Friday, September 11, 2009

Backspacer: The TSIS Review

To jump right to the end, Pearl Jam knocked this one out of the park.  It’s obviously way too early to tell how these songs will age (S/T did not age well), and what will strike a long term chord once the novelty wears off, but for the first time in a LONG time (if I exclude the art tracks in Vitalogy this would go all the way back to Ten for me) Pearl Jam has released a record where every song is pretty good to great.  They flow together beautifully, and the band almost never misses a note. Even the songs that I don’t love do what they’re supposed to do—it’s just that what they’re supposed to do doesn’t necessarily appeal to me.  It’s definitely a record by a band with a long history—almost every song harkens back in part to something that’s come before, but in a way that sounds familiar and comfortable rather than repetitive.  They’re also trying enough that’s new that the record feels very fresh without really deviating much beyond the conventional 2-3 guitars, drum, bass format (BoB does do a really nice job dressing up a bunch of these songs though).  The whole album has a bit of an 80s/New Wave feel to it which helps give it that feeling of newness.


I’d recommend listening to Release and In Hiding before listening to Backspacer, since both of these songs help frame what the record is trying to accomplish. More on this in a moment.


With Backspacer I think we can officially divide Pearl Jam’s career into two arcs, with Backspacer closing the second chapter.  We’re all familiar with the first chapter.  Ten, Vs, and Vitalogy are angry, forceful records, with betrayal as the theme uniting all three.  They are rebellions against a lost inheritance, a lost promise, the corruption of love, trust, and even purity.  No Code and Yield are the redemption components of that cycle.   We close this chapter with Yield, but it doesn’t end the story.  As we’ve seen in the records that follows, Yield’s catharsis and closure doesn’t hold.  It’s not even clear that it held on during the record itself.  With the exception of Given To Fly and Wishlist these are songs about running and hiding, ducking confrontation. Hell, it’s even in the title of the record, and I never noticed this until I started listening to Backspacer. Yield provides an illusion of resolution, and thinking back on this it should have been apparent as soon as we heard Binaural, which begins the second chapter of this story.


Thanks to Red Mosquito, I finally got introduced to Nick Cave, and my favorite song on his most recent record features the following verse


“Oh rampant discrimination, mass poverty, third world debt, infectious disease

Global inequality and deepening socio-economic divisions

Well, it does in your brain

And we call upon the author to explain”


Pearl Jam was always defined by confrontation, and the solution we found in Yield was never going to hold.  Binaural is a closed, claustrophobic, almost haunted record.  It’s trying to fight an enemy it cannot name or even see, but just about every song is trying to confront something—war, death, society, and above all else loss—without ever quite managing to get a handle on it.  It’s a frightened record, in part because it resets the journey that seemed to have worked itself out in Yield.  Riot Act personifies this terror in the figure of George W. Bush, and his weight oppresses that entire record, adding a burden almost impossible to bear.  The band finds its footing on S/T and tries to fight back, and the conviction is there, but in retrospect (like Yield) it is the illusion of conviction, or conviction without conclusion.  The willingness to fight is there, but it’s a fight that they don’t necessarily expect to win, and so the burdens are there, and the grandiose statement that is supposed to end the album ends up falling flat.


Backspacer finishes this journey.  Bush is all over this record, present in the form of a conspicuous absence.  Eddie said in numerous interviews that writing after Bush felt different, and we see the results here.  This is a profoundly free and unburdened record, the first in what is just about a twenty year career. It’s fun (FUN?!), loose, and utterly comfortable in its own skin.  It’s a victory lap.  In 1991 Pearl Jam closes out Ten with Eddie begging for release.  It is one of the most powerful moments in their catalogue, and incredibly cathartic, but for the listener, not for the singer.  It’s a desperate wish, one that he spent 20 years waiting to be answered.  There was an attempt to finally let go on Yield, but I think In Hiding really encapsulates the failure of that attempt.  Even on top of the lyrics (which are about the need to escape—which is not a permanent solution since sooner or later you have to come back—you have to emerge) the feel of the song itself reveals the lie.  He’s trying to convince himself that everything is fine, and the song musically is meant to be simple (compared to the much busier anthems of earlier records), but the simplicity in the end doesn’t quite work.  There is still too much weight bearing down on the skeleton of this song, and he’s still suffering underneath it.


