Too often, inspiration gives way to complacency on 'Backspacer'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I have long felt that each new Pearl Jam album should be an event, celebrated and absorbed with every spare moment, given the time required for a true piece of art.
Time is not an issue here. With the strange release schedule (this is officially airing on a Sunday, not a Tuesday, and has been available through official means for more than a week), their new album, Backspacer, was given plenty of time to be processed by fans and critics, and with a Cameron Crowe-directed video for “The Fixer,” it’s getting the most exposure for any Pearl Jam record since “Vs.” It’s being celebrated as a back-to-basics collection, a driving, inspired album that confirms their spot atop the rock heap.
But, frankly, I don’t see it.
For their last album, Pearl Jam, the band took about four years and delivered a fantastic record. This time around, they knocked it out in about a month in an attempt to recreate the kinetic energy of fast projects like Vitalogy and Vs. Maybe four years is excessive, but perhaps another month or two would’ve served them good, at least in the songwriting department. Backspacer is a decidedly mixed bag, with the results ranging from fantastic to alarming.
Beginning with the positive, “Got Some” is excellent. It’s driving and has true feeling behind it, and there’s even a little bit of that social consciousness that seems to be behind most of their best work. And “Amongst the Waves” takes a classic Stone Gossard riff and lets Vedder’s voice and lyrics shine. They both also have that live sound that suits them so well. The problem, otherwise, is that they seems to be isolated in this group.
Maybe it’s my own old age, or maybe I’m not totally in the right frame of mind. But this is the first album I’ve heard by them where I don’t hear them trying new things. Instead, it’s an album of songs, some fast, some slow, some better than others. Too many moments are merely reminiscent of past glories, whereas the best moments on their previous records were those that pushed the music to a new plane. “Just Breathe” sounds like an Into the Wild holdover, but it’s slicked up and glossed over to the point of overkill. “Unthought Known” isn’t bad, except that I cringe when I hear Vedder yell, “Feel the sky blanket you/With gems and rhinestones.” “Supersonic” is cool, sure, but it cannibalizes the “Mankind” riff from 1996’s No Code.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is “Speed of Sound,” which surfaced as a gentle Eddie Vedder demo about a month prior to the release of the album. But the full band version has a polish that substitutes the homespun honesty for professionalism. It sounds great, but it feels empty. To make Vedder’s voice feel empty should be a crime. And, even with all that slick studio shine, it still sounds like it's about to fall apart at any moment. Actually, in that way, it's pretty remarkable.
Then there’s “The Fixer.” I obviously don’t understand what makes a “hit” record, because this is the weakest song they’ve put on an album this decade (though you could argue that Riot Act’s “Bu$hleaguer” deserves that consideration). The lyrics are bland, it has a painfully hooky riff and generally feels like background music to a video game. Of course, it is also blowing up across airwaves in the U.S. right now. Clearly, I will never be an A&R man for a label.
Backspacer isn’t that bad. It’s just that I can’t imagine myself reaching for it all that often. Perhaps the most damning aspect is that it feels like a latter-day Rolling Stones album. Not truly awful like Dirty Work, but deceptively mediocre along the lines of Undercover or Voodoo Lounge. A few decent songs, next to some that are initially pleasing to the ear, and ultimately unmemorable.
Funny enough, like many of those so-so Stones albums, it ends with a real knockout. “The End” shares the same aesthetic of Vedder’s recent solo outings but paired with Beatle-esque strings. Where it really stands out in this set, though, is its message of regret and longing. Too much of this album feels like a band collectively saying, “Hey, whatever, it’s all good, I can't complain.” Here, Pearl Jam is trying something else new, using the words and music to convey true emotion, to create a feeling.
Perhaps that’s the key. Backspacer only truly creates on three songs. On the rest, there is playing, rocking, riffing and singing, but no creation. It’s an album for an album’s sake, and for a band this good, that’s a shame.