CD REVIEW Pearl Jam Heads Back to Familiar Space

The Shortest, Punkiest, Fiercest Album Yet

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Pearl Jam will tour Australia in November.
Courtesy of Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam


Produced by Brendan O’Brien


Released September 20, 2009

Of the all the bands that came out of Seattle and popularized the grunge movement in the early 90s, Pearl Jam is essentially the only surviving group that has consistently released albums and amassed a following of devoted fans. In the beginning, it was Ten that launched the group onto the map.

Lead singer and guitarist Eddie Vedder, the prized idol of the press during those early years, was maniacally jumping off stage rafters and into the crowd during shows, while skillfully avoiding interviews and press appearances. The mystique behind the band’s original songwriting and secretive demeanor only thrust more anticipation the band’s way for the release of 1994’s Vitalogy, an album that almost sold out on vinyl the week before it was released on compact disc.

Over the years, Pearl Jam traversed a very human course: relationships, families, addictions, political unrest (remember when Vedder taunted a George Bush mask at that 2000 show? Or that tune on Riot Act, “Bushleaguer”?), and maturity all hit the members of Pearl Jam. A rotating cast of drummers also helped keep the songwriting fresh (though Matt Cameron has remained on the throne since 1998).

As with all things in life, it seems that a more mature Pearl Jam (equipped with years of experience) is now tapping into the spirit and drive of their younger years. The songs are now short, catchy, fired-up, and straightforward. Their latest effort, Backspacer, opens with an aural attack of four fast songs, with Vedder’s melodious screams layered wisely on top by producer Brendan O’Brien, who produced four consecutive Pearl Jam albums in the 90s. “Gonna See My Friend” discusses addicts, “Got Some” is a dark number from a dealer’s point of view, “The Fixer” contains playful and percussive guitar riffs balanced by an anthemic chorus, and “Johnny Guitar” shifts in time with expert ease. The aptly titled “Just Breathe” follows next on the record, and lets you cool off with Vedder’s exposed voice and acoustic guitar.

Interestingly, Backspacer puts Pearl Jam in a more sonically relevant spot than the group’s two prior releases did. Whereas 2002’s Riot Act and 2006’s self-titled release were successful, they didn’t necessarily mesh with the popular sound at the time. Backspacer peaks with “Amongst the Waves” and “Unthought Known,” two compositions that echo contemporaries like Coldplay.

Comparisons aside, Backspacer puts the band in a really positive and energized place. The album is short, boasting eleven tight numbers. Lead guitarist Mike McCready mentioned that the band went in with about seventeen songs, and the outtakes from this session may appear on an EP sometime in the near future. For now, Pearl Jam is finishing up a North American tour before heading to Australia in November.