Thursday, October 7, 2010

Guided Tour of Backspacer: Gonna See My Friend

Continuing our Guided Tour series, which takes us song-by-song through Pearl Jam's studio albums in no particular order whatsoever, we move to Backspacer.  As of this posting, Stip is only part way through the album, so you can follow his musing in real time on our Red Mosquito Forum.

Keep Jammin',

by stip


It’s been over a year. The ‘new album’ buzz has long since faded, and so I think it’s safe to take a serious look at Backspacer--at what the album tried to do, and whether or not it was successful.

Although the songs on Backspacer are comparatively simple (and certainly shorter) than a number of the more artsy moments in their catalog, this is not a simple record, and its simplicity is deceptive. The songs feel light, but not because they are devoid of substance or good ideas. It’s because Backspacer, more than any other Pearl Jam record (even Yield, which is probably the record that Backspacer most closely resembles) is the first time Pearl Jam ever sounded unburdened. There are scattered moments here and there throughout their catalog that touch on this(most notably Given To Fly) but Backspacer is the first time Pearl Jam ever really dwells for an extended period of time on what it might be like to actually feel free—freedom as something immanent and present, rather than freedom as an aspiration. In that respect Backspacer represents Pearl Jam doing something genuinely new, thematically and even musically.

More than many bands, Pearl Jam albums are in conversation with each other. They tell a continuing story—not a narrative per se, but they chronicle the emotional development of the band, and each album is enhanced by situating it within that larger context. And so before we start to tackle Backspacer it is worth taking a few moments to reprise what’s come before.

Ten, as I’ve argued before, is an album about betrayal—a sense of being robbed or cheated of something you’re entitled to by the people and institutions that should be protecting you: your parents, your partners, your teachers, your society. It responds to that betrayal by finding solidarity in opposition—if we cannot trust everyone else we can at least make common cause with our fellow victims. There is anger on Ten for certain, but it is a bewildered anger, with the hostility cut by the pervading sense of confusion and the desire to rise above it. Vs. and Vitalogy expand these themes, although in different ways. While on its quieter moments (think Daughter, Small town, Indifference) Vs. finds itself in the same emotional space as Ten (more reflective, perhaps,) the rest of that record is pure anger and aggression. Vs, responds to betrayal with rage, although it cuts this with an undercurrent of solidarity that makes the approach more compelling than pure rage, and more substantive than simple angst. But in important ways this approach is a non starter, and Vitalogy marks the first major pivot in the conversation.

Vitalogy lashes out in much the same way Vs. does, but while Vs. swings wildly everywhere (perhaps because it can’t find a suitable target) Vitalogy narrows its focus to the commodification of music and art, not because being famous is such a pain in the ass, but because this commodification cuts off and makes profane one of the few sacred things left to us. Music has always been a means of transcendence for Pearl Jam—a way to rise above and to set yourself free—as well as a way to give voice to solidarity. Close that off and what’s left for us?

There’s never really any official resolution to this question, but Pearl Jam makes their peace with it (to an extent ) on the next two records. There is a line in an R.E.M. song (Ignoreland) that goes “I feel better for having screamed, don’t you?” and that seems to be the case for Pearl Jam, at least for a while. No Code, the most meditative moment in their catalog, dials back the rage and sees the band move away from asking the questions to providing the answers (or trying to). Eddie in particular moves away from a lyrical perspective that privileged solidarity in an uncertain world to one that strives to be a source of wisdom—someone who HAS experienced what you’re going through and knows what to do, rather than someone who has no answers but promises to experience it with you. Yield is a more complicated record. It continues down the path begun on No Code, but there is something slightly unsettling or uneasy about Yield, despite the seemingly sunny disposition on the record. Yield is an album about acceptance and escape, and while they try to make this process as active as possible, there is an element of disengagement to it that runs counter to the previous direction of the band. It probably makes more sense to understand Yield as an aspirational record, one that aims at a target it never quite manages to hit.

I’d argue that absent some clear cut trauma a group of artists that had actually experienced the serenity Yield promises could not have made Binaural two years later, a record that can perhaps best be described as haunted. While there is a placidity to Yield, Binaural is categorized by its claustrophobia—it’s sense that something is wrong, that walls are closing in, and its inability to figure out precisely what is causing it or what to do about it. Binaural is the first time Pearl Jam surrenders the sense of agency that had animated all its previous records (even the escapism of Yield had an active component to it).

It is not surprising that, coming off the sense of creeping, impending doom that runs through Binaural the response to the trauma of 9-11 (or, more concretely, the way 9-11 hijacked the American conscience and the way its moment of transformative desolation was exploited)would be the defeatism of Riot Act, where, despite the occasional glimmers of hope (front ended on the record or consigned to b-sides) Pearl Jam finds itself, if not quite giving up, wondering whether the fight can be won, and whether it is even worth engaging in the first place. Riot Act t is easily the low point in their catalog (thematically, not necessarily artistically), and the place where the process of disengagement that is begun, however subtly on Yield, ends up bottoming out.

If Binaural and Riot Act are the sound of someone drowning, the triumphant harshness of S/T is the sound of that first aggressive breath you take after surfacing. It’s not fair to call S/T a midlife crisis, since it’s far too concrete a record for that (an embattled response to a very real problem), but it certainly sees the return of an anger that hadn’t really been present since the days of Vs( although with a thematic focus the previous record lacked). It’s not necessarily surprising that they chose to self title this record, as it attempts to recapture the fighting spirit that is at the heart of what the band stands for. But the effort is imperfect. There are moments (parachutes and the wasted reprise come to mind) that come close to synthesizing the anger of the younger pearl jam and the wisdom of the old, but they never quite manage to strike the balance, and Inside Job, the track that needs to tie it all together, clearly falls flat (the first time the band ever really failed itself on the critical thematic track of a record). But it certainly signals where the band wants to go—the realization that anger only gets you so far, that solidarity has to be grounded in love, rather than opposition, and that one can simultaneously struggle while still being at peace—that you can accept the world (and yourself) for the way it is while still trying to change it.

Backspacer picks up where Inside Job leaves off, and accomplishes over the course of a record what Inside Job failed to do at the end of S/T. For the first time Pearl Jam doesn’t just glorify struggle—it celebrates life. For the first time we engage not because the struggle grants meaning, but because there is something precious that we need to defend. There is no narrative arc to Backspacer. It doesn’t try to tell a story. Instead it tries to capture a feeling, or even better a moment—that moment of liberation where you realize how blessed you are that you have both something to give and something to lose.

Gonna See My Friend

I cannot listen to Gonna See My Friend without thinking of Breakerfall—in part because of the reckless, loose, go for broke energy, and in part because they are two sides of the same coin. Whereas Breakerfall is in part about pushing away, Gonna See My Friend is about drawing close. I’m drawn to that somewhat awkward but nevertheless striking lyric in Breakerfall “It’s like she’s lost her invitation to the party on earth and she’s standing outside hating everyone in here.” Gonna See My Friend is a song for a person who, after standing outside for so long, finally comes inside—and the cathartic release they find in doing so.

GSMF explodes right out the gate with one of the most joyful and exuberant riffs in their entire catalog, galloping along to Matt’s furious drumming (he’s the real star of this song, and one of the heroes of the entire record). It’s full of celebration and familiar discovery, like we’ve just finally seen for the first time something momentous and wonderful that’s been right in front of us this whole time. I also love the revving up slide around 12 seconds leading into the first verse that gives you the ‘strap yourself in, we’re going for a ride’ feeling that the song manages to sustain for its entirety. I’m not sure there are any Pearl Jam songs that make me want to move quite like this one.

Eddie’s vocals match the fearless energy of the music and it gives the song a sense of importance that doesn’t feel overwrought or affected. Instead Eddie sounds excited, like he’s just experienced something amazing and cannot wait to share it. Despite the raggedness in his voice there is an innocence to the delivery that is quite compelling, and he sustains it for most of the song, with a the notable, but deliberate, exception of the chorus.

A good chunk of Gonna See My Friend is, if not self-parody, satirical. The lyrics sound heavy and freighted, like the singer is struggling with some heavy burden “do you wanna hear something sick, we are all victims of desire” but the delivery is playful and enthusiastic, even optimistic. It’s like he’s exploring dealing with old familiar feelings in a new way, and rather than focus on the burden his emphasis is on its release.

The choruses in this song (with the start/stop cadence and the vocal delivery) are some of the ‘grungiest’ moments in their entire catalog, and if this is appearing 18 years into their career long after they’ve left that sound behind (and on a record that is hardly a grunge revival) there’s something else going on here. If this song was 13 years older and he talked about ‘gonna see my friend , make it go away’ the board would be lit up with thoughts that this was about drugs or alcohol at best, suicide at worst’, especially with the dark, foreboding delivery in that first chorus (or the frantic, desperate intensity of the final chorus). Yet they’ve made clear in interviews (and the overall performance confirms this) that this is a song about confronting your problems—via leaning on actual friends, or music, or whatever—but it’s about finding strength in healthier places, rather than finding strength in your own misery. There’s a rejection of the nihilism that shot through so much of the grunge movement, and even the darkness of their own past. That they convey this by using that old sound, inverting its meaning in the process (turning it into a victory cry of sorts) is a pretty clever move. Gonna See My Friend takes what was always implicit even in Pearl Jam’s darkest moments and finally brings it to the fore.

The second verse picks up where the first left off, with the same playful exhausted energy (but it’s a satisfied exhaustion, the kind you have after an intense and meaningful experience that leaves you bone tired and totally charged at the same time) and the bright guitar parts offsetting the primary riff. Again the lyrics are seemingly dark, with lines about needing to get away, about seeking oblivion, as if the only way we can escape ourselves and our desires is through self-negation (the language of retiring, making things go away, snuffing candles), but the performance clearly rejects the initial, obvious gloss on the lyrics. If the overall tone of the song doesn’t make that clear it certainly comes across in the bridge, with its sloppy, reckless determination and statement of purpose. Unlike previous songs that dwelt in darkness and cried out for release, this time there’s someplace worth going to, someone or something capable of helping. What that thing is vaguely defined (left for the listener to fill in as they see fit, based on their own needs and experiences), but it’s a source of strength and permanence—a rock to ground ourselves on in a sea of uncertainty (a theme he’ll return to in Force of Nature).

This determination runs through the final verse, and while the last chorus returns to the traditional grunginess of the chorus but the exuberance of the outro, and Eddie’s playful little woot makes it clear that this song is in the end an emphatic rejection about the need to retreat to those old dark places when things are rough. We finally have someplace better to go.

Other songs in this series: