Before we heard a single note from Pearl Jam’s ninth studio album, we heard about the long-running anti-corporate band’s partnership with Target and their plan to debut the first single (and arguably best rock song) in an advertisement for the retailer. The alliance was so talked about that by the time they released a proper video for “The Fixer,” we thought it was a Target ad. (It wasn’t, but the commercial uses the same footage.) Of course, as other songs hit the Web one by one, we moved beyond the backstory and let this latest Brendan O’Brien-produced collection stack up against PJ’s canon.
To recount: They did the rocker “Got Some” on Conan, offered an All-Star preview of “The Fixer,” revealed “Speed Of Sound” in a Tom Tomorrow treasure hunt, dug into downcast closer “The End” in London, teased the balladic “Just Breathe” in a 9-minute publicity video, and leaked “Supersonic” as a b-side. There are 11 songs in total. You’ve heard more than half of Backspacer without having to enter your local Target, so even if you haven’t listened to the LP from start to finish, you should have a pretty good idea. That is unless the five remaining tracks aren’t total game changers, right? They are not game changers. Let’s start at the beginning…
The opener “Gonna See My Friend”‘s a mid-tempo 3-minute grunge rocker that gives Vedder a chance to shred his throat and see his friend to “make it go away” before moving into another of these mid-tempo rockers “Got Some.” (“Mid-tempo” is a tag you could apply liberally across Backspacer.) “Got Some”‘s followed by the ubiquitous (and still Foo Fighters-esque) “The Fixer.” Then we limp into “Johnny Guitar.” Yeah, limp. Or plod? Is there anyone who likes this song? There are too many of these indistinguishable semi-rockers in a row.
When you get to “Just Breathe,” a pretty acoustic ballad about mortality and love, it feels like a godsend. It’s not the second coming of anything, but it’s a genuinely moving song, and if offers a much needed change of pace: “Oh I’m a lucky man / To count on both hands / The ones I love / Some folks just have one / Yeah, others they got none / Stay with me / Let’s just breathe.” It’s the finale, though, that really does something. We get “Nothing you would take / Everything you gave / Hold me til I die / Meet you on the other side” set to a tasteful string flourish. The acoustic-lined closer “The End” is another moving, reflective tune, but otherwise, the focus is on surprisingly generic power-chorded rockers.
“Amongst The Waves” continues the love theme, but picks it up some, and tries to soar. It’s not bad — in fact, the opening’s promising — but after we get to the chorus, it feels overlong (at less than 4 minutes). That happens a few times on Backspacer. A more successful variation on the theme is “Unthought Known,” a fine anthemic song that possesses some of Pearl Jam’s earlier unhinged feel, albeit in mellower form. Still, you can imagine Vedder climbing the amps in a small venue while he moves into the hypnotic repetition of “nothing left,” etc.
Nothing left. Pearl Jam have remained an admirable group of people, but you do wonder how much energy they have left. The moon’s a steady lyrical image on Backspacer. One of the strongest parts of “Unthought Known” is the lovely scenario conjured by “See the path cut by the moon / For you to walk on.” And “Speed Of Sound” includes a “dream of distant light” and a sun that never comes. “Force Of Nature” sees “a silhouette in the black light full moon.” People don’t usually say moons set, no, but when you couple this focus on nighttime skies with “The End” (and the album’s) final words “I’m here, but not much longer,” things get complicated. What are Pearl Jam hinting at? A new day? The end of a long (Bush-run) night? Are they just sapped and tired?
Whatever the case, Backspacer has its moments, but unless you’re a hardcore fan or incurably nostalgic, it’s difficult making it through the entire thing without nodding out. Weirdly, the slower they go, the better they sound. You don’t necessarily want to embrace mellower, less raucous old age, but it seems like it’s what suits them best at this point.
Backspacer is out 9/20 via Monkeywrench (and Universal internationally) at Target, iTunes, and independent record stores.