You can hear it almost from the start of Backspacer that this time is different.  The world has changed, and Eddie has grown, enough that he (and the rest of the band) have finally set down their burdens.  It may be that the weight of Bush is gone (I suspect his legacy will return in future records), it might be the presence of permanent joy in his life (children), or it could be something entirely different, but the person (and the band) performing on this record is just so much freer than they’ve ever been.  The songs are not overlong and get right to the point.  They don’t fear conclusions (although there are still too many god damned fade outs). They’re not afraid to have fun.  While everyone does a great job (Matt and Jeff really shine throughout, especially) the real hero of this record is Eddie, and I think we have Into the Wild to thank for quite a bit of this.  Eddie’s voice will never regain the power that it had 15 years ago, but here he’s fully embraced his talent for melody, and just about every song has such a wonderful sense of movement about it.  He propels the record along with craft since he can no longer get by on power.  Plus he finally commits himself to what each song truly needs, and is alternately soaring, naked, aggressive, or playful as the song requires. This is excellent work performed by an incredibly limber craftsmen.


Okay—onto the songs themselves:


Gonna See My Friend:  The way this song just explodes calls to mind Brain of J or Breakerfall, but the vocal melody here is just killer (much better than those two songs, although Brain of J has a better riff), and there’s a looseness to it (not in the playing, which is tight, but the overall feel of the song) that makes it playful and celebratory in the way that those songs (which are apocalyptic and judgmental) are not.  They figured out how to have Eddie use his screaming go-for-broke voice  in a song that makes you smile.  This is the kind of song that David Grohl has been trying and failing to write since he formed the Foo Fighters.  I love the ending.  Even though the obvious comparisons are to Brain of J and Breakerfall because they’re openers, you can hear a lot of Habit in this song (although this is a much better song), if habit was a celebration.

Got Some:  I love how propulsive this one is right off the bat, and Matt and Jeff really shine here.  A few people have commented that the song sounds a little robotic.  I think I’d say thin, but I know what you mean.  The slower parts of the song sound like they’re waiting to be filled in, but the song really picks up steam once it gets past the ‘got some if you need it’ parts.  The backing vocals were a nice touch—understated but they make the song richer. What’s interesting here is how this manages to sound dirty and clean at the same time.  Excellent outro. The beginning and the end are the best parts of the song. Overall I think this is probably the weakest of the opening 1-2-3 punch (the other two songs sound fuller) but keep that comment in context.  All three tracks are very good.  I wonder if supersonic would have worked better here instead of Got Some (and move Got Some to later in the record), or just have Johnny guitar serve as the third song. 


Eddie’s little growl/moan/whatever it is at the beginning is pretty unnecessary. Not sure why it’s there.


The Fixer:  I’ve already talked about this at length so I won’t say that much here, except to say that this, along with Amongst the Waves, one of the most important tracks on this record (that doesn’t mean it’s the best, which it isn’t). But it is very very good.  Infectious, upbeat, deceptively simple (this will be one of those songs filled with little discoveries), I think even people who were not crazy about it will like it more in the context of the record.  The lyrics get a lot of undeserved grief because of one clunky line, but they’re well written (complexity does not equal quality) and the help capture what’s at stake with this record—starting over, letting go, and in the process recapturing what was lost (what Yield was missing). ‘Fight to get it back again’ may be the most important lyric on Backspacer. 


Johnny Guitar:  I feared another Love Boat Captain with this one, and  every time I listen to this I’m kinda shocked by just how good this one is.  This is quite possibly the best thing Matt’s written for the band, Matt and Eddie channeling Bruce Springsteen and Mark Knopfler.  I’m not sure they could have written a song this playful and fun (these words keep coming up, but they’re the ones that make sense) before Backspacer.  What’s remarkable about this song is that it’s a song about being profoundly disappointed, but instead of wallowing in it they celebrate all of our absurd fantasies.  Ten years ago they tried to write light and fun and gave us U and Leatherman.  Here we got Fixer and Johnny Guitar.   What a difference.

On an album full of great vocal melodies this one might be the best.

Just Breathe:  If the best vocal melody isn’t in Johnny Guitar it’s in the verses of Just Breathe  Eddie just floats along so gracefully here.  Vocally there are a few places where he’s just a touch too nasely for me, but otherwise this is an excellent vocal performance. He sounds old, but he’s not weighed down by it.  He sounds delicate, but confident, lived in, but dignified.


