Backspacer: Pearl Jam’s Giant Leap Ahead for Humankind

As many of you might know, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder has been a major influence on my creative work and maturation as an artist and as a person ever since Ten hit the shelves of Sam Goody back in 1991. Since then, Eddie’s held the #1 position on my High Fidelity Top Five Heroes List, and is the only one on that list who’s never faltered down to the lower ranks. Without those rocking riffs of Mike McCready, grunge rhythms of Stone Gossard, those smooth Jeff Ament basslines, and the lyrical stylings of this frontman of all frontmen, I’d be a very different person.

So in honor of Eddie’s birthday (a day which I’ve affectionately titled as “Veddermas”), I decided to revisit my very first blog post, a review (loosely rendered) of Pearl Jam’s most recent studio album Backspacer. Rereading this review, some of my opinions have changed (mainly in regards to the apparent sleeper hit “Johnny Guitar” which I now appreciate more than when I originally wrote this up), but one thing is still 100% certain––Backspacer is the beginning of a bright new future for Pearl Jam.

Enjoy, and Happy Veddermas everyone!

“A DISTANT TIME,… A DISTANT SPACE,… THAT’S WHERE WE’RE LIVING,…
A DISTANT TIME,… A DISTANT PLACE,… SO WHAT YOU GIVING?,…”

What exactly has Pearl Jam given to their devoted fans and listeners around the world this time around? For starters, they’ve given another quintessential example of what an expertly crafted studio album sounds like, one that’s both meaningful and melodic. But Backspacer, Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album, is not “just another rock band record,” but an indefinite marker on the band’s evolutionary timeline, one that’s certain to spark the creation of many more albums like it in the future. There’s no backspace bar on the laptop of life, after all.

But with an album like this one, there’s no need to backspace. This is a unparalleled mix of traditional Ten Pearl Jam with post-No Code Pearl Jam. Tightly packed into this latest recording are the crunchy, doomed-youth anthems that originally put Eddie Vedder and the boys on the musical map back in the early ‘90s. Such tracks include the high-voltage starter “Gonna See my Friend,” the teeth-grinding “Got Some,” and the band’s hit single “The Fixer.” This tornadic trio rocketships Backspacer into a rage of powerful riffs and sky-whining solos by the master Mike McCready. Then it’s time to take a breath, if only for the moment. “Just Breathe,” one of the disc’s more melodic musings, strays us away from the grunge school vibe and delivers up a somber ballad as thoughtful and lyrical as it is brilliantly composed and arranged for guitar. From this point on, the album maintains this pleasantly sophisticated mood in later tracks like “Unthought Known,” “Speed of Sound,” and “The End,” in which this final song’s abrupt and anti-climactical finale impels the listener to listen once again and reexamine the song and oneself; for the lyrics are so universally understood and artfully penned that everyone is susceptible to its message of hope, awareness, and love despite great odds, a theme that’s present throughout the entire disc.

All in all, Backspacer is a wonderful album, but it is also a different animal altogether from the more hard-hitting Pearl Jam records that preceded it. It represents a more mature Pearl Jam, a band at times seemingly conscious of its own existence, as if each member of the band, through their instrument counterparts, are deeply examining the innermost core of who they are, and, at the very heart of Backspacer, what it really means to be human in our own ever changing world. Even the album’s artwork, a haunting mélange of Tarotesque cartoon images drawn by Tom Tomorrow, seems to reiterate this ideology, subtly hearkening back to our childhoods marked with the uncertainties of the future.

Backspacer is an important addition to the Pearl Jam canon because it forms a clear schism between old school and new school Pearl Jam. Some songs on the disc are definitively grunge-era Pearl Jam, reminiscent of albums like Binaural, Yield, and even No Code; but most, if not all, of the slower, more ruminative songs are distinctively Eddie Vedder as solo artist. Many times while listening, I recalled to mind certain songs from the Into the Wild soundtrack, on which the band’s frontman showed himself to be an artist of the first magnitude, and in this album, specifically with “Just Breathe” and “The End,” Vedder affirms his standing in the pantheon of the world’s most prominent songwriters.

Aside from just one track that probably won’t make it onto my iPod (namely “Johnny Guitar,” a track which feels more like a B-side of a similar quality to “Leatherman” on the “Given to Fly” single from 1998’s Yield album), Backspacer is top quality Pearl Jam power. Head to Target for the CD, hit up iTunes for a digital copy, or pick up the vinyl if you can find it, sit back and be transformed.

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