Ever since they came onto the scene in 1991, Pearl Jam has always been a band on a mission with something to say. Vocalist Eddie Vedder, guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament and current drummer Matt Cameron have always marched to their own tune, and their songs, such as enduring anthems like "Alive" and "Rearviewmirror," deal with inner turmoil and angst, breaking free from your surroundings and fighting for your beliefs. This means, as great as their songs are, they weren’t exactly fun, and occasionally they would become weighed down by their own self-importance, and apparently, with the election of a president that Pearl Jam doesn’t hate, these Seattle warhorses have finally realized that.
"Backspacer," the ninth studio album from Pearl Jam, has already gotten some negative buzz from some of their older fans because the album is being sold exclusively at Target and through iTunes, and because some of the songs are more pop-influenced than some of the band’s previous work. Does this mean that one of rock’s most notorious anti-establishment bands has finally sold out to "the Man"?
The answer is no; they’re just finally loosening up. "Backspacer" is one of Pearl Jam’s cleanest and most joyful records. Vedder and company have decided to throw away their political and philosophical pretensions to crank out a set of songs that continues in the back-to-basics vein of their 2006 self-titled album. Co-produced by long time collaborator Brendan O’Brien, this album indulges in some of Pearl Jam’s oldest influences like The Ramones and The Who, to create a set of songs that may not sound like the Pearl Jam of old, but definitley have their unique stamp.
The three lightning fast songs that start the album, "Gonna See My Friend," "Got Some," and the insanely catchy single "The Fixer," kick things off nicely. Instrumentally, the band is as tight as ever with the propulsive rhythm section of Ament and Cameron and the always surging guitar duo of Gossard and McCready, whose solos fuse punk thrash with Hendrix-style pyrotechnics. Pearl Jam has always had a strong punk influence, but it’s never been this overt before.
As with every Pearl Jam album, and especially this one, the ballads are the best of the bunch. "Just Breathe" is a straight up love song, complete with a string section, and it sounds similar to some of Vedder’s solo work from the "Into the Wild" soundtrack. Another ballad called "Speed of Sound" and the Springsteen-esque "Unthought Known" also stand out. "Amongst the Waves" is an old-school anthem that might be the best song ever written about surfing. Pearl Jam has always been an incredble live band, and many of the songs here are destined to become concert staples.
This album doesn’t have a bad song on it, which is great because most Pearl Jam albums have a lot of filler.
One of the great things about this band is that every one of their albums has a distinct vibe and sound to it, like the political rage of "Vs." (1993), the sonic experimentation of "Binaural" (2000) and the internal weariness of "Riot Act" (2002). With "Backspacer," Pearl Jam has finally let a little optimism seep into their grunge sound. This record shows that they don’t care about multiplatinum success anymore, they just want to express themselves through music in new and exciting ways. The renegades who once sued Ticketmaster have fully matured into elder statesmen of a generation of music that doesn’t have many. "Backspacer" is one of Pearl Jam’s best albums because it represents a legendary band at the peak of their powers, who’ve decided to relax a little bit and reflect on what they already have.