This could have been a song that the band could have overdone, but everyone combines to make this lush instead of crowded.  I hope that R.E.M. covers this someday, because this takes me back to Out of Time


Lyrically this one seems pretty strong.  One of my concerns with a few post Vitalogy.   Eddie lyrics is that I didn’t quite buy the wisdom he was offering—at times it could come across as trite and clichéd.  He’s starting to figure out how to pull it off.


We’ve got a few songs on here dealing with death (Just Breathe, Supersonic, and The End) but they’re all animated by a sense of just how blessed the singer is, how hard it is to let go of a life as full of miracles as his has been.  So this song is reflective, and content despite it all.  It’s not really a goodbye as much as it is a chance to make sure everything that needs to be said gets said so there won’t be any regrets later 5 years ago this would have been Thumbing My Way, and it wouldn’t work.  Imagine a lyric like ‘practice all my sins, never gonna let me win’ on Riot Act.  Actually we don’t have to.  It’s in All or None, but the delivery and the context completely transform the meaning.


I was apprehensive about the chorus of this song, and it is still a little overwrought (certainly the part of the song I like the least) but it works, especially since this song is ultimately a thank you to the people in his life he cares the most about.  He’s entitled, and the over the topness of the beginning is softened by how well it segues back into the verses..


Amongst the Waves:  A very good song that is middle of the pack for Backspacer, which speaks to the depth of this record. The simple riff at the beginning puts me in mind of In Hiding (although I like this one a lot more—better lyrics and a much better melody) but thematically it’s much closer to Given To Fly.  In theory Pearl Jam should be able to write a song like this in their sleep, but for whatever reason they usually shy away from doing it. They tend to poison their mid tempo anthems so that they stay grounded (Compare Light Years to its earlier incarnation as Puzzles and Games). It’s such a relief to see them follow through on one for a change.  This isn’t the best riff they’ve ever written, but the band really embraces the song and the whole thing is carried by an almost formless energy.  I’ve listened to Amongst the Waves a few times now and I’m not sure I could hum the music but I know I really like what I’m hearing. 


I think I could have gone for a slightly more involved outro—the best pearl jam anthems take you high and then hold you at the peak for a while. This song has that peak, but it doesn’t leave me there.  Mike’s solo in the middle is pretty good, but I’m not sure how well it fits here.  It sounds like it should be part of a darker song than this one. 


I’m really looking forward to getting the lyrics to this one—some nice lines in what I’ve heard so far.


As an aside, in a lot of these songs the verses are catchier than the chorus (like here, for instance). Usually it’s the opposite.


Unthought Known:  This may be the best song on an excellent record.  It starts out simple but has that ‘Stairway to Heaven’ style build with more and more getting added as the song progresses leading to an incredible build.  The very best songs (like the best experiences) will have that moment when your step quickens, your heart starts to beat faster, you can’t help but smile, and you’re just carried away on the energy of the moment.  Unthought Known pulls that off.  This is a classic Pearl Jam anthem in the best sense of the word, the kind that just leaves you with a feeling of release, the confidence that everything is going to be okay.  Eddie and the rest of the band just let this song carry them away and this one SOARS before gently returning to earth.  There are a few places where Backspacer channels the promise of Given to Fly, but it never fulfills it more than here.


There’s already been some question as to what the “Dream the dreams of other men and you’ll be no one’s rival” lyric means.  On the face of it this can cut a few ways, and my first time hearing it I took it as a call for people to assert themselves, to dream.  If you limit yourself to what others think of you you’ll never realize the potential within you. You’ll be no one’s rival because there will be nothing within you for others to be jealous of or threatened by.  But others have argued that it should be taken as a call for empathy—imagine others as they see and understand themselves and you’ll be able to bridge the barriers that separate us.  The lyric right before it “see the waves on distant shores awaiting your arrival” makes me lean towards the first interpretation, but they both work.  The last lyric in the song “so whatcha giving?” works for both though.  Empathy and human potential are equally worthy gifts.


The last lyric doesn’t help I’m leaning towards the second since it is more in line with the general tenor of their music, but they both work.


Supersonic:  This is the low point of the record for me, but having said that it’s still a decent song, and it answers the burning question in every Pearl Jam fan’s mind—what would have happened if Eddie had sang mankind.  Now we know


The resemblance to Mankind is unfortunate, since I’m not a fan of that song and it starts the song out with a strike, but it’s a pretty good riff and the song is catchy.  It’s maybe a little too slick and bright for me—too much pop punk here, but it is a fun little rave up and there are certainly parts that I find myself singing along to (Cut the crease, put the shit in the hole). 


