After 2006's self-titled album reestablished them as a rock band to be reckoned with, the hoopla over Pearl Jam's current release, Backspacer, has felt more like a pop culturally relevant event than anything they've done since the mid-’90s. Eddie Vedder and company had the honor of being the inaugural musical guest on Conan O'Brian's Tonight Show. They headlined the hip Outside Lands Music Festival in San Francisco. They've been consistently ranked in Yahoo's top searches since Backspacer's drop date last week. Considering they spent the first half of this decade in a more experimental groove, perhaps music fans were just waiting for them to full-on "rawk" again. But while the amps are again cranked and the rhythms are fast, this is not a band that has abandoned any of its political activism or intellectual tendencies.
Pearl Jam is often pegged as being the torchbearers for classic arena rock, in the vein of The Who or Led Zeppelin, but it is the punk-influence of The Ramones and The Stooges that is behind the louder moments on Backspacer. Songs like "Gonna See A Friend," "Got Some" and "Supersonic" are all over by the three-minute mark and the album's entire length is only 37 minutes, a Pearl Jam "record record." But Backspacer is also home to some of the most hopelessly romantic tunes in the PJ canon. Depending on your interpretation of lyrics, the beautiful Into the Wild-esque "Just Breathe" could be considered the first straight "love song" to creep onto a proper Pearl Jam album.
Speaking of words, the onset of the Obama presidency has certainly brought out a cheerier, lyrically romantic side of Eddie. And he's not ashamed. Much like Bruce Springsteen's latest happy-go-lucky release, Ed wrote the lyrics for the entire album (for the first time since Vitology) and they easily rank as his most hopeful, direct and accessible set of sung thoughts. Take Backspacer's lead single "The Fixer." The track more closely follows a traditional pop songwriting format than any other PJ-penned single to date ("Last Kiss" doesn't count, people). Vedder is almost Bono-like in his "fight to get it back again" approach and he wants you to do your part too. Elsewhere, he grapples with the first example of Generation-X midlife crisis on "The End" as he declares that he's "here, but not much longer." Oh crap, what does that mean for the rest of us?
All things considered, Backspacer will appeal to the die-hard Pearl Jam fans who take their marching orders from the truths they're sure they unlocked in "Corduroy," but also the casual rock fan. Eddie still growls. Mike still solos. Matt Cameron plays some of the most interesting rock drum parts out there. Twenty years in, it's probably not farfetched to assume PJ will still be playing arenas in another 20. So keep your flannel pristine.
-- Andrew Goff