Thursday, December 16, 2010

Guided Tour of Backspacer: The End

 This will be the last Guided Tour post of 2010.  Have a great holiday season!  Guided Tour and Meet Your Blogger will return in January! -B

by stip

The End

Since there’s no real narrative to Backspacer we can’t really say our journey ends with The End. It’s more appropriate to say that The End marks the conclusion of an exploration—an investigation into a state of mind. The whole record reflects the culmination of two decades of confrontation, reflection, retreat, and growth, and celebrates the hard won sense of peace, acceptance, commitment and meaning. Parts of Backspacer celebrate the immediacy of now, while others remind us that its sense of perfect freedom is somewhat meaningless in a vacuum—that without context (a sense of how the current moment is earned through past struggles), and without other people to share it with we cannot appreciate, take for granted, and are likely to lose, what we’ve worked so long and hard to achieve. Parts of Backspacer ask us to occasionally surrender to guilty pleasures, silly dreams, and an enchanted world, while other parts of the record remind us that anything worth having requires struggle, commitment, and sacrifice. While the record explores this moment in its totality, it is worth paying close attention to Backspacer’s final message. Pearl Jam chooses their final tracks very deliberately. They almost always encapsulate, if not the theme of the album, then the take away lesson they think is most important. These are not always the albums best song, but they are almost always among the most important. So what does The End ask us to take away from Backspacer?

Musically it is at once the simplest song on the record, and at the same time one of the most beautiful Pearl Jam has ever recorded, with a significant portion of its beauty deriving from its simplicity. Eddie has gotten really good at these graceful finger picking melodies. Unlike Guaranteed or Just Breathe, this one, for all the subtle movement, feels heavy, like it’s carrying the weight of history—but the weight is intimated. It’s implied, rather than forced upon us. It gives The End an understated quality that enables Eddie’s emotive performance (and the strings) to avoid descending into melodrama.

The orchestration does a wonderfully unobtrusive job filling the empty spaces in the song, providing the background images and coloration that makes The End feel like a life lived, not lived in. Each note evokes an image, reminds us of a moment, and encourages us to slide our own memory into that space, to make this the story of our life. There’s some urgency in the music, especially as the song peaks, but there is rarely sadness in the music itself. The bittersweet feel of the song comes from Eddie, not the music. The music is a quiet celebration of a life that, against long odds, found serenity and joy. It is the sound of salvation.

This is probably Eddie’s finest vocal performance on the record, and one of his best to date. It is also noteworthy that this is the case in spite of (or better, because of) the decline in the power of his voice. There’s vulnerability (‘I just want to hold on and know I’m worth your love’/’looking out from inside the bottom of a well’), defiance (‘slide on next to me’) , and empathy, like there’s always been, but it sounds lived in, rich with the quiet wisdom of experience, and the delicate vulnerability and subtle strength of age rather than the raw elemental power of his youth. I’m not sure there’s another Pearl Jam song where Eddie is as invested in every word as he is here. Eddie has always been good at sounding exposed, but there was usually a part of him that pushed back against that exposure—almost like it was involuntary. Here we have the sound of someone who, rather than fight it, hopes to open himself up to that exposure, and learn something from it. So what does he learn?

Lyrically The End is a well written enough, although the power of the song comes from the fusion of delivery, music, and history—the performance and the context—more than the actual words themselves. But, since this is a song, the performance matters, and Eddie makes this convincing.

As I said earlier, The End is not a sad song. At worst it is bittersweet. It is tinged with fear and regret, but it is the fear and regret that comes from finally winning something priceless and realizing that no matter what you do, and no matter how badly you want it, you’re going to lose it. Backspacer celebrates now, but now cannot last forever. Other songs explore how important it is to understand the struggles that led to this moment, so that we can preserve and recreate it. But The End implores us (as does, in its own way, Just Breathe) to recognize how fragile and fleeting this moment is, and so we need to embrace it while we can.

There is a slightly haunted quality to The End, but it approaches this emotion from a different direction than usual. The first few verses (really the entire song) are self-recrimination (what happened to our dreams and plans, what happened to the promises I made, why haven’t I lived up to the expectations I had for myself, why haven’t I been the person for you I always wanted to be— ‘believe I’m better than this’) but the guilt comes from his inability (he blames himself, but it’s not a failure) to fully embrace and experience the gifts of love and a life worth living—he’s not haunted by what he lacks, but by the fact that no matter what he does, no matter how much he commits, it’s simply impossible for him to ever drink it all in. There is a frustrated quality to Eddie’s delivery—now that he finally has everything he ever wanted he’s almost overwhelmed by its power.

We’ve all speculated about whether the singer here is dying, whether this is about guilt due to cigarettes (is The End inspired by his little girl asking him to stop smoking?), and what have you, but I’m not so convinced that this is the case anymore. This isn’t a song about anything so concrete. It’s not about dying, it’s about the abstract fear of dying, of having to leave everything precious behind. It mourns the impossible finality of death and exit because, for the first time, there’s something too precious to contemplate losing that would be left behind. The sickness in his bones is an awareness of his own mortality. The ‘just a human being’ lyric points to his own (unjustifiable, but no less powerful for being unjustifiable) guilt at not being able to live forever, not being able to be there forever for the people at the center of his existence. Pearl Jam’s music has always clinged to the possibility of love as the one light that could stand against the darkness of the world. Now he has it, and he’s grateful for it, but with it comes a whole new set of fears and regrets—the terror of losing it, and the remorse of not fully taking advantage of it. It gets almost frantic towards the end, as he imagines it all growing distant and slipping away—in Speed of Sound there was always the possibility of slowing down, of a distant light drawing nearer. But what happens when the light starts to dim and you know it is for the last time?

Someday, at the end of a long life, there may be such a thing as enough. We are all going to reach the point where we look to the past, rather than the future, for comfort. At that time our thinking may change, but at this point in time there’s no way to answer Eddie’s fears. There’s no comfort to be had. And so there’s a part of us that needs to not think about it. The fear of loss can paralyze us as surely as can the absence of anything worth losing, and we need to surrender to now to avoid being frozen by everything we will never experience and never know. But at the same time we need to make space for this fear, we need to hold onto the enormity of what we have to lose, so that we never take it for granted. We need those reminders sometimes, that even a dark world is full of impossibly precious things. I think that’s the real meaning behind the gasp at the climax of the song—the shock of how much has been given, and how little time we have for it. We need to make time for the past and clear space for the future, but the end draws near, and now is all we have. We had better make the most of it. Backspacer celebrates our being given the chance to do so.

Other songs in this series: