Backspacer isn't a revelation, but all things considered, it's solid
By MATT BERRY
STATIC and FEEDBACK staff writer
Some people, such as our esteemed editor Nick Tavares, enjoy looking at an album a whole, picking apart nuances, themes, and such. I say to hell with that, I’ve got 37 minutes to spare, so I’m just going to do a
Random Entirely Programmed Notes review of Pearl Jam’s latest album Backspacer song by song, writing for only the duration of each tune.
Note: Thanks to Pearl Jam’s drastically different approach on this album, this will be a surprisingly short review.
1. “Gonna See My Friend” - A striking opener that kicks off with power chords and a bent-up guitar riff from Mike McCready. The song, like several on this album, is schizophrenic, changing phases quickly and abruptly. The closest corollary to this song within the band’s catalog is “Life Wasted,” the opener to the band’s 2006 self-titled release. A solid rocker to start things off strong.
2. “Got Some” - By far the most Pearl Jammy song on the album, “Got Some” is a fast paced, guitar driven song that reminds me a lot of “Save You” off 2002’s Riot Act. The lyrics leave much to be desired, which is a recurring theme on Backspacer. The phrasing Eddie Vedder chooses fits very well with the song, but he isn’t exactly saying much. Essentially, he’s got some if you need it, if that wasn’t clear to you in the first verse. But that complaint notwithstanding, this is the band’s strongest effort on the album, and will be a staple of their concerts for years to come.
3. “The Fixer” - And now it comes to it: I have to put my final words down on the lead single for the album. The more I’ve heard it, the undeniable catchiness has finally caught up to me. Couple that with the live versions that I’ve heard of it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not a bad song. It is, however, a TERRIBLE mix by the usually spotless Brendan O’Brien. The main riff of the song, the chorus, and the bridge are all very strong, but the verses and breakdown are among the weakest efforts ever recorded by the band. And yet I can’t stop humming it all day after hearing it.
4. “Johnny Guitar” - This will surely go down as the most controversial song on the album among Pearl Jam fans. It’s scatterbrained and not arranged tightly, but there’s something about it that I just dig. When I first heard it, my reaction was “It’s like Pearl Jam recorded a Hold Steady song,” and I still stand by that. Vedder’s phrasing is much quicker than it normally is, and he almost branches out into sing-speak during a couple of verses.
5. “Just Breathe” - Clearly inspired by and possibly leftover from Vedder’s Into the Wild soundtrack, I can’t get past the guitar track of this song. It’s a combination of Vedder’s “Tuolumne” and Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.” Looking past that 300 pound gorilla in my mind, the song is a nice little ballad that illustrates the band’s changing attitude: it’s an upbeat ballad as opposed to the band’s gloomy, depressing songs in the past (“Nothingman,” “Better Man,” “Off He Goes”). The optimism oozes through the speakers and carries over to the remaining songs on the album.
6. “Amongst the Waves” - Another case of optimism for the band, particularly Vedder. There’s not much music-wise to talk about in this song, besides the catchy and well-sung choruses, so I’ll elaborate on my theories behind the band’s optimism. When I named Pearl Jam the best album of 2006, I noted that the theme of that album was “I have tasted a life wasted, I’m never going back again.” The band seems to have jumped on that sentiment and taken it to hyperbole with this album. When Eddie Vedder sounds happy on an album and says “I’ve gotta say it now, better now than too late,” it’s clear that the band has turned away from its musical and lyrical past in countless ways.
7. “Unthought Known” - At first I thought that they had accidentally printed “Wishlist” on this album, but it was just Vedder down-strumming in much the same manner. The album’s most epic song, it treads dangerously close to U2 territory but does not cross into the cheesy template set forth by Bono and The Edge. If you’ll notice, I’ve mentioned Vedder numerous times but have barely mentioned other members of the band. It’s not to say that other members do not contribute. The songs were contributed by a variety of members, and each member has their own song that they make their own (Matt Cameron on “Got Some” comes to mind).
8. “Supersonic” - See, this is what I expected from a 37-minute Pearl Jam album that was described as fast and punky. The slide guitar and power chord intro is very reminiscent of “Mankind” and “Blood” from the band’s glory days. Again, there’s nothing going on lyrically here. The Guns ‘N Roses-style breakdown in the middle is territory in which I never expected to hear the band, but it fits.
9. “Speed of Sound” - Oh boy, this song is close to a disaster. The piano, bass, guitar and Vedder are so discordant at the beginning that the song never recovers. It goes from a very minor key to an upbeat chorus and back, with no transition. The demo that was released in promotion of the album, featuring just Vedder on guitar and vocals, had potential, but the full band studio version is among the worst things the band has ever put down on record. The parts of the song are put together sloppily and simply do not fit together.
10. “Force of Nature” - Now we get to Mike McCready’s songwriting contribution and the most lead-guitar driven song on the album. A pretty standard rocker, there’s not much to complain about here, but there’s also not much to get excited about either. And that’s pretty much what I took away from this album. As you favorite band ages and gets into their 40s, they could make for worse albums than this. As Nick has pointed out before, not everyone can be Bob Dylan or Neil Young and actually get better as you get older. All I really wanted was an album I didn’t hate, and I got that. Backspacer is almost certainly the band’s worst effort, but it’s not a disappointment at all. How could it be? If you have high expectations of a band that based its style on youthful anger and energy releasing an album in their mid-40s, you're sadly misdirecting your energy.
11. “The End” - A nice little acoustic number from Vedder to close out the album. Some people may cry blasphemy at the inclusion of strings and horns, but it’s hardly new ground for the band. “Parting Ways,” the closer on Binaural, featured strings, albeit much more stripped down.
This leads me to my final thoughts on the album: it’s Pearl Jam’s Let it Be. Does the production ruin some of the songs? Yes. Does it come close to the genius exhibited during the band’s heyday? No. Are the songs the most complex of the band’s career? No. But is it listenable and enjoyable? I’d say so.
September 20, 2009