Wednesday, May 12, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Backspacer,’ Pearl Jam (2009)

Though I’ve come to appreciate this album more and more in the several months since its release, I still hold “Backspacer” feels more like a collection of b-sides than a purposeful album.

“Backspacer” is a bit backwards, in general. The “big” songs are the weakest, while the taut little rockers Pearl Jam seemingly can toss off in their sleep stand out. One of my favorite cuts on the disc is “Supersonic” because it doesn’t try to be anything but the simple, pure, fun song it is. Pearl Jam historically doesn’t do fun all that well—usually these type of songs turn out more as jokes than gems—so that makes this song special. It also has one of my favorite lines: “I’m not the paper, I’m more like the fold.”

The first four tracks are all of this mold and breeze by to mixed results. Opener “Gonna See My Friend” is as forgettable as “Breakerfall,” while “Johnny Guitar” is a cousin to b-side “Leatherman”; “Johnny’s” all right but shouldn’t be enough to make a Pearl Jam record. Its inclusion here says something about the overall quality of these sessions.

On the plus side, “Got Some” is aggressive in all the right ways, while “The Fixer” is the best pop/rock song the band’s recorded since, what, “Last Kiss”? “Backspacer’s” lead single has a singsong-y rhythm to the lyrics reminiscent of “Wishlist,” which is not a death knell to this listener as it might be for others. I like the fact they tried to manufacture a radio hit, and it was a solid attempt—this song’s catchy as all get out, even though some of those couplets are a bit painful.

At the heart of “Backspacer” is the duo of “Amongst the Waves” and “Unthought Known,” two songs that have the whiff of intention—the rest of the album’s tracks quickly get to the point, while these two take their time and try to make a statement. That they misfire so badly is, ultimately, what crushes this CD.

“Amongst the Waves” is a sweeping mid-tempo electric ballad in the classic Pearl Jam tradition, hearkening back to a track like “In Hiding.” Not surprisingly, Stone Gossard produces a sturdy riff that any fan of the band can recognize instantly. The trouble is, this song is just … dull. Gossard’s theme goes nowhere except into a bland solo by Mike McCready, while Vedder dips once again into his, ahem, well of water imagery. Really, Eddie? Another song about the ocean? About water? About waves? Where have I heard this before? Oh, right, just about every other Pearl Jam record. Enough already! That, and I hate the word “amongst.” This song is a sister track to “Dissident,” and that is so not a good thing.

Which leads me to “Unthought Known” (another wretched title) that has Pearl Jam fans going gaga for some unknown reason. The first thing I thought when I heard this cut was “Love Boat Captain” from 2002’s “Riot Act,” and, again, that is not a good thing. Like “LBC,” “Unthought Known” ramps up the passion in an attempt to make up for a mediocre melody. To some I guess that works, but the best Pearl Jam songs you know from the first bar—heck, from the first strum of the guitar, usually. This one, like “Love Boat Captain,” has nothing to latch onto, and Vedder just sorta meanders about over the top of it. It’s even structured the same way as “LBC”: muted, indiscernible intro, crescendo into a blowout middle, then fade back into indescernibility (I just made that word up—hey, it’s better than “unthought”). I do not understand the fervor for this song, even after hearing it in concert. Bo-ring.

The best tracks on “Backspacer” are actually troubling in that they have very little to do with the band as a whole. “Just Breathe” and “The End” are essentially two Vedder solo acoustic efforts that sound straight out of his “Into the Wild” sessions. They are flipsides of the same coin, and two of the best love songs he’s ever written. “Just Breathe” is the more uplifting of the pair and employs the lush finger plucking of “Guaranteed” from “ITW.” I love just about every line of this song, its basic theme being: with so much pain so readily available in this world, why should we inflict even more on those we love?

“The End” covers some of the same ground, asking forgiveness of a loved one for past wrongs, but Vedder’s tone here is more desperate than on the former. It closes “Backspacer” on an oddly forlorn note for what is otherwise the most positive collection of songs he’s ever written for Pearl Jam. It’s abrupt ending is an instantly memorable moment in the band’s catalog.

My biggest problem with “Backspacer” isn’t that this is a collection of bad songs, because on the whole it’s not (I’m even coming around a bit on “Speed of Sound”). It’s that all of them remind me of other Pearl Jam songs in a way none of their previous albums ever has. Sure you could pick out one or two retreads on previous CDs, but the feeling over been-there-done-that has never been this pervasive. Even the song titles seem lazy.

“Backspacer’s” lack of an identity actually is its identity: these songs feel like a cobbled-together collection of one-offs. At first I thought it the band’s worst album, a stab at relevance as excuse to play new songs out on tour and not just rehash the glory days. I’ve now come to enjoy “Backspacer” as a pleasant diversion … something to help me drive on down the road, but little more.

Maybe I would’ve liked it better if they’d just called the thing “More Lost Dogs.”

Grade: C+

Favorite Track: “Just Breathe”

Least Favorite Track: “Amongst the Waves”

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