Pearl Jam is undoubtedly one of the Titans of rock music, the band has been playing for the last 19 years, has recorded 9 studio albums, has sold an estimated 60 million records worldwide and is pretty much the only surviving band of the grunge rock explosion that was the early 90s.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have at least one favourite Pearl Jam song, such is this band’s impressive repertoire. Whether it’s the slow and powerful behemoth that is ‘Alive’, the up-tempo acoustic/electric classic ‘Daughter’ or their more hook heavy attempts such as ‘Do the Evolution’ and ‘Ghost’, this band has a knack for making records that are consistently good.
Backspacer is no exception to this rule. The band recorded Backspacer with producer Brendan O’Brien (who worked with the band on Vs, Vitalogy, No Code and Yield) and that in itself was definitely a step in the right direction.
O’Brien is not the kind of producer who sweats the small stuff, he knows what works, he knows what the band is capable of and is happy to let the rest take care of itself, under his expert guidance, of course.
The result is that Backspacer is a lot of fun. You’d think after 8 studio albums Pearl Jam would start toning things down a little, maybe write an acoustic album with Leonard Cohenish undertones, but no, if anything Backspacer has proven that there is still a lot of life left in Pearl Jam, despite the fact that the band are all in their mid to late 40s.
Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield says it best ‘Backspacer, Pearl Jam’s ninth album, backspaces to that boyish spirit, with the shortest, tightest, punkiest tunes they’ve ever banged out.’
In total the album comprises 11 tracks and breaks the record for the shortest Pearl Jam album ever recorded, lasting roughly 37 minutes in total, a fact that almost every review I’ve read about this album has pointed out.
Right from the get-go this album rocks out, delivering a powerful three-hit combo in the form of the opening tracks ‘Gonna see my friend’, ‘Got Some’ and ‘Fixer’ that set the tone for the 8 tracks to follow.
Matt Cameron’s drumming takes centre stage right from the outset because if there’s one thing O’Brien knows well, it’s how to get a drum sound that refuses to play dutifully in the background while the guitars get all the glory.
But that’s not to say guitarists Mike McCready (lead) and Stone Gossard (rhythm) are slacking off on this album, if anyone’s slacking off it’s bassist Jeff Ament, but then again he usually slacks off (give me one killer Pearl Jam bass riff and I’ll eat this review).
The halting, half picked, half strummed riffs that make up ‘The Fixer’, the quick and dextrous opening to ‘Supersonic’ and the complex melody that is the second track ‘Got Some’ are all examples of how Gossard and McCready are masters of their art.
But the thing that surprised me most about Backspacer is that after 19 years of screaming his lungs out, Eddie Vedder’s voice is still just as powerful as it was back in 1990 when he first growled out ‘Once upon a time I could control myself…’
The man is a vocal God. If you could bottle the magic that makes him sing the way he does, it would sell for millions. He also writes all the lyrics on this album and does so with his customary minimalistic and honest style that comes across as sincere without being preachy.
There is even some influences from Eddie Vedder’s solo album he recorded for the movie ‘Into the Wild’ in tracks like ‘Just Breathe’ and ‘The End’, which add a welcome change from the otherwise riff-heavy tracks that define Backspacer.
The only flaw in Backspacer is that all in all, it’s nothing we haven’t heard before from these surviving grunge rockers. The experimentation on the album is kept to a minimum and it can’t stand up to past gems such as Yield or my personal favourites No Code and Riot Act.
It’s a solid album and fans will love it instantly, but I suspect a lot of people might find Backspacer boring on the first few listens, but give it time, it’s a solid album and like all Pearl Jam albums, you’ll catch a track from Backspacer in years to come that will play like an old friend in your head and you’ll be thankful in that moment for bands like Pearl Jam who stick to their guns and do so with style and undeniable charm.
Final Verdict: 7.5/10