat, positive chorus, it has some excellent sing-along moments and an excellent solo. There are many little touches in this song which make themselves obvious with each subsequent listen, it's a layered, complex and strong song. 07. "Unthought Known": this another good song, starting off slow and calm, it builds towards a soaring crescendo with the whole band going at full throttle. It's a very atmospheric song, very mature-sounding and very honest and open and it completes, nicely, this little trifecta of slow songs, before we move on to... 08. "Supersonic": this is an excellent song, with a bouncy, old time rock n' roll feel. Vedder's rapid-fire vocals, some chunky power chords and the thumping rhythm section are sure to get you up and jumping. And halfway through the song is dissected by a classic McCready solo; it's short, but it's oh so sweet. 09. "Speed of Sound": contrary to the title this song isn't a rollicking, energetic rock number. It's another slow moving, ballad-y song with piano, minimal drumming and some nice accents of guitar here and there. I'm still in two minds about this song, a part of me really likes it, but another part of me isn't sure. I suppose it really depends on your personal opinion, but this definitely isn't one of the album's stronger tracks. 10. "Force of Nature": opening with a nice guitar lick, driven by some chord work, then Vedder's signature vocals come in. This a pretty decent track, it's nothing groundbreaking but there are some nice touches here and there that elevate it above normal and make it something more. 11. "The End": this is, in my opinion, an excellent song to end the track on. A nice, touching track about going through life, loving and losing, growing old and generally being human. Vedder's voice sounds like it's on the edge of tears at time and the strings take this song and give it that feeling that makes the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It sounds dramatic, but I can imagine this song being put to a slideshow of the band after they break up or pass along. It's an excellent, touching track which shows a maturity and vulnerability that Pearl Jam have never shown before.
Lyrics — 8
Vedder has always been an...individual singer and lyricist. From the mysterious lyrics of "Yellow Ledbetter" (does anyone ACTUALLY know what they are yet?) to songs like "Alive", which is inspired by Vedder's childhood and "Jeremy" which is about a high school student killing himself in class. Vedder has demonstrated an ability to draw influence from a variety of sources, whether they be his own life or world politics or just nonsense. Vedder's vocal delivery has always been gruff and gravelly, he howls, he mumbles, but his style is unmistakable. The lyrics on this album range from average to excellent, many of the songs such as "Gonna See My Friend", "The Fixer" and "Johnny Guitar" don't seem to have any immediate meaning, but they leave room for you to attach your own, which is always a good idea because if someone can attach their own meaning to your music then it becomes special to them. However, other songs like "Just Breathe" and "The End" have definite messages and these songs are excellent examples of Vedder's ability to reach deep inside himself and pull out some touching songwriting ability. "Just Breathe" is all about love and family and being human, so it is nicely contrasted by "The End" which is about things ending, the end of life and still, being human. I suppose these two songs could be considered a sort of Ying and Yang affair. Overall, Vedder gives a good lyrical performance on this album and his voice, though aged, fits the tone of the album excellently.
Overall Impression — 8
Pearl Jam made the wise decision, long ago, to give themselves room to maneuver and space to evolve. They've always been a band who have done things their way and throughout a career peppered with controversy, doubt and hardship they have stuck to their convictions and used their music an outlet. Much like their inspiration, Neil Young. They've become a mature band now, demonstrating a skill and grasp of their craft that would put fledgling bands to shame. But the most admirable thing about them, in my opinion, is their unflinching desire to do things their way. They have never been afraid to try new things and take their music in a new direction. As I mentioned before, sometimes this has lost them fans or gained them new ones but they've always been Pearl Jam and nothing else, making no excuses and no apologies. Backspacer is probably not their best album, but then again to be their best album it would have to beat Ten and lets face it, that's not going to be easy. It is however, a strong, cohesive and straightforward offering which is organic, mature and full of energy.