Let’s talk about grunge. Actually, let’s not talk about grunge, because this is a review of Pearl Jam‘s new album. Shock? Horror? But Pearl Jam are grunge, right?
There is now, thankfully, one indisputable way of ending this tiresome debate. Nirvana simply would not have been capable of making an album like Backspacer. And just as Pearl Jam’s last self-titled album was a gut-punching exposé of the band’s true trad-rock persuasions, so Backspacer is the certification, and then some.
It comes with a slight sense of irony now that Eddie Vedder and company are essentially practicing an art that they are supposed to have redefined with Ten and Vs. Not that the band would notice the irony of it all. If Kurt Cobain was Generation X’s reluctant social satirist, Vedder was the earnest confessor, preferring instead to repel the social misfitism that ran through his psyche and his lyrics with impassioned heart-wailing and wild, gesticulating on-stage showmanship.
Vedder is probably best viewed as this generation’s natural Robert Plant successor. The all-too-willing showman in Vedder is even more evident here. But the question remains: by moving even closer to hall-of-famer rock traditionalism and further away from what is expected of a Pearl Jam record – the usual potent blend of lyrical anxiety and sonic aggression – are the band now trying to force square trad-rock pegs into round alt-rock holes?
For Pearl Jam purists, the band’s last self-titled album will feel like the more balanced compromise. Its initial joy-rock/protest-rock salvo is balanced by its more considered, self-indulgent prog-rock conclusion; and, for whatever reason, an album that evenly balances itself always trumps an album that starts by exceeding expectations and ends by falling short of them. Moreover, the album’s anti-Bush themes gave it a recriminatory edginess; a focus. It hinted at maturity as well as excelling at being immature.
Backspacer, on occasion, seems to revel a little in its immaturity. And while it speeds along with the same punky momentum as the opening five tracks of Pearl Jam – hardly any of the tracks trouble the four minute mark – it lacks the necessary counterbalance. Worse still, it falls a little short in the quality stakes too. Some will love this anti-rebellious alt-rock-becomes-rock-pop streak; others will detest it. Some will see it as a happier dawn for Pearl Jam, but others will see it as the beginning of the end.
So, what of the songs? Gonna See My Friend doesn’t waste time genuflecting and waving to the camera. It gets down to business and leaps out of the tracks like an amphetamised Usain Bolt. On first listen, it’s a bit of a shock. Unlike the last album’s bluesy Led Zeppelin and AC/DC inferences, Backspacer’s beginnings are metal in character and punk in attitude – and, as a result, feel clear-headed.
Got Some’s initial Definitely Maybe-esque new wave indie impression is startling before it falls, a little disappointingly, into the slower, breakneck funk-rock of Red Hot Chili Peppers. Vedder continues his Anthony Kiedis impersonation with The Fixer, Pearl Jam’s finest pop track to date. Again, it sparkles with a sonorous contentment. It’s a joyously happy-sounding record that seeps its way into the memory and stays there, fixed.
With adrenaline expended, it soon becomes clear that Backspacer is as much about love as it is about contentment. Just Breathe, the album’s most poignant juncture, is a tale of things unsaid: “Did I say that I need you? / oh, if I didn’t I’m a fool you see / no one knows this more than me,” and things that need to be said: “Nothing you would take / everything you gave / hold me til I die.” For a band that describes this as their first real love song, it’s a very accomplished one.
Unthought Known is the album’s emotional precipice. Vedder screams metaphors with a primal intensity: “Feel the sky blanket you / With gems and rhiiinestones!” Its explosive, anthemic take on the art of life-learned reflection sounds an awful lot like a U2 copyright suit in the making – the kind of comparison that will split Pearl Jam’s hordes of fans in two. And like the U2 of today, Pearl Jam seem too easily pleased. The next run of tracks are depressingly below-par. From this point, it’s better to skip through to the album’s plaintive acoustic farewell, The End. Its raw confessions reveal Vedder to be something of a confused romantic: “More than friends, I always pledge, ’cause friends they come and go… I just want to hold on / and know I’m worth your love / and I, don’t think, there’s such a thing.”
When Pearl Jam shocked the world with Ten and Vs, there would have been few that believed the band were capable of an album such as Backspacer – an ostensibly traditional rock album that, at times, feels contented and at others strays close to emotional equity. The shock this time is that they nearly pull it off.