After Pearl Jam's startling 2006 self titled effort, which was unquestionably their hardest hitting album since the early nineties, it was exciting to see where they would go next. Had they recaptured their mojo, so to speak? Or was it just something that felt right to bang out after over ten years of toying with their sound? Whatever the case, expectations for a follow up were very high, and they have capitalized on the momentum admirably.
Backspacer sets right out of its stall with Gonna See My Friend, the cheeriest song you'll hear about drugs all year. The pop and new wave influence which guitarist Mike McCready had spoken of well before even the album's completion become apparent after only a few bars; while Eddie Vedder's voice has certainly lost none of its power, there's almost a warmth to it, which compliments the crunching guitars wonderfully. This carries over into the fantastic Got Some, which kicks right in before you can even catch your breath. The verse's slightly calm demeanor doesn't last long before the prechorus' franticness explodes into the aggressive chorus, and every section comes, kicks your ass, and leaves so quickly that by the time you hit the bridge, you already need to listen to it again.
Up next is lead single The Fixer, which is easily their catchiest song since Yield's Do the Evolution back in 1998. This song is so tightly knit, with musicianship befitting a sprawling progressive rock epic, and yet it's condensed into a catchy, almost soulful slice of pop - I can't remember the last time a chant of "yeah yeah yeah yeah" worked so well on me. Matt Cameron again displays why he's considered one of the finest drummers in rock, as he plays with time signatures and fills with ludicrous ease (it's hard to believe that Matt Cameron has been a member of Pearl Jam longer than he was of Soundgarden at this point).
The second half of Backspacer begins with a bit of a throwback to the Yield - Riot Act era, offering the listener a bit of a break after the rollicking opening trio and the mid-tempo rocker Johnny Guitar. What's remarkable about these tracks is that only one (the lovely and insightful Unthought Known) passes the four minute mark; it's as if they discovered how to condense every artsy, profound impulse into a taut, engaging song. And one of the best words to describe this album is taut - at 37 minutes, I do believe this is their shortest release yet.
Supersonic breaks the lull a bit with a short burst of energy, before settling into Speed of Sound, an intricately layered and extremely moving ballad about living with regret. The appropriately named The End closes the album with a gentle flourish, and ending abruptly with the proclamation, "I'm here, but not much longer."
It's safe to say that not only is Backspacer great, but it's quite unlike anything else in Pearl Jam's catalogue, and for a band closing out their second decade, this alone is a remarkable accomplishment.