Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Pearl Jam - Backspacer

Recently, Pearl Jam has become more of a straightforward rock band than perhaps they've ever been. Even their breakthrough in the first wave of grunge, Ten, had stretches of ambient dissonance marking them as a distinct entity emerging from the Seattle fog. As they tore down their own fame throughout the '90s, they dabbled in world music. After coming back to a major label with 2006's Pearl Jam (the eponymous title surely signifying an attempted return to the mainstream), their latest album seems to be the next step in their later-stage evolution. Like R.E.M. on their last album, now they are simply rocking out and (gasp!) even having fun.

Take "The Fixer", the lead single from Backspacer. It's an energetic rock song reminiscent of the band's last lead single, "World Wide Suicide." The difference here is that, where "Suicide" (and most the last album as a whole) was preoccupied with the political doom-and-gloom of the Bush era's nadir, here Pearl Jam is freed from that burden and this song feels brighter (and better) as a result. The chords ring with more colors and the drums bang away with more pep in the beat; though it never lets its poppier infusions overwhelm the rock song at its choir, this is as friendly and optimistic a song as Pearl Jam has been known for. Even the lyrics ("When something's broke, I wanna put a bit of fixin' on it") are hopeful.

The optimism lets Pearl Jam examine different angles of the lyrical themes from their past. One of the highlights of Ten, "Black", dealt with the heartbreaking anguish of wondering why your love is with someone else. "Johnny Guitar" on this album covers the same topic, but it's a more upbeat take on the same anguish. This isn't a ballad: the drums and guitars are in a steady groove throughout. When the song hits the bridge, Eddie Vedder's protagonist lets the hope shine in ("And I sleep with the light on, in case she comes...") and even though the song doesn't have a happy ending, the song is light years away from the apocalyptic wailing of "Black." (That's not to say "Black" is too bleak. For the record, it's one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs of all-time.)

The most interesting songs on any Pearl Jam album are always the down-tempo numbers. Backspacer is no exception, and the most popular song on the new album is the album's lightest moment: "Just Breathe." A tender acoustic ballad, accompanied by light percussion and bright strings in the best tradition of the soft-song-on-the-rock-album, "Just Breathe" is a gently-strummed lullaby. I imagine it's the closest Vedder would ever come to the Jack Johnson/John Mayer family of acoustic folk-pop. Pearl Jam has been known for their acoustic ballads, but not ones this warm and comfortable.

The rest of the album carries this tone, and the effect is like seeing an old friend through a new prism. The changes aren't so drastic as I've made them out to be, but they are also so consistently in evidence on the album that they are ever-apparent. Whether it's the anthemic "Unthought Known" opening with a Cars-like guitar lick before featuring an almost Coldplay-esque piano anchoring the chorus or "Speed of Sound" approaching Dave Matthews' pop ballad stylings from earlier in the decade, the album puts a different spin on the Pearl Jam of old and the results are enjoyable. Pearl Jam have long been the kings of longevity of all the bands from their grunge scene. They're still going strong and, like the best bands do when they're 20 years in, they're still growing and exploring. And when Backspacer closes with another acoustic ballad, "The End," I sincerely hope it isn't.


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