There’s something homely about Eddie Vedder. At first glance, he comes off like a next door neighbor, always there to lend some sugar or joke about Mr. Riddle’s worn-out lawn across the street. Even when he talks, in that throaty, bourbon-flavored tone of his, he’s like the guy everyone’s waiting to hear from at the dinner table. You know… homely. The point is, he’s a likable guy, and people are drawn to that. After all, it can’t be just the music that sells everyone on Pearl Jam.
Maybe, maybe not. If Backspacer is any indication, the answer is a definitive yes. Approaching their 20th anniversary, Seattle’s rugged quintet continues to write and export some humble yet powerful tunes. With their ninth studio album, and shortest to date (a whopping 37 minutes), the band has assembled one of the most eager and energetic records in their career. Finally, they’re having fun. They’ve trashed the Dubbya masks, they’ve saluted the veterans, and they’ve come to terms with the current political climate. Essentially, they’re done with being, well, bitter. And to think, Vedder’s actually the likable guy he appears to be.
But, you know that already — at least if you’ve heard “The Fixer”. Say what you will about its remedial verses, but the group’s current single is hands down their poppiest and most addicting since 1998’s “Do The Evolution”. There’s this overwhelming jovial feeling to it, and one that carries over into the record, too. Working off of Matt Cameron’s tight, teeth chattering percussion and the light evening piano work (provided by Brendan O’Brien), everyone goes wild. Vedder bounces back and forth, Stone Gossard puts his weight into every chord, Jeff Ament draws from his punk-rock influences, and Mike McCready gnaws away in a very subtle manner. Everyone’s at the top of their game, and while they’ve known this for years, it’s always only come off in their live performances. So when Vedder screams “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” at the end, it’s nice to hear he’s having just as much fun on record, too.
It’s a different sound, though. Call it punk-rock, New Wave, or just good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll, but Pearl Jam sound different, and it’s not just that they’re happy-go-lucky, either. The songs are tighter. “Supersonic” rattles by with soul ‘n’ bite, “Got Some” clicks or pops (take your pick), and “Gonna See My Friend” pushes and shoves — all in under three minutes, respectively. In other words, these beg for repeated listens and not because you missed anything, but simply put, they’re fucking catchy. Hooks include: “Supersonic”‘s grasping highway guitar lines (and Vedder’s sing-a-long chorus), Cameron channeling Stewart Copeland in “Got Some”, and Vedder’s “Ah, screw it” mentality in “…Friend”.
That’s not to say everything’s peachy here. Not at all. One of the album’s drawbacks is the band’s insistence, whether consciously or not, to wander or climb. In the past, this has worked both for and against them, delivering either beautifully woven power ballads (“Given to Fly”) or endless drives (“Come Back”). With Backspacer, it’s a little bit of both. Vedder’s ode to love and surfing (“Amongst the Waves”) offers no real surprises, but still nonetheless rocks, sporting some Southern rock-esque soloing via McCready. “Just Breathe” borrows from Vedder’s Into the Wild track “Tuolumne”, only adding violins and a breathy, melodramatic chorus, which comes off as either hokey or heartfelt, depending on the mood or listen. And while the very philosophical “Unthought Known” could have found itself stuffing up 1998’s Yield, it’s the soulful piano work and Vedder’s newfound enthusiasm that saves it from being filler. Basically, an agreeable win some, lose some scenario.
What stings here are the slower songs. Both “Speed Of Sound” and “The End” are beautiful pieces of music, layered with fully realized instrumentation, yet they drift more often than not. The spirally guitar work and the preachy melodies that Vedder works with offer little opportunities to jump in on. Instead, his scruffy crooning is only soothing, and while that’s not a sleight against him at all, it doesn’t make for the most interesting listen. It’s just rather expected at this point, and in pale comparison to the majority of the album, the tracks come off as weak.
But what’s really important about Backspacer is the overall theme of positivity. When Vedder asks, “Is it so wrong to think that/Love can keep us safe,” on the sprawling rocker that’s “Force of Nature”, he’s not really looking for an answer. He knows it can. It’s that wisdom, and his authority behind it, that sells this album. Why else would a single like “The Fixer” raise eyebrows and claim new ears? It’s not just the music, it’s the energy and passion behind it. For that reason above all, Backspacer stands as an important footnote for a band whose initial genre has long since decomposed. They’re a rock ‘n’ roll band who loves what they’re doing, and as long as they’re smiling, so are we… and possibly chanting a few “Yeah, yeah, yeah”s, too.