2009 release from Eddie Vedder and the boys, their ninth album overall. For Backspacer, the lasting Grunge rockers decided to do it big. They left label J Records and decided to release to album themselves, since the certainly have enough money to do that. They also hooked up with '90s Alternative Rock producer du jour Brendan O'Brien (Korn, Bruce Springsteen), the first time that the band has worked with O'Brien since 1998's Yield. The music on the record features a sound influenced by Pop and New Wave.
Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Pearl Jam made peace with their hard rock past on their eponymous eighth album, but its 2009 sequel, Backspacer, is where the group really gets back to basics, bringing in old cohort Brendan O'Brien to produce for the first time since 1998's Yield. To a certain extent, the band has reached the point in its career where every move, every cranked amp, every short tough song is heralded as a return to form — call it the Stones syndrome — and so it is with Backspacer, whose meaty riffs have no less vigor than those of Pearl Jam; they're just channeled into a brighter, cheerier package. Despite this lighter spirit, Pearl Jam remain the antithesis of lighthearted good-time rock & roll — they're convinced rock & roll is a calling, not a diversion — but there's a tonal shift from the clenched anger that's marked their music of the new millennium, a transition from the global toward the personal. Ironically, by looking within the music opens up, as the group isn't fighting against the dying light but embracing how this most classicist of alt-rock bands is an anachronism in 2009. Of course, Pearl Jam were an anachronism even back in 1992, worshiping the Who instead of the Stooges, but this odd out-of-phase devotion to the ideals of post-hippie, pre-punk rock is better suited to bandmembers in their forties than in their twenties; fashion has passed them by several times over, leaving Pearl Jam just to be who they are, comfortable in their weathering skin. Pearl Jam battled their success for so long, intent on whittling their audience down to the devout, that it often felt like a chore to keep pace with the band because no matter the merit of the records, they always felt like heavy lifting, but that's no longer the case: here, as on the self-titled 2006 album, it sounds as if they enjoy being in a band, intoxicated by the noise they make. This means, all things considered, Backspacer is a party record for Pearl Jam — a party that might consist of nothing but philosophical debates till the wee hours, but a party nonetheless — and if 18 years is a long, long wait for a band to finally throw a party, it's also true that, prior to Backspacer, Pearl Jam wouldn't or couldn't have made music this unfettered, unapologetically assured, casual, and, yes, fun. [A Deluxe Edition was also released.]
If you're between the ages of, say, 25 and 35, chances are you either significantly overrate or underrate Pearl Jam. Either you carry a certain nostalgist's sentiment for one of your early rock touchstones (I fall into this camp), or you view them as the root of all that was overwrought and evil about mid-to-late-90s guitar music. Sure, everyone knows PJ sold eleven trillion albums between 1991 and '94, but still I imagine it's difficult for relative young'uns to reconcile how strong an opinion so many people in a specific demographic have about a group that hasn't been commercially or critically relevant for over a decade.
Backspacer, the group's ninth studio album, seems to suggest in its tossed-off 37 minutes that Pearl Jam have no greater concern and regard for what they do than the rest of the world can muster. Virtually the whole record settles into the same formula the band's been dutifully churning out since the dawn of the millennium-- lively but almost utterly hookless riff-driven hard rock. Lather, rinse, repeat. And when I say "riff-driven" I really mean "almost entirely riff-dependent," because musically the riffs themselves are typically the only things worth your attention.
PJ's long-dormant punk and hardcore proclivities (ugh, "Lukin") have been rising to the surface with greater regularity in recent years, and I'll admit in short bursts this bulldozing approach can be somewhat satisfying. The opening four songs kick-start and then keep up a certain pleasing level of propulsiveness, with the goofily fast-and-loose "Gonna See My Friend" (hey, is that an actual bassline I hear?) and Thin Lizzy-ish double entendres of "Johnny Guitar" being particularly listenable. Sooner or later, however, you remember these guys wouldn't know a melody if it bit them in the ass. What's worse, this chugging blitzkrieg negates the power of the band's greatest weapon, Eddie Vedder's voice, which can display its craggy richness and masculine grace only when the band isn't trying to break land-speed records. (I know some folks hate Ed's singing, but it mostly seems like they're reacting to the fact that his voice launched a thousand Nickelbacks, which is like hating "The Simpsons" because of "Family Guy" or "American Dad".)
The gentle "Just Breathe" might seem like the perfect opportunity for Vedder to finally dust off those resonant pipes, but instead he sings the tune with a distractingly country-ish catch in his voice, plus the tune is numbingly syrupy and the lyrics, after a promisingly pointed start ("I'm a lucky man to count on both hands the ones I love") devolve into tedium. The same hit-or-miss sensitivity marks "The End"-- Vedder inexplicably finds it necessary to remind us he's "just a human being" on one song and "just another human being" on the other-- but at least "The End" manages to land on the right side of affecting thanks to its painfully honest depiction of romantic dissolution ("This is not me/ You see/ Believe/ I'm better than this/ Don't leave"). Still, we have to rely on "Amongst the Waves" to deliver anything remotely resembling the soaring anthemics that used to be a PJ trademark (what I wouldn't give for a "Light Years" even). The back half of the album sure isn't inclined to help, largely abandoning even the modest steamrolling enjoyment of the record's initial jolt in favor of thoroughly forgettable mid-tempo dreck, save for "Supersonic", which nonetheless sounds like a band trying to be the Ramones minus the fun.
It's an extremely odd thing to say about a band that for three or four years was the biggest rock megalith on the planet, but nowadays Pearl Jam are the very definition of anonymously workmanlike, seemingly plugging along with their heads down from one colorlessly unimaginative album to the next. Once upon a time this was a group that was on top of the world and yet still took all kinds of bizarre chances, recording shit like lengthy tape experiments and songs about bugs-- often ridiculously self-indulgent, sure, yet always surprising. Now, paradoxically, with the spotlights long since extinguished, Pearl Jam seem content to do things by the book.
— Joshua Love, September 22, 2009