This Week's New Releases: Pearl Jam


[Monkeywrench / Island-2009]

Like the great Peter Gabriel, the guys in Pearl Jam find themselves in an ideally perfect situation: oblivious to trends and the fickle whimsy of current-day music fans; of interest mostly to a devout fan base. Luckily for them, the Seattle quintet’s followers are quite a numerous lot, making them still a force to be reckoned with; hipsters and Katy Perry fans be damned.

It’s in this climate that Eddie Vedder and co. have released their ninth (!) studio album, Backspacer, a bold statement of classicist rock which bears the strong imprint of the Pearl Jam front man’s love of The Who without falling into blind emulation or slavish imitation. After all, these guys have been around for a while and are much better than that. (Although, interestingly enough, the more Who-sounding tracks—and the best of the bunch—were not written by Vedder, an avowed fan of the band. Hmm…) It’s also a good lesson for some out there: this is the kind of album The Hold Steady could probably make if they ever applied themselves and didn’t let their Springsteen fixation get the best of them. But we digress.

There’s nothing here to capture the attention of anyone who has purposely overlooked Pearl Jam over the years. But those who stopped listening after their 1991 debut, Ten—musically the odd album out in the catalog, due to its gun-slinging ‘70s arena rock vibe—and never warmed up to the band’s stripped-down, punk-influenced subsequent work, might actually enjoy Backspacer. No, it’s not Ten, but it captures key elements of both worlds—not to mention incorporating a few, minor early ‘80s New Wave touches—and just might be the first of the band’s albums since then to appeal to that old crowd who moved on once Vedder took a larger role in the band’s songwriting.

But here's a nice twist: Vedder wrote 5 of Backspacer’s 11 songs, but this is guitarist Stone Gossard’s album. The 4 songs he wrote or co-wrote—without Vedder—are clearly the standouts on this disc. (Oh, and one minor complaint: two of those 4 tunes, "The Fixer" and "Johnny Guitar", both just a hair under the 3-minute mark, end a bit soon, fading before giving one a chance to exhale. No big deal, though.)

Clocking in at an old school 36 minutes, Backspacer is, simply put, a modern day classic rock record, made by full-on true believers for folks not worried about hipness, market perceptions or other non-music related nonsense. Quite simply, a great way to close out their second decade and yeah, it rocks. Good job, gentlemen.

Highlights: “The Fixer”, “Johnny Guitar”, “Amongst the Waves”, “Supersonic”.