Sound — 8
Pearl Jam have continued to move in the direction that their last few albums have been pointing. Years of experience seems to have given them a more finely tuned musical imagination, so to say that the album's sound is more refined is not to say that it is devoid of experimentation, merely that whenever Pearl Jam try something a bit different the result, rather than coming off like an experiment that just missed the mark, it still sounds as refined, professional and complete as if they had built their career on it. There's no screwing around on Backspacer. Pearl Jam just straight up play the songs, no extended solos, no endless vocal ad-libs and no melodramatically long intros or outros, just nine, two to four minute rock and roll tunes. While songs like "Gonna See My Friend", "Johnny Guitar" and even "The Fixer" are classic demonstrations of Pearl Jam's not quite punk, not quite arena rock sound, they're still memorable in their own right. "Just Breathe" and "The End" are perhaps the most remarkably different tracks on the album, representing the greatest departure from Pearl Jam's back catalogue, mostly due to the prominent fingerstyle acoustic guitar playing and string sections, but also because of their wistful aesthetic, uncommon even to Pearl Jam's other acoustic numbers. The rest of the tracks all contain some slightly unusual elements for Pearl Jam songs, many containinig, dare I say it, a sweetness, absent from much of Pearl Jam's work. Eddie Vedder seems to have been involved more heavily in the writing process, and his influence can be heard in the similarities to his solo work. The differences and idiosyncracies of each track are also much more subtle than one would expect. Pearl Jam have never been a band to wag musical theory, jazz scales or odd time signatures in your face, but still make use of them, and what's more they do it musically. Let's face it, how many people have noticed that the verse of "The Fixer" is in 5/4 time and it changes back to 4/4 for the chorus? No? It took me a while too.
Lyrics — 7
While on previous albums most of the band members have contributed lyrics, Backspacer's lyrics are solely Eddie Vedder's. That having been said he lends himself to a variety of writing styles, from the narrative leaning of "Johnny Guitar" to the expressionistic "Amongst the Waves" and even the use of a simple pattern device in "The Fixer". Maybe some would consider this a cheap lyric generator, but I've always thought it works well as long as it serves it's chorus, and the simple refrain of "I wanna fight to get it back again" is a marvellous payoff. Besides, who would criticise Bob Dylan's, "How many A must a B, before C". Vedder's lyrics are much more in a personal vein this time round, dealing more with themes of relationships, friendship and a man's place in the world, with much less reference to the political and social issues that are so often Pearl Jam's focus. I guess they're fairly happy with Obama then... They can tend to be a little vague, or oblique at times, but I think that the lyrics generally serve their songs. In recent years Vedder's voice, which is an oft cited turn off to potential Pearl Jam fans, has been more controlled, his delivery more measured to suit the song, and his diction clearer, allowing us to actually hear the bulk of the lyrics without having to flick through the liner notes as much. Backspacer continues this trend, marking what is probably Vedder's most professional vocal recording thus far. But worry not, there's still plenty of his wild, abandoned energy permeating the album, but not overloading it with an overly aggressive approach.
Overall Impression — 8
If you've never liked Pearl Jam, this album won't win you over. Eddie Vedder's voice may have mellowed enough to win new fans, but not from the camp of long-term detractors. If you've never heard Pearl Jam before, this is a fine album to start with, allowing you to backtrack. If, however, you're like me, a die hard Pearl Jam fan you'll love Backspacer. I can honestly say that there isn't a bad track on the album. Which of course makes it hard to select any stand-out tracks. Not that this is a bad thing, after all any one of them would stand out on an album populated by two and three star songs, but the fact of the matter is that every track on Backspacer is hitting at three and a half to four stars. While I will concede that there aren't any true, five star all time classics on here, no "Alive" or "Betterman", at least one out of these nine will appear on most fans' favourite Pearl Jam songs list. Backspacer has met my high expectations, even exceeded them, but still doesn't hold the place in my heart that "Pearl Jam" does, but that's probably because I haven't had the chance to listen to it as much. From a band that have consistently released great albums, Backspacer is a continuation of the trend, and is even microcosmic in its consistently high-quality content. It really is one of the few albums that is all killer and no filler.