John Metzger's #10 album for 2009
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2010, Volume 17, #2
Written by John Metzger
Tue February 23, 2010, 06:30 AM CST
Pearl Jam has spent so much of its time fighting authority that it is strange to hear the group without a lengthy list of complaints to lodge. Most of the time when artists take a step backward to unburden themselves, they struggle to assemble a set that is cohesive or, for that matter, vital. Much as it did with Yield, however, Pearl Jam sounds as if it has shrugged a huge weight off its shoulders. The result is a stellar collection of tunes that feel remarkably fresh, even if they don’t necessarily break new ground.
As if it has everything to prove with Backspacer, Pearl Jam comes out swinging with the triple-punch assault of Gonna See My Friend, Get Some, and The Fixer. Juicing its emotional bluster with thunderous rhythms and jagged guitar accompaniments, the outfit turns its mighty posturing into a riveting blast of rock ’n‘ roll angst. There are nods to The Who’s crunchy power chords and Led Zeppelin’s folk-and-blues architecture scattered throughout the set, proving once again that the band’s interest in classic rock from the 1970s is alive and well. At the same time, Pearl Jam manages not only to turn Chuck Berry into a punk icon but also to traffic in the sort of arena-ready heavy metal that has fueled AC/DC for decades.
Brendan O’Brien arguably has a murky track record as a producer, but there’s no doubt that he has done some of his best work with Pearl Jam. Whenever he steps into the studio with the group, he never fails to find ways of making the band’s material more effective. Eleven years have passed since O’Brien has helmed one of Pearl Jam’s projects, but with Backspacer, they reconnect without a hitch and remain totally in synch. Like Yield, the last effort on which they collaborated, Backspacer features music that is tightly wound and melodically sharp. He gives the tunes both buoyancy and heft.
O’Brien strengthens Amongst the Waves by channeling Pearl Jam’s energetic attack into conjuring the aura of the swirling surf. On The End, a portrait of romantic abandonment, he uses a string section to augment the heartache and pain in front man Eddie Vedder’s vocals. Yet, instead of sounding overdone, the arrangement magnifies the empty spaces, creating greater separation and distance between the singer and his subjects, especially when the song’s light abruptly is extinguished.
Save for a few murky references to war and greed, Backspacer largely is devoid of political issues. Instead, it focuses upon humanistic ideals, following a loosely knit narrative about love, trust, commitment, atonement, and forgiveness. In a sense, from both musical and lyrical perspectives, Backspacer falls somewhere between Vitalogy and Yield, and often it feels as if the Bush era as well as Pearl Jam’s battles with corporate giants never happened.
In other words, with Backspacer, Pearl Jam has been liberated from its past. Consequently, when Vedder sings in The Fixer about wanting to find what has been lost and about rediscovering his excitement, he very well might be talking about the fate of his band. Better still, the stubborn determination he demonstrates throughout Backspacer is more convincing than ever.
52nd Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Producer of the Year, Non-Classical
Of Further Interest...
Backspacer is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2010 The Music Box