I picked up Backspacer over the weekend, my first new Pearl Jam album since Yield. While they were my favorite band in high school and college, and up until recently the biggest band I'd ever seen perform live, I somehow lost touch with my fandom over the years, the way one might let a friendship lapse, and only had a cursory awareness of what the group was doing. I'd hear a few tracks here and there, but nothing to really grab me and inspire me to buy a new album. The spark of the early ‘90s was one of a kind, and I've yet to come across something as lifechanging as Ten or Nirvana's Nevermind, something I could listen to from beginning to end over and over again until I memorized every nuance of every song, every transition, every chord. Maybe these and other albums of that era were such a phenomenon because of where I was in my life at the time, and a younger generation is having the same experience with some other bands. So, Backspacer certainly isn't another Ten or Nevermind, but it is still quite good.

At first glance, the album art evokes the spirit of classic Pearl Jam, the grid design reminiscent of No Code while the solid black frame takes me back to Yield. There was even a vinyl release, and that reminds me of Vitalogy. The CD art is beautiful at the larger size, and utilizes the same window in the front through which the pulp science fiction brain illustration slides. Part of me is tempted to go back and get that version, as the classic scratchy sound of my mom's old phonograph would add a nice quality to some of the tracks.

As for the tracks themselves, my initial impression was that, overall, this was not the Pearl Jam of Ten, Vs. or Vitalogy. Those had their share of slow somber pieces, but had plenty of tracks with fast guitar chords and screaming, hallmarks of the early Grunge movement. As the band grew musically over the years, they mellowed, and Yield had a certain Beatles quality to it, especially on songs like All Those Yesterdays. Backspacer is folksy, at times a little bit country, and I can see hints of some of The Who in there, one of Eddie's influences. That was after listening to it once.

By the third and fourth time, I had a bigger picture. I think it overall represents the life and history of the band. They lead with familiar rocking tracks with bouncing beats, from “Gonna See My Friend” to “Got Some” and the first single released from the album, ”The Fixer”. This is good music to drive to, with power chords and choruses that will echo in your brain throughout the day. The next track, “Johnny Guitar”, is taking a little longer to grow on me. It seems asymmetrical and disjointed at times, like a spoken word tale set to music that doesn't quite fit together. I need to listen to it more, but my initial urge the first time I heard it was to skip ahead.

Then we get to “Just Breathe”. It's haunting, absolutely haunting. The somber plucking guitar and quiet folk lyrics stay with me in a different way than the fast tracks. Out of all the new songs, this one most reminds me of the solo work Eddie did for the Into the Wild Soundtrack. I loved the music in that film, and really think I should get the album too one of these days. “Amongst the Waves” is his latest love of surfing song, and takes us back to a more upbeat celebration of life. “Unthought Known” seems like it's going to go to the same place as Yield's ”Wishlist” with the short string picking in the beginning, but it doesn't stay there like Wishlist, instead building and building to a huge climax. It's a four minute crescendo, only softening again at the end. “Supersonic” feels ‘50s rockabilly, and by this point I'm wondering why my overall impression of the album was “folksy” with so many upbeat tracks. I think “Just Breathe” overshadowed everything else on my first listen.

“Speed of Sound” is twangy and rolling with a piano accompaniment, the most Country-sounding track, followed by “Force of Nature” which is a bright, hopeful and inspiring piece before we close, appropriately enough, with “The End”. “The End”, like “Just Breathe”, is a sweeping ballad in the same vein as the Into the Wild stuff, and firmly cements the entire album as a metaphor for life in my eyes. The first tracks had youth and energy, while Just Breathe brought maturity and quiet reflection before life is once again celebrated. “The End” looks back on it all with no regrets and the realization of mortality that comes to a fitting and abrupt close: “I'm here; but not much longer.”


One thing the CD does that vinyl wouldn't is start over at the beginning, so after “The End” cuts off we're back to “Gonna See My Friend”. It creates an illusion, intentional or not, of the cyclical nature of life. Overall, the experience of the album might not be the same experience as Ten and their early stuff, but it is an experience, life in just under 40 minutes. I know I'll be reliving it again and again over the next few weeks.


Anonymous MCF said...

Impressions after fifth listen:

There is a structure to Johnny Guitar, although it's still not my favorite.

I think there's some Zeppelin influence in some of the tracks as well, particularly some of the guitar styles.

9/29/2009 9:24 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home