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You’ve heard the rumors, and the rumors are true: Pearl Jam has finally released a “pop” album.
Yet the phrase “pop” doesn’t mean what you think it does in the world of Pearl Jam. For certain purists, “pop” is just another way of saying that Pearl Jam has “sold out,” a theory that’s only furthered by the fact that “Backspacer” — the group’s ninth studio album — is getting its physical release primarily through corporate retailer Target (plus independent record stores), a sure sign that the group is now chasing the Almighty Dollar instead of its values, lurching forward as if its infamous battle with Ticketmaster never even happened.
As if that isn’t enough, there are some that gladly point to lead single “The Fixer” as undeniable evidence that the grunge pioneers have shed their white-knuckle trademark rock sound for something infinitely more accessible and upbeat, as if Eddie Vedder & Co. are now desperate for a gigantic radio hit.
To which the following response is generated: So what?
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When Pearl Jam released its iconic debut album “Ten” in 1991, few would have guessed that the group would become unintentional godfathers of the ’90s grunge explosion, entering the gigantic world of mainstream rock radio before Kurt Cobain even had a chance to let the door shut behind him (which is ironic given that “Ten” came out a whole month before Nirvana’s “Nevermind” did). Though Pearl Jam soldiered on — racking up No. 1 albums and radio hits in equal measure — things began winding down as the millennium came to a close, and the 2000 release “Binaural” was arguably the moment when the group hit rock bottom, having finally released a disc that tried to sound like what the group thought people wanted to hear in a Pearl Jam album, instead of making the record that the band actually wanted to make.
That’s a theory that gains traction when you look at the rejected songs from the “Binaural” sessions that wound up on the 2003 rarities compilation “Lost Dogs” — tracks like “Sad” and “Hitchhiker” that proved to be some of the poppiest songs Pearl Jam had penned in years.
Yet it seems that Pearl Jam was very conscious of the fan reaction to “Binaural,” and it is from this point onward that the group began getting a bit looser, starting with the release of 72 “official” live bootlegs from its corresponding European and U.S. tours from that same year. In 2002, the group released “Riot Act,” a solid if not truly spectacular album, failing to reach the heights of “Ten” or “Vs.,” but still showing the group taking steps in the right direction, opening up its sound a bit more instead of letting itself get weighed down by its own legacy.
This was soon followed by a contribution to the “Big Fish” soundtrack, a two-disc career retrospective called “rearviewmirror,” the aforementioned “Lost Dogs” rarities set, and two more rounds of live bootlegs. It’s as if Pearl Jam’s members had finally embraced who they were, and were doing nothing but celebrating that discovery.
As such, their 2006 record — simply titled “Pearl Jam” — was nothing short of a revelation. For the first time in their career, guitarist Mike McCready was the principal sonic architect, and McCready made his intentions clear: He wanted to reconnect with the band’s early sound, penning powerful rockers that were more melodic than angst-ridden, more soulful than distortion-fueled. It was, in short, the album that patient Pearl Jam fans had been waiting for, and boy did it deliver. Shortly thereafter, Eddie Vedder released his first solo album in the form of the “Into the Wild” soundtrack, and the group’s crowning achievement (“Ten”) was given the deluxe reissue treatment, not only reminding everyone just how influential that record was, but also showing that group had now officially moved beyond it — as great as “Ten” was, Pearl Jam was not going to let that disc define it any longer.
Which leads us to the novel thing about “Backspacer”: There isn’t a single disc in the group’s entire back catalog that it can even be compared to. Though individual songs can be referenced in order to give one an idea of what “Backspacer” sounds like (“Last Exit” from “Vitalogy” and “Wishlist” from “Yield” being chief among them), “Backspacer” is its own unique entity: a scrappy little rock record that barely lasts 37 minutes, making it the shortest and most upbeat album in Pearl Jam’s cluttered discography.
Yet, more critically than that, “Backspacer” is the sound of Pearl Jam actually having fun again, and it’s hard not to picture Vedder sporting a huge goofy grin on more than a few of these tracks, here rocking out with more passion than he did during his three-song stint as the Doors’ guest vocalist during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1993.
Sure, some songs fall back on tired rock cliches (“Force of Nature” relies on that wah-wah pedal just a bit too much, just as how “Johnny Guitar” feels like a pastiche of other, less-interesting early-Pearl Jam rockers), but these moments are often over before they even have time to register, instead allowing us to just sit back and enjoy the six-string spectacle all around. Lyrically, Vedder focuses less on worldly woes and instead tackles relationship issues, getting caught up in his own contradictory promises to his lover during the lush folk-pop ballad “Just Breathe,” wanting to make things better for everyone during “The Fixer,” and then suffering the pangs of sexual inadequacy during “Johnny Guitar.”
In short, Vedder has become vulnerable again, and for a record that’s so musically outgoing and forceful, the dichotomy between these two sides works extremely well.
Which leads us to why “Backspacer” is such a contradictory little album. Make no bones about it: This will not go down as Pearl Jam’s best release by any measure, but that’s because it’s not supposed to be. This is Pearl Jam’s “fun” record, a disc that was likely just as exciting to record as it is to listen to. Tracing things from “Riot Act” onward, it’s become apparent that Vedder & Co. have truly rediscovered their passion for what they do, and even when “Backspacer” missteps, it never feels like it’s going to fall: It will just steady itself and then crank the guitars back up to 11 all over again.