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

September 18, 2009 | 12:40 pm
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.