The problem is that this may be a little too light, given how weighty (which is not the same thing as burdened) the record really is from Just Breathe straight through to The End. The transition into Speed of Sound doesn’t quite work for me either. Since it’s such a short record it takes some time to build that sense of expectation and importance back up.  I can’t help but feel like this is exactly what a b-side should be—fun, energetic, worth listening to on occasion, but not really belonging on the record.  But to be fair to Supersonic, it’s well crafted.  It just happens to be a well crafted example of a song style I don’t really go for.


The bridge is a great, bluesy mini jam that reminds me a bit of the Marker Bridge, something cool, and probably worth constructing a song around, but it doesn’t really get with the song that surrounds it.


Speed of Sound:  I can’t get my mind around this one.  I had gotten pretty used to the demo (which I liked but didn’t love) and this sounds so different the whole song feels sort of alien.  The music adds to that as well.  The song has an alt-country Off He Goes feel to it, but there’s so much busy stuff surrounding it that I find myself removed from what would other be an extremely intimate song (especially the lyrics).    This song has ADD.


Thematically this one picks up where Just Breathe left off, taking stock of life and pondering mortality, trying to figure out how to just stop and enjoy what’s happening while everything is passing by so fast.  The music gives the song a more frantic (as opposed to reflective) urgency then the demo had, but again it’s so cluttered I’m not quite sure what mood it’s trying to develop.


This would be second up from the bottom for me. The only song on Backspacer I like less is Supersonic, but I still like this one. I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do with this one.   If you’re still reading this far you know I don’t usually have trouble talking about Pearl Jam (I may get it wrong, but I have something to say) and I’m just stymied here.  I look forward to the day when this one clicks.


Force of Nature:  I was really looking forward to this one, and while it did not disappoint it was not what I was expecting either. I figured this would be Amongst the Waves II, and was surprised with how muscular it ended up being.  It’s got a really cool deep crunch to it.  This song is bad ass, and you don’t find many bands outside of Pearl Jam who can write heavy songs like this without sacrificing lyrical depth.  I’m only starting to unpack this one but I am expecting this to be the lyrical highpoint not only of this record, but possibly going all the way back to Binaural (or further).   And kudos to eddie for writing an entire song about storms without ever using the word waves.


More than any song on the record this one recalls early (Ten/Vs) era Pearl Jam, for its power and its stubborn defiance, but it’s tempered by years of experience and maturity.  Right now Unthought Known is my favorite thing on this record, but ask me in a month it could very easily be this one.


My favorite Mike part on the record is probably his  playing during the outro


The End:  This one lived up to its expectations, and this is their best closer since Immortality (sorry Parting Ways)  Eddie has never sounded more vulnerable, and the juxtaposition between the immediacy of his vocals, the simplicity of the strumming, and the cinematic quality of the background orchestration is pretty stunning.   


There’s more texture in Eddie’s performance here than in almost anything else he’s done.  He so fully inhabits this it almost feels like spying.  Almost every line has some striking inflection or moment.  The way he has that deep break when he sings “slide” was my favorite until the hushed end of the song, especially the gasp underneath the final lyric.  WoW


Lyrically this is the dark side of the Just Breathe/Speed of Sound/The End thematic trilogy.  The music is peaceful but the performance and the lyric are desperate, begging and clinging.  It’s nice to hear a song like this about NOT letting go for once.  “I just want to hold on and know I’m worth your love”—what a great lyric.  The highpoint of the song


But as great as this song is the most striking part of it might be the sudden stop.   It’s frustrating because the song is so good but it’s how this one HAD to end, and there are worse ways a record can end than leaving you wanting more.



Early rankings (I’m not going to give songs 5s and I’m trying, as much as possible, to control for the new album excitement.  I want to give Got Some and Amongst the Waves 4s but that might be the newness talking)


Gonna See My Friend: 4/5

Got Some: 3.5/5

The Fixer: 4/5

Johnny Guitar: 4/5

Just Breathe: 4/5

Amongst the Waves: 3.5/5

Unthought Known: 4.5/5

Supersonic: 3

Speed of Sound: 3

Force of Nature: 4.5/5

The End: 4.5/5


I tend to overvalue PJ records when they first come out since they’re so new, but I don’t know if I ever liked an album of theirs as much on the first listen.  I can’t call this a masterpiece or rank it next to other albums in a meaningful way just yet, but this is an excellent record that closes a dark decade on a soaring, uplifting note—an album the band could not have written ten years ago, if ever, and one that was well worth the wait.

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