Thursday, October 21, 2010

Guided Tour of Backspacer: The Fixer

by stip

The Fixer

Since there’s no narrative to Backspacer it’s hard to call The Fixer is the centerpiece of the record. Each song on Backspacer explores a different aspect of the same moment in time, so it’s not like The Fixer is the end point of a particular journey. But it is probably the high point of the record in a literal sense—it’s a pure and unaffected moment of joy—if Backspacer is a triangle, this is its apex. Songs like Got Some, Unthought Known, GSMF all recall in some tangible way where the subject was coming from. But The Fixer has a perpetual immediacy to it. Even though The Fixer references its own memories, its low places, the song exists purely in the now. I can’t think of another Pearl Jam song where this is the case, and it might be what is off putting about it to some people. All of Pearl Jam’s music is burdened by their past. The force that runs through and lifts up their music is the struggle to overcome that past. It’s muted on Backspacer (the past is actually the past here, rather than the usual past as present), but nowhere more than on The Fixer, and this gives the song a strangeness that may not be for everyone. The fact that it’s such an accessible song makes this feeling even more disconcerting. This also makes The Fixer dependent on the band’s back catalog. The freedom celebrated in this song isn’t earned within the song itself, but in the 8 records and 150 songs that preceded it.

Musically The Fixer is compelling, with a deceptive level of depth (recall its origins). It starts out strong with another great ‘get up and move’ opening sequence (the first 3 songs on Backspacer are all similar in that regard). The fuzzy guitars and the bass give the song a warm, blanket like feeling; the tinkling guitar remind me of the end of Inside Job—the sound of peace and freedom; the guitar accents in the second verse have this cool wistful daydream sound to them; and the occasional sharp drum cracks (softened on occasion by the handclaps) and the main riff have enough bite to them to ensure the whole thing isn’t syrupy sweet. The bridge has this circular sense of movement to it, like it’s orbiting something really important. Hopefully someday we’ll hear what the 7 minutes sideways art piece would have sounded like, but I love what Eddie and Brendan turned this into. The Fixer sounds like mature, unaffected (or innocent, to use McP’s term), freedom.

For the most part Eddie sounds really good here. The opening yeahs and uh huhs do sound overly processed, almost insincere, and I can’t quite figure out where they’re going with it. I wonder if this is the same part of O’Brien’s brain that saturated the Jeremy remix with unnecessary ‘spokens.’ But from there forward it’s a strong performance (except for the repetition of the opening vocals coming out of the bridge). The Fixer has another winning vocal melody (overall this is probably Eddie’s finest record on that score) and Eddie manages to make the vocals sound just lived in and weathered enough to give the song a spark of triumph—like The Fixer is a reward for a hard fought struggle that, in this moment, is behind you. There’s a slight sense of wonder to it as well, not only at the gift of freedom, but the shock at finding it again after so long. The way the vocals are layered also gives the song the sensation that there’s multiple people signing along—it makes The Fixer less intimate and more inviting—it welcomes the listener in and asks them to sing along, rather than just bare witness (which most pearl jam songs do in the studio—they usually don’t live, which is why the live versions almost always turn into celebrations).

Backspacer is a political record, only insofar as the absence of any overt politics is kind of shocking given the content of the rest of Pearl Jam’s output this decade. I can easily imagine the band sitting down to write this song after hearing that Obama was elected. It reflects the sense of new beginnings and new possibilities, of a bright and clear dawn emerging suddenly after a long and dark night. The politics in The Fixer, and Backspacer in general, are found in the freedom of, after so long, not having to be political.

I always found the way The Fixer’s lyrics were structured interesting, barring one or two particular couplets I didn’t care for. I wondered if there was a name for the style they were written in (it seemed like there should be), so I asked a colleague in the English department. I sent him the lyrics and this was his response.

This is interesting -- the form, I mean, is interesting. I don't know of any term to describe what's happening, but what's happening is interesting. The second line of each stanza gives a kind of verbal antonym (opposite) to the adjective in the first line.

I am mentioning this just because I don’t think The Fixer has casual, throw away lyrics. Instead we have 10 lyrical couplets that together present, through their stylistic repetition, this overwhelming desire to repent the past, to put it behind you, to move forward. Eddie could certainly have picked some better antonyms in a few cases, but just because something is simple doesn’t mean it is unintelligent. In fact, if these lines were more involved it’s possible they would have tripped up the momentum of the song and taken the listener out of the immediate moment The Fixer explores. It also might have taken away some of the fun the song wants to have (the exciting couplet doesn’t work but he’s clearly being playful with that lyric and the ‘put a bit of fixing on it’ which I like). Regardless, it’s clear, through the resolution of these simple yet serious conflicts, that there’s a rejection of what’s come before, a desire to look ahead, and above all else an overpowering need to act and celebrate the ability to do so—all culminating with the promise and declaration that when something’s gone or lost we need to fight to get it back again. The fact that there is such a serious message in such an upbeat presentation is also striking, and after years of saying this in songs like Alive, Given To Fly, Grievance, and Present Tense (all songs that are better than The Fixer to be sure) it’s nice to see that they found another way to articulate Pearl Jam’s mission statement.

In another unusual move for the band, the song culminates in its bridge, with its ringing promise to free us from our burdens, to do whatever needs to be done, provided we find a way to make the most of what we have right now. The problem is that the song continues for another minute without giving us anything new—just asking us to live in this singular moment. That is not necessarily a problem, but the quick musical restart (and the over processed uh huhs) both undermine the moment and lead the listener to expect the song to go into a final verse. When it doesn’t we’re left wondering what happened. I’m not sure a verse NEEDS to be there, but if there isn’t one The Fixer would have been better served with a different transition out of the bridge. So interestingly enough, The Fixer’s weakest moments are its end and its beginning, two places where Pearl Jam is usually at its best. I wonder how much of this is due to the fact that The Fixer was adapted from a much longer song. Hopefully we’ll find out someday.

Other songs on Backspacer will explore the part of ourselves that looks back on where we came, or the part of ourselves that fears the future because it is afraid of losing what it has right now. Some songs will explore the promise of our newfound freedom, or celebrate being liberated from our burdens. But The Fixer inhabits a singular moment, one where we breathe clean air, cleanse ourselves in pure water, and know that we can do anything.

Other songs in this series: