In 2006, they Pearl Jam released a self titled album and it was pretty damn good. It wasn’t of the same calibre of their first albums Ten, VS or Vitalogy but it was a bold statement by the band that clearly stated they were back in business.
Backspacer is a very different album for them though. It still has the same rock sensibilities as some of their earlier work and you can see that the band is having more fun with the music than it seems they have in years. The album has a flow to it that is unlike any Pearl Jam album before it. It starts out with typical high energy tracks but then becomes more melodic and calmer with ballads and a touch of the sombre. After lulling you into a nice quiet place, it explodes again with an almost pop rock vibe and settles down once more to round out the album.
If you read any reviews of this album you will see the writers talking about the history of the band and how this is a triumphant return to form but I’d argue that they have always been in good form just not the way the fans wanted them to be. The only exception to that might be the album Binaural which, to me, was utterly forgettable.
One of the albums that is constantly part of the rotation of songs on my MP3 player is RearViewMirror. It represents nearly every brilliant track that the band has become known for and by it alone you can see why Vedder and crew are considered legends. However, it is also a false prophet in a way. For as much as the Pearl Jam of old was incredible, looking back at them with rose coloured glasses is almost a burden. NoCode, Yield and Riot Act has some truly remarkable songs but the albums, as a whole felt, unfocused and a little more experimental than their fans would have liked.
I actually love that the band is bold enough to experiment with new directions and try out different ways of telling their stories or getting their message across. There are too many bands out there that just release more of the same and never strive to something new in fear of backlash. I love that you can see the influence that Vedder had from Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan around the time that NoCode was written. Their collaborations on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack are among the best work Vedder has done outside of the band and the eastern influence is all over NoCode. However, as much as evolving is important for a band, there is a point where you have to actually do the evolution, excuse the pun. With each album, there were tracks that kept avid fans interested but, like many fans, my interest was waning. When I first heard Binaural, I was out.
I’ve heard it remarked that Binaural was what they thought the fans wanted to hear, rather than what they wanted to make. I can see this point of view, Binaural certainly seems a little forced and not true to the energy that Pearl Jam is capable of. The tracks that didn’t make the cut from the recording sessions of Binaural were later released and had much more energy and you can see a better direction that is echoed in Backspacer. This album is not quite as good as the 2006 self titled album but it may just be a matter of letting it grow on you before you make that assumption.
Each track is its own animal and works well with the previous one. You can listen to it from start to finish without coming across a song that you will always end up skipping. That is the big difference between this and many of the previous albums for me. Not since Vitalogy have I wanted to listen to a whole Pearl Jam album without skipping to the “good songs”.
Given a few more listens this album may well secure a place in my MP3 player rotation, but even if it only becomes something to listen to when you are in the mood, it is good to see the band appearing enjoy making music again. Whatever they release from this point on, let’s hope that they do it with the same joy that is imprinted all over Backspacer. The only real complaint with the album is that is is very short at only 37 minutes.