Release Date: Sep 20, 2009
Record label: Monkeywrench
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative
Pearl Jam were so traumatised by the effect of selling millions of copies of their grunge era debut, Ten, that they spent subsequent years making increasingly wilful albums. But distance is allowing them to chase after what they lost, and when Eddie Vedder yells of a "fight to get it back again" on The Fixer, he is surely referring to the band rediscovering their mojo. Certainly, the Seattle quartet have rarely sounded this energised.
”If something’s old, I wanna put a bit of shine on it,” Eddie Vedder howls on ”The Fixer,” the first single from the band’s ninth studio album. Backspacer — named after a defunct typewriter key — is an ode to analog bygones, the sort of sweaty rock & roll that belongs in a bar with cracked-leather booths and $2 beers. The album grows same-y, but tracks like the surfing-as-life-metaphor anthem ”Amongst the Waves” do indeed make something old feel, if not new, good again.
You’ve heard the rumors, and the rumors are true: Pearl Jam have finally released a “pop” album. Yet the phrase “pop” doesn’t mean what you think it does in the world of Pearl Jam. For certain purists, “pop” is just another way of saying that Pearl Jam have “sold out”, a theory that’s only furthered by the fact that Backspacer—the group’s ninth studio album—is getting the premiere of its physical release through big box corporate retailer Target, a sure sign that the group is now chasing the Almighty Dollar instead of their values, lurching forward as if their infamous battle with Ticketmaster never even happened.
If they've never exactly been fashionable, Pearl Jam have always been on better terms with the UK than received wisdom would have it. Though Ten’s naffer excesses were oft used as a stick with which to beat the band – generally to the flattery of Nirvana or the Britpop acts – the fact that exactly the same ‘throwback bores’ argument was trotted out in the face of the savage Vs and unhinged Vitalogy probably indicates that there was no real dislike for those records, more the actual idea of Pearl Jam. Once Britpop had finally sloped off (though not before taking the almighty shit in the bathroom that was the Stereophonics) we were all good to go: 2000’s Binaural was accompanied by glowing reviews, the band’s first full UK arena tour, and such articles as this excellent, thoughtful interview with NME’s John Mulvey.
Grunge vets alternate between vital and listlessBabies born the year Pearl Jam formed are hopefully enjoying their first month of college as this review hits newsstands. And yet these rock ‘n’ roll veterans—who have logged countless tour dates, battled Ticketmaster in court and are now on their ninth proper LP—keep chugging along. Most of their new album’s first half alternates between gritty guitar-led jams and able pop-rock, and in these moments, Backspacer truly succeeds.
According to some, the grunge movement was a combination of punk and classic rock. Within that definition, Pearl Jam have always leaned toward the classic rock end of the spectrum, an aspect of their identity that they've wholeheartedly embraced on their ninth studio album. Hell, they even sound optimistic and cheerful this time around, which lends an unexpected party vibe to the proceedings.
As they were for many people my age (40> X > 30; people who were somewhere between emerging teens and graduating from college when Ten was released), Pearl Jam was a touchstone for my youth and my musical independence. But the band, as it did for many people, lost me. They became so concerned with how they were perceived, and in fact, so concerned that people bothered to perceive them at all, that they remade and recast themselves as a machine set to purposeful failure.
If you're between the ages of, say, 25 and 35, chances are you either significantly overrate or underrate Pearl Jam. Either you carry a certain nostalgist's sentiment for one of your early rock touchstones (I fall into this camp), or you view them as the root of all that was overwrought and evil about mid-to-late-90s guitar music. Sure, everyone knows PJ sold eleven trillion albums between 1991 and '94, but still I imagine it's difficult for relative young'uns to reconcile how strong an opinion so many people in a specific demographic have about a group that hasn't been commercially or critically relevant for over a decade.
PEARL JAM “Backspacer”. (Monkeywrench).