Monday, October 5, 2009

Album Review: Backspacer

backspacer-cover Did you know that band Pearl Jam was still around? It’s surprising to me, too – while their Seattle grunge compatriots burned out or faded away, they continued churning out an album every two or three years.

While each of these albums reached fewer and fewer listeners up until 2002’s Riot Act, the band saw something of a late-career resurgence with their eponymous 2006 release. Backspacer is very much the follow-up to the band’s last album – that sentence seems redundant, but this album as a whole has the exact same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor.

A primer for those with no idea what a “pearled jam” is: Pearl Jam has been around the block a few times, both chronologically and sonically. Starting with the grunge-meets-arena-rock sound of Ten, their 1991 debut, they plunged headlong into the angst-ridden sounds of 1993’s Vs. and then the more experimental sounds of 1994’s Vitalogy and 1996’s No Code, bringing us to 1998’s Yield, the band’s first return-to-form album.

This first leg of their career saw a band that hit more often than it missed, with fast rockers that kicked some ass (Even Flow, Animal, Spin the Black Circle) and some ballads that were so nice that the band hesitated to release them, fearing them “too commercial” (Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town, Better Man, Wishlist). This period also saw the zenith of their commercial and critical appeal.

Two okay but ultimately forgettable albums followed (2000’s Binaural, Riot Act). The Pearl Jam of the new millennium has, by most accounts, been more stable as a group – they’ve had the same drummer since 2000, but went through three between 1991 and 1999 – but it would seem that age and stability has sapped some of the band’s vitality. Their ballads stayed nice, but their rockers slowed down and became drained of their immediacy and earnestness and hookiness. They made albums that their dedicated fans would buy out of loyalty, but no one else cared to listen to.

And this brings us up to 2006, where anything the band did that exceeded 100 beats per minute would be hailed as a return to form. At least, this is what the critics seemed to think. Fast, straightforward rock? Pearl Jam must be back!

I, for one, didn’t agree. Just because Pearl Jam was straightforward didn’t necessarily mean it was a return to form. Their eponymous effort had many of the same problems that all of their new millennium albums had – an unfortunate tendency, as the album wore on, to sound samey. Individual songs could punch through, but as a cohesive album it left little impact.

Those problems are back in spades on Backspacer. At just over 36 minutes, it’s an economical affair, and that’s about the only thing separating it from the rest of the post-2000 Pearl Jam albums.

That’s not to say it’s a bad album. “Gonna See My Friend” is an excellent way to kick things off, and first single “The Fixer” is solid – both have a lot of energy and vitality, even if they aren’t quite as melodic or memorable as the rockers from their early albums. Still, this is the same energized Pearl Jam we heard on Pearl Jam, and it’s a welcome change from the foggy Binaural and the disjointed Riot Act.

Most of the album’s other rockers are its worst offenders. “Johnny Guitar” is the fourth (and least) of four uptempo songs that open the album, and as such it comes and goes without any impact. “Force of Nature” is similarly unremarkable. The problem with many of these songs is that they’re all too similar in sound – it’s just a rock band playing a rock song. It could be anyone playing anything. It’s pleasant, but it doesn’t stay with you.

As with before, the slow songs are more reliable. The acoustic jangle and introspective lyrics of “Just Breathe” make that track the highlight of the album – if you’re just going to listen to one song from the album, make it this one. The soaring chorus of “Amongst the Waves” is also a high point, evoking their earlier work without aping it outright.

The problem with the slow songs is the same as with the fast songs – there are five or so of them collected together on this album, and some of them just aren’t as good as the others. “The End” is probably their weakest closer to date, and “Speed of Sound” is most notable for the fact that it is in 3/4 time. It’s alright music but it’s not memorable, and it’s hard to say a lot more than that about it.

I’m sort of at a loss to sum Backspacer up into a couple of sentences. The songs are all nice enough to listen to while you’re actually listening to them, but you’re not going to walk around with these songs in your head. I re-listened to Pearl Jam as a part of my preparation for this piece, and was amazed at how little I remembered from the last time I listened to it in its entirety. It’s not a bad album and there’s not a truly bad song on it, but it’s not going to influence anyone to do anything. It’s not a bold statement, or career-defining, or even the much-talked-about “return to form.” It just is what it is – some talented musicians who have been doing this for a long time, throwing together a competent album and then using it as an excuse to go on tour.

In that sense, Backspacer is Pearl Jam’s sequel in every sense of the word.

Track picks: The Fixer, Just Breathe, Amongst the Waves

Final verdict: 55 Congo: Original Motion Picture Soundtracks