RATING: 4 / 5 stars
By Chris Moore:
This most recent Pearl Jam release is aptly titled; in many ways, Backspacer is closer in focus and energy to Ten than any of their more recent efforts.
Most reviews have wasted little time in pointing out that this album holds the band’s record for brevity — 37 minutes from the first guitar strum to the final vocal fade. This can, of course, be interpreted in one of two ways, the worst case scenario being that the album was hurriedly prepared and produced.
This could not be further from the truth.
Backspacer is a strong, purposeful album comprised of eleven very upbeat, very direct tracks that leave little room for the listener to catch his breath over the record’s half hour span. For the most part, these tight, three minute tracks are energizing and satisfying, catchier and cooler than anything Eddie Vedder and company have turned out in a long time.
This is, of course, a mixed bag. After all, short, to-the-point pop rock is fun when done properly — which, by the way, it certainly is here. Still, the electric soundscapes of 2000’s Binaural and the distortion-drenched protest of 2002’s Riot Act were excellent installments in the Pearl Jam catalog, even if their respective values have been minimized by critics who seemed more concerned with comparing them to early releases like Ten and Vs.
It should be noted that 2006’s Pearl Jam lacked cohesiveness as an album, although several songs on that release are among the best of their career (“World Wide Suicide” or “Marker in the Sand,” anyone?). This eponymous release is an album of wild energy and abandon, which works particularly well in the first half of the track listing. That being said, Vedder rips his vocal chords to shreds in his effort to sing without holding any emotion or effort in reserve. This works well in some places, and yet crackles to pieces in others.
On Backspacer, Vedder has somehow been able to amp up his emotions and energy, and yet his vocals stand out as some of the best of any Pearl Jam recording to date. Some songs, like the opener “Gonna See My Friend,” harken back to the roughly shouted vocals of Pearl Jam. Most, however, feature Vedder at his best.
The opening track is also notable for a strumming pattern that is evocative of some mid-1950s Chuck Berry-esque riffing — with a decidedly grunge rock twist to it, of course. “Gonna See My Friend” is a catchy track but certainly does not stand out among the other excellent album starters of their career.
From the first millisecond of “Got Some,” there is suddenly evidence that this might be an excellent album. Jeff Ament’s collaboration with Vedder is a nice addition to the other outstanding Ament contributions — think: “God’s Dice,” “Ghost,” and “Low Light;” if you’re really kind, forget “Pilate.” The best part of “Got Some” is that, by the time it has finished, you haven’t even heard the single yet.
“The Fixer” comes next, a tour-de-force taken on very convincingly by Vedder. I have vacillated about three or four times a day since I picked up the album on Sunday, and I’m still not certain whether I like “Got Some” or “The Fixer” better. I suppose I’ll just have to keep listening…
As the album continues, there are other rockers performed at breakneck speed (“Johnny Guitar,” “Supersonic”), as well as considerably slower, more instrospective numbers (“Just Breathe,” “The End”). These latter tracks were clearly influenced by Vedder’s recent solo project, writing and recording the soundtrack for the Sean Penn film Into the Wild. The fingerpicking patterns that open these songs are reminiscent of his solo tracks, yet these songs clearly show the progress Vedder has made in such a short time, particularly in terms of structure.
For once, I am forced to agree with Rolling Stone‘s assessment of this album. Their four star rating is a simple means of stating that Backspacer is an excellent album, but not a masterpiece. From track 6 to “The End,” the album takes some repeated listening to really be appreciated. At first, I felt that some of these tracks were too tight and traditional to ever truly stand out. As I’ve listened, more and more of these songs have stood out, like the soaring “Amongst the Waves” and the excellent “Speed of Sound” (listen to Vedder’s vocals in the first few lines as he momentarily invokes Leonard Cohen).
Backspacer may not be the next Ten, but it is silly to even entertain that desire. (If you read music reviews in the major magazines, you wouldn’t know it though!) What this release does offer is an energetic, cohesive Pearl Jam album — and that, for me, has always been more than enough.