I have spent a lot of time listening to, contemplating and overanalyzing this record. I did not want to post a review before I had given the entire record a fair shake. I’ve wrestled with the opinions I’m about to spew forth, perhaps too much. Ok, definitely too much. But it’s rare I get to critique music like I used to, and this is my favorite band after all.
There are two startling aspects of Backspacer that should quickly frame the rest of the review for readers. The first is that the band is in a good mood. Despite a love song here or there, most Pearl Jam music has come from a dark or angry place. That is why it the band resonated with children of the 1990s. Backspacer tracks like "The Fixer" and "Amongst The Waves" are overwhelmingly upbeat and positive. There’s nothing wrong with this in the least, and it’s a stark contrast to the overwhelmingly pissed-off Pearl Jam of the last self-titled record, which was quite powerful.
That power is not on Backspacer.
It is more free-wheeling. In fact the second thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is the stark style of most songs. There are hardly any new guitar effects being tested out here at all. The only extravagant production are the addition of strings and piano to some ballads. Most of the rock songs whether epics like "Amongst the Waves" or straightforwardly punk "Supersonic," sound like they were written with the concert stage in mind.That doesn’t mean the production is bad mind you. Brendan O’Brien returns to the mixing board — his last album was the masterful Yield, still my favorite PJ record — and squeezes the most out of the band on each song.
Before you think I’m too “fan obsessed” there are some glaringly bad songs on the record. "Speed of Sound" is actually overproduced as the previously released demo clearly proves. It’s core is something akin to Eddie Vedder’s Into The Wild work — as is the beautiful "Just Breathe" — but the band’s participation is heavy handed for such a simple song. The piano sounds cheesy and there are some sort of digital effects akin to lasers mixed in. It’s just an odd way of recording this song, especially since most of the album is so minimalistic.
That is the same problem with "Force of Nature." It’s a mid-tempo track that starts off well enough but by god when they kick into the chorus, the U2-esque cheesiness also kicks in. “One man stands on the edge of the ocean, a beacon on dry land, eyes upon the horizon in the dark before the dawn.” Seriously? Eddie Vedder, the guy who wrote “Corduroy” came up with this?
It just so happens these two songs come at the tail end of the record right before another beautiful Into the Wild themed “The End” which is a sad song about death that could be a sequel to “Man of the Hour.”
I detail each track below and what makes them unique. Overall the short album plays most things safe. Even the stand-out "Unthought Known" doesn’t have the initial sonic bombast of a track like “Marker in the Sand” from the last record. However, because its intro is rooted in live improvs the band has played for years, it does exude a natural ease that is really what this album is about. I wouldn’t call the album laid back, because the first four songs are unrelenting hard rockers, but it is a casual one.
Another oddity about Backspacer which is kind of neat is that most dads — and the non-indie record store shoppers — out there will either download Backspacer via iTunes — it’s a new iTunes LP with interactive liner notes — or will pick up a copy when they’re at Target on Sunday shopping for diapers or cheap undershirts. It’s kind of a casual purchasing process too. That to me makes adds one more reason that the album a bit less remarkable than others than came before it.
If you want to hear Backspacer before buying it check out Pearl Jam's MySpace page where it is streaming in its entirety.
Track by Track ramblings
- Gonna See My Friends: This is why Pearl Jam is so good. It's a fast rocker but there is very little reliance on their previous work. There is a definite Who influence and Stones though. There are also some interesting backing vocals. This is one of those tightly wound songs that gets the most out of the band, especially bassist Jeff Ament, who really shines on this album.
- Get Some: Hands down the most addictive song on the album. And it’s about political punditry! Another really tightly crafted song with excellent drumming. And I already know how great it is live. It’s not poppy like The Fixer, but like I said, this will be the song that gets stuck in your head like no other.
- The Fixer: It’s a good song but doesn't sonically match the previous two tracks. Those two are raw ‘Stones, this is glossy Police. However, it may be the first time I can remember that Pearl Jam actually picked the right song for a first single. It works better as a standalone song, not as an album track. But it definitely signifies the optimistic/happy attitude of the band.
- Johnny Guitar: Now this is a weird song. It’s odd because Eddie sounds like he’s lyrically telling a straight forward, literal story. It’s one of longing for a woman that isn’t his and it’s also overtly sexual, which in itself is unique. It turns out it’s not a literal story, but for most listeners I don’t think they’ll pick up on it. There’s no chorus. Just three minutes of Thin Lizzy influenced rock with some solid guitar playing.
- Just Breath: This Into The Wild ballad is more like an interlude in a rock album than a free flowing transition. It’s kind of disjointing. This is a great song but is so similar to into the wild it's hard to shake. Most of those songs however sounded incomplete and truncated, while this sounds lush and full. There are strings and some vocal overdubs which is kind of strange for a song that would likely be fine with just a guitar. Also some surprising bass work from Ament
- Amongst the Waves: At first I hated this track. It came off as trying to be epic in scope but was kind of pedestrian especially since Vedder falls back on oceanic references. Seriously, if he wasn’t allowed to mention waves, the ocean etc. every Pearl Jam album would be 15 minutes shorter. It’s a bit reliant on Quadrophenia Who. It has grown on me a lot though, and in the car it flourishes. Live I expect it to be quite good.
- Unthought Known: This is actualy just like some of the improvs the band has done for 15 years, starting around the 1996 tours. But here, they turn it into a full song. Very interesting gradual buildup to crescendo but it's not intricate. It's no Immortality or Insignificance or even Present Tense, but it is my favorite song on Backspacer.
- Supersonic: A mod rocker and at points sounds like Spin The Black Circle. Probably at the wrong spo on the record but maybe the band doesn’t want people falling asleep.
- Speed of Sound: This song doesn't make sense at all. This orchestrated version is awful compared to the barebones demo the band released earlier this summer. It reeks of a band past its prime or just old, which Pearl Jam really isn’t. Even bad records like Riot Act didn't feel that way. Again, stripped down it doesn't feel that way. I can see it being the piss break song at concerts.
- Force of Nature: At first this song sounds good…but then comes the chorus and it turns jnto some other band that can’t be my beloved Pearl Jam. Does he really say “the dark before the dawn?” WTF Eddie. Sounds like Eye of the Tiger or something. The way the guitar comes in at the end is beyond cheesy and just so unlike Pearl Jam. I might delete this track off my iTunes.
- The End: Another beautiful Into The Wild type song. One of the better album enders Pearl Jam has ever done. It really takes the bad taste of the past two songs out of your mouth, but you have to listen to them to get to the prize. Unfortunate.