Pearl Jam may very well be the most recent “classic rock” band. That’s not meant to be an insult; the Seattle group’s early albums appealed to young and old rockers alike, and were all successes commercially and artistically. Their debut, Ten, is still one of the strongest albums to emerge from the grunge era, as well as from the 1990s as a whole. It may be hard to remember, but before the wave of imitators, Pearl Jam was a startlingly original band. Their heavy, highly technical interpretation of hard rock was a natural counterpoint to the punkier sounds within the grunge scene. While Nirvana may have been responsible for bringing alternative rock into the mainstream, Eddie Vedder’s crew are largely responsible for keeping it there.
That was nearly 20 years ago. In between 1991 and 2009, Pearl Jam has gone through five drummers and changed very little. If anything’s different, it’s that they’ve mellowed. Hey, a lot of bands mellow over time, especially as they try to “grow up.” The problem is aggression is a crutch Pearl Jam uses to cover up its flaws. And flaws there are–primarily, they were never a particularly melodic band. They also weren’t terribly prolific. Their third album, 1994’s Vitalogy, survived greatly on the strength of songs written in the bands early days (or in the case of “Better Man,” the members’ previous bands). Once that well was tapped, the band sank into mediocrity, and have yet to truly bounce back.
Enter Backspacer, Pearl Jam’s ninth studio album. As with the previous eight, the album has two types of songs: high-energy rock numbers and slower, folk-tinged ballads. That’s not to say this is a formulaic repeat of previous successes. The band isn’t trying so hard to force their raw, in-your-face power like their past selves would have done. They even turn down the distortion for the majority of the album. This would be a very poor move if not for the fact that there are some surprisingly melodic up-tempo tunes present. These aren’t great songs, but they are good, and good songs in the hands of a band as capable as Pearl Jam can make for a fun listen.
The problem, as has been the case for just about every Pearl Jam album since their mid-’90s peak, is how the slow songs sound so unconvincing. It gets particularly bad with “Just Breathe” and “Speed Of Sound” which should never have seen the light of day. Pearl Jam hasn’t been able to pull off that kind of song in over a decade, but it doesn’t appear they realize it. This is a band that works best when they’re rocking so hard they’re falling down on stage. They don’t function well when they’re trying to get you to hold up your lighter–not anymore, anyway. Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the slow numbers is how worn-out Vedder’s voice sounds. He still has it, but he sounds like a man closer to his mid-fifties rather than his mid-forties. Ultimately this doesn’t matter, as these aren’t songs that can be saved. Vedder is tailor-made for the fast numbers. On those his rasp sounds fresh, and Vedder shows he can still tear through a song.
Pearl Jam has also toned down the overt political messages. Perhaps the election of Barack Obama has given Vedder less to complain about. In any case, this is welcome, as past Pearl Jam political sloganeering has come across as far too obtuse (the 2000s may have been rough, but “World Wide Suicide,” really?). The biggest change of them all, however, is how short the album is. Of Pearl Jam’s previous eight studio albums, none ran shorter than 46 minutes, and half were over the 50 minute mark. That makes the 36 minute Backspacer a very surprising turn. The bad songs are over quickly, but the good songs end too fast as well. Overall, this is a positive development, as the songs aren’t unnecessarily extended like Pearl Jam tends to do.
These changes can’t cover up the fact that while there are good songs here, there aren’t any true home runs. Really, the only songs that stand out in memory are the bad ones. The rest are squarely in the same basket as most of the band’s work from the past 15 years. What that means is this isn’t a record you have to own, even if you are a Pearl Jam fan. The album will exceed the expectations of a lot of cynics, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to the band’s early ’90s zenith.