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Pearl Jam's 'Backspacer': Four stars [UPDATED]

A thousand rock 'n' roll clichés have been built around the idea that guts and glory belong to the young. Pearl Jam's ninth studio album, "Backspacer," due out Sunday (Sept. 20), makes the opposite argument. Its 11 breakneck rockers and candidly emotional ballads, adding up to barely more than a half hour of optimally toned catharsis, gain power from the band's calm but constant awareness of life's ticking clock.

"I gotta say it now, better loud than too late," Eddie Vedder wails in "Amongst the Waves" -- the closest thing to an oceanic jam on "Backspacer," and at 3 1/2 minutes it's pretty much a shore dump. More than half of the songs here feature fast beats and screaming guitars instead of the more contemplative ensemble journeys for which Pearl Jam is famous.

But speed isn't the main point. Cellphone lifters such as "Just Breathe," Vedder's lovely celebration of life with the wife, don't wander either; he still has a philosophical bent, this time the lyricist (writing all the words for the first in many years) mostly keeps things personal, considering the pleasures and tests of family life, love and his own mortal body.

The music remains complex, even when it seems like a beer party. Promoting the album, Vedder has been comparing the rhythm section of Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron to Motown's fabled players, and he's almost right. They're more like a classic rock team (Entwistle-Moon, early Wyman-Watts), as sharp as the soul players but more hopped up and argumentative.
Peppered with hot little riffs from guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, maulers "Got Some" and "The Fixer" have a punk edge, but they're also pop -- just like the prime work of Vedder's favorite bands, the Who and the Ramones. Accessible without sacrificing sophistication, aggressive without flailing, the music on "Backspacer" testifies to the skill of a group locked into its groove but refusing to be bored with it.

That's one thing about middle age: You are who you are, and either you have a crisis about that or you celebrate the fact. References to death, addiction and love as redemption abound on "Backspacer," but it's interesting to consider how those topics, so central to psychology and spirituality, motivate the album's sound.

The lightness and dexterity of the playing throughout "Backspacer," and of Vedder's hard-driving, often playful vocals, come from Pearl Jam's members taking this music seriously, honing in and nailing it. Brendan O'Brien's production is radio-smart but not intrusive. The directness of these tracks is what Pearl Jam aimed for on its own, and there's still plenty of attention to detail, including some of lead guitarist McCready's best work of late.

This effort is not a throwaway, nor is it a switch-up simply meant to move units at the band's big-box retail partner, Target. ("Backspacer" is also available at independent record stores and through iTunes, Rock Band and the band's Ten Club.) It's proof of what a bunch of grown people can accomplish when they know exactly what they want.


Pearl Jam
Monkeywrench Records
Four stars

Albums are rated on a scale of one to four stars

UPDATED: An earlier edition of this blog post incorrectly stated the album's release date. "Backspacer" was released Sunday, Sept. 20, and not Tuesday, Sept. 22, as originally stated.

Comments () | Archives (11)

Excellent review of "Backspacer." As a loyal fan of Pearl Jam's since their beginning, I have to agree with your insight. I don't think the band have ever sounded "tighter". Besides the fact that I've been waiting over 10 years for them to put out a punk-style album, the McCready solos are so potent while rhythm of Ament and Cameron drive the album. And Vedder's lyrics are spine tingling. Maybe the best lyrics he's ever written. Just another confirmation why they are the best band on the planet and why they have touched so many lives through what most think as a "simple" thing...music.

The record is being released Sunday the 20th, NOT Tuesday. They are bucking all record industry trends, including the jaded Tuesday release date! No mention about them not being on the Sony label anymore? GET WITH IT, DUDE!!!

I adore this album. I did not expect this album to find itself among my list of best albums of the year, but it has. The lyrics are brilliant. The guitarist's bring thrills. You nail the rhythm section's feats. A piano is used throughout. Amidst the rock, they manage to roll in woodwinds, horns and strings, but at no time does this sound treacle. Vedder's voice. Vedder's voice. Eddie Vedder is outstanding on this album. Heart--wrenching (the End & Just Breathe), energetic (Got Some, Gonna See My Friend, The Fixer, Supersonic), longing (Johnny Guitar) philosophical (Speed Of Sound) and inspiring (Unthought Known, Amongst The Waves) Vedder runs the gamut on this album

I also want to thank you for writing a review that discusses what is important - the music - instead of writing irrelevant statements about past history which do nothing but take up space in a blog. Thank you for not being lazy and writing that sort of piece.

Brian, this review is great. She didn't mention certain stupid irrelevancies we've been subjected to reading in mainstream media for the past week. Good music journalism exists in mainstream!!

And yes, this is available TOMORROW - SUNDAY - at TARGET


It's official. You're a big fan of this band. I really admire them (and you) for staying "on message" over the years. The pundits that are saying Pearl Jam sold out with Target. That's right. Pearl Jam sells out. Every single night they play.

Did you really say "accessible"? Robert Hilburn's favorite compliment.
Will The Times be reviewing the shows?

Great review. Can't wait to get my paws on the CD.

Erruve - You tool, PJ not being owned by a major label anymore is a HUGE relevancy. They're essentially celebrating new-found freedom on this record, and they are doing things their own way. Stop smoking so much weed and crying all the time.

Check out an exclusive look including videos and tracks from "Backspacer" at http://www.precioustimeny.com/blog/?p=4730

I went to target Sunday morning 9am. No sign of the album anywhere. Had to ask someone working there and eventually the store manager who insisted new releases are on Tuesdays. Meanwhile on the tv in the music dept is Backspacer! with the release date. They went to the stockroom and got me what I needed! Just what I expected from the same place I buy my underwear, crockpots, baby food and enemas!
4 stars I agree!

Brilliant review. I have been following PJ since I saw the Alive video played on MTV's Headbanger's Ball.

Almost 20 years later and 21 live shows I could not be more proud to be a PJ fan.

Ms. Powers: this quote is close to perfect:
That's one thing about middle age: You are who you are, and either you have a crisis about that or you celebrate the fact. References to death, addiction and love as redemption abound on "Backspacer," but it's interesting to consider how those topics, so central to psychology and spirituality, motivate the album's sound.

I may not be middle-aged yet, but I get it.

Despite the length... This album rocks front to back! "Got Some" is the true gem and "The Fixer" takes the band in a whole new direction... WOW!

Great album. Short, powerful energy, high octain fun, with thoughtful moments. And these moments remind me of a Nick Drake folk feel. A fun album from Pearl Jam... And about time boys. Now if we could get Radiohead to forget the dark and celebrate the light... Now if Pearl Jam could only take out Muse...

Why send boys to do a man's job?

This album brought me back on the PJ bus, and to the next closest live date I can get to. Matt Cameron's "The Fixer" is destined for heavy rotation on rock radio.

Their 20th anniversary is coming soon and the word is that a film about the band is underway from Cameron Crowe.


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