CD Review: Pearl Jam, “Backspacer”

Written by CD Reviews, Music

611sadSTcqL._SCLZZZZZZZ_[1]If you were born of a certain generation that, once upon a time, thought Whitesnake was bitchin’, Firebirds and Trans Ams were hot rides and the mullet was, well, it was just fine, you understood why Nirvana and Pearl Jam were so huge in the early 1990s. After all, we liked rock music, right? At the beginning of that next decade, we were still stuck with the same bad haircuts yowling about getting drunk/high/laid and wondering which planet they lived on. Nirvana, with their power punk roar, and Pearl Jam, with their neo-classic rock angst, proved to be a tonic for recovering rockers who just weren’t feeling too good anymore.

Cut to the latter half of the ’90s and traipsing into the 2000s, when we were all interested in feeling good again, Kurt Cobain was gone, and Pearl Jam was struggling. Positivity and happy, bouncy sing-alongs never were their forte, having proven their devotion to Neil Young, Crazy Horse and the Who again and again. About the best they could do in that arena was their live cover of the early ’60s Wayne Cochran tune “Last Kiss” even if it was an entry into the ‘dead girlfriend/boyfriend ballad’ canon. So we find ourselves approaching nearly two decades of Pearl Jam (yeah, you’re old, admit it) while the band starts its own label (albeit with Universal distributorship), calling their own shots with longtime producer Brendan O’Brien in tow, still feisty and sticking it to corporate America even though their latest, Backspacer, is a Target exclusive release.

Seeing as how this album has been a lot more heavily anticipated than your average piece of rock band product, several members of the Popdose staff have weighed in on Pearl Jam’s latest. As always, your opinion is welcomed in the comments section, so without further ado, let’s look at Backspacer.

Dw. Dunphy: The first thing that hit me the moment the music started was that the first song, “Gonna See My Friend” sounds more like Chris Cornell than Chris Cornell does anymore. The second thing I noticed, once the album was over, was that it’s a pop record and not a bad one at that. It comes as a surprise after the dour Riot Act and the wrongheaded, eponymous avocado album where the band did their best to recall Ten but missed the mark on almost all counts.

This one sounds like the entire group has made peace with the fact they’re not young men anymore, and given their status they haven’t much to be angry over anymore either. That comes through on my personal favorite of the bunch, “Speed of Sound” – While not necessarily a party tune, it is laced with certain ’60s pop touches like the Beatlesque “Getting Better” strum buried in the background, the Beach Boys-like plinking of the piano and the sense that Vedder, Ament and company have stopped identifying with their influences and now see them as contemporaries.

It was a tall order to ask for a record that would make me interested in Pearl Jam again. I think they actually might have done just that with Backspacer.

Michael Fortes: With the cursory listen I gave the album as background music while streaming at work, my initial impression is one of relief. It’s actually a lot better than I expected, which is to say better than the avocado record but still a notch below Riot Act and No Code. That’s all I can say for at least the next two weeks, though.

Rob Smith: I like the new one a great deal, particularly the second half of the record, when it opens up melodically.

Scott Malchus: I just started listening to it and enjoy it more than anything I’ve heard from them since Yield.

Rob: Wait til you get to “Amongst the Waves.” Love it.

Scott: Yep, “Amongst the Waves” is pretty fucking awesome. Great solo, too.

Dave Steed: After Binaural it’s all been pretty boring for me. I gave it a quick once-over, I think we’re in agreement that “Amongst the Waves” is the key track here. It is very good.

Lately I’ve tended to lean towards the more rockin’ stuff from Pearl Jam, but I think I like the mellower stuff on the new record. Again, quick listen – but I’m missing 2009 in it. I’m not saying it’s retread Pearl Jam, but these sound like songs created in 1995, not 2009 to me. Maybe cranking it in the car tomorrow will change my mind. Intriguing if nothing else.

Arend Anton: Anyone seen the commercial with PJ rocking out in front of the Target logo? Never thought I’d see this day come…

Dave: I’ve given it three solid listens now, and I think I’ve finally gotten the record I’m supposed to be hearing. When I first commented, I seemed to think it was a little dated but that’s because with the first two listens I went into it looking for Pearl Jam to break the mold and bring me something they haven’t over the last decade. But the third listen really hit me differently and I heard just a simplification of the formula. Musically, this is a relatively straightforward record. The last few have had some quirky moments that always hit me as Pearl Jam trying too hard, but this has none of those. It’s just straight ahead rock and roll – almost like Pearl Jam saying “we are what we are and here’s 11 tracks of us being us.” I dig it – and if nothing else, it’s leaps and bounds better than the last one or Riot Act.

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So the general consensus among the staff is that Backspacer is a marked improvement over previous Pearl Jam offerings. What’s your opinion? We’d like to know!

Backspacer can be purchased at your local Target department store or through Amazon.com.