Thursday, November 25, 2010

Guided Tour of Backspacer: Supersonic

I'm thankful for the great original content that Stip provides for TheSkyIScrape! -B

by stip


Backspacer begins to stumble in its middle act. Amongst the Waves fails to live up to its potential. Unthougth Known comes closer but in the end is too skeletal a song to sustain its heavy ambitions (although it deserves credit for its magnificent reach). Speed of Sound, as we’ll see, is a difficult and complicated song that is hard to get a read on. But for me the real weak spot in Backspacer is Supersonic, which lacks the wild abandon of spin the black circle, deceptive intensity of All Night, the tongue in cheek attitude of Don’t Gimmie No Lip (which is a stupid, but nevertheless charming song), or the playfulness of Black Red Yellow. Supersonic is Pearl Jam trying to convince its audience that it’s having FUN, and not entirely succeeding. In fairness, I should disclose that in general I’m not a fan of this kind of power pop, so Supersonic was going to have a hard time winning me over. If nothing else, Supersonic means I no longer have to wonder what Mankind would have sounded like with Eddie singing and for that I’ll always be grateful.

Musically it’s simple, but it’s decent. I like how the song revs up at the start (and how it comes out of the bridge), and there is a catchy head bopping quality to the music, an innocent brightness to the whole thing that is kinda fun. The bridge solo is good, but utterly utterly out of place—almost like they had this really good 30 seconds of music and were struggling to find a place to include it on the record. I’m not sure what purpose it serves here. It’s a nice piece of music in a song celebrating music, but without stronger transitions it feels like an afterthought. It’s also one of the more muscular moments on a record that, outside of Johnny Guitar, doesn’t have many. This is not necessarily a problem for the record as a whole, as most of the songs don’t require these moments, but then again neither does Supersonic. They should have saved this for whenever they plan to release Of The Earth. It would fit in much better there. The end of the song is a bit flat as well—it cries out for more yeah yeahs and probably an outro solo. Even an extra 15 second would have been enough, but what was supposed to be an exclamation point ends up sounding like a period. Supersonic just kind of stops, rather than taking off as the title demands.

Vocally I’m not a huge of fan of Eddie on this one. Some of this may just be personal taste (I just don’t like how he actually sounds—there’s too much U and Leatherman in here, two Pearl Jam songs I really just hate listening to), but I don’t feel like there’s any real character to Eddie on this one. He’s in theory completely swept up in his love of music and the spirit of the moment, but there’s no abandon here, no reckless surrender like there is on Spin the Black Circle. There’s enthusiasm, but no celebration. It’s genial and friendly, but it’s not passionate. I feel like I’m getting a 1950s advertisement for music: Good Clean Wholesome Fun. He starts to recover during the outro, but it’s too little too late.

Lyrically Supersonic is fairly bland but that’s okay. It’s not a song begging for strong lyrics (although they would, of course, make the song better). The problem is that the lyrics actually end up further undermining the performance. “I catch a break, then a punch to the head”—where is the punch to the head? The follow up line works “I smile big with a toothless grin”—it fits the happy, pleasant, innocent vibe of the song—but the rest of the actual lyrics demand more. I alluded to this earlier, but the title itself demands a speed and momentum that the song lacks. There’s no sense here that music ‘took my soul’ or ‘I don’t need you to live, but I’ll never let you go” or ‘I need to hear it, need to feel it loud’ and ‘I wanna live my life with the volume full.’ The song celebrates an all consuming passion in the form of a pleasant diversion.

In theory Supersonic makes sense on Backspacer, although perhaps not here. Early on, in the purer celebrations of the moment devoid of reflection (the back half of the record is certainly more self aware than the first half) Supersonic would fit in perfectly well, and the song could feed off of the momentum and energy of those earlier numbers. It could rely on its surroundings to overcome its shortcomings as a stand alone piece. But Supersonic is not a logical follow up to the Amongst the Waves and Unthought Known mission statements, nor is there any useful connection to the sober reflections in Speed of Sound. Maybe the song is useful as a footnote, a reminder to the listener of what came before, but Backspacer is a quick record that probably doesn’t need the reminder in the first place, and given the weaknesses of the song, Supersonic ends up acting more like a long digression in the middle of a paragraph. Rather than remind you of where you’ve been, it simply distracts you from where you’re going. The song means well, and it doesn’t have the ambitions to be truly offensive (and the music is good enough), but this is the only song on Backspacer whose absence would definitely improve the album.

Other songs in this series: