When I was twelve I used to borrow stuff from my brother. I say “borrow” when what I actually mean is “steal”: to borrow implies consent and there was none of that going on. I would sneak into his bedroom when he wasn’t around and nick stuff that I thought looked interesting. To my mind this was perfectly legitimate; I was merely re-addressing the uneven balance that his superior age had gifted him. He was a whole 2.5 years my senior and therefore had access to better things than me – Arnold Schwarzenegger films, Penthouse magazines and music, tonnes and tonnes of music. I remember very clearly that for his 14th birthday he asked our Grandad for some CDs. Back in ’92 CDs were quite the phenomenon. I was still stuck in the ice-age that was tape (Bananarama’s Greatest Hits no less) so I paid particular attention to their arrival in his bedroom. He asked for three: Cowboys From Hell by Pantera, Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacationand Ten by a band called Pearl Jam. He played them ALL the time, always with his door firmly locked. He was mired in that horribly cliched period of his life when he thought he was “difficult”: he was growing his hair, which apparently symbolised a life-long commitment to not washing, painting band emblems on his Doc Martins in Tip-ex and not letting me listen to his music. So, predictably, the very first opportunity I got to steal these CDs, I took. This was my first introduction to Pearl Jam and what an introduction it was. I thought Ten was brilliant. Definitely much, much better than Bananarama. I can’t admit to seeing the brilliance of songs like Black or Alive back then: my appreciation of the album went no further than me thinking it sounded really good. That was the extent of my insight, but now, some 17 years on I rather like the simplicity of my analysis. I have liked Pearl Jam since the day I stole that album from my brother. I have listened to their music more than any other band in the world. I own all their albums, far too many of their live performances, their b-sides and a good smattering of their vinyl singles (even though i don’t own a Gramophone and therefore cannot play them); put simply they matter to me a lot. Over the years my appreciation of their incredible collective talent has definitely increased. I do now think I fully appreciate just how good Black and Alive are but there will always be an element of “just really liking how they sound”.
I include this rather indulgent historical pre-amble not because I want to write for NME or The Times Cultural Supplement but simply because I want to highlight my (almost) life-long affiliation with the band’s music and the importance of a personal relationship with it. I grew up with their stuff: I have listened to their songs at every important point of my life, regarded them with the subjective perspective of an 18, 19, 20 year old me; their music has often mirrored what I have been feeling (or perhaps more accurately I have made it relevant to my life) and that is of huge importance to my love of this band. Ten was a simply stunning debut and to follow it with what is my favourite of their albums, Vs., just two years later is a great achievement. Quite how a band only recently formed can produced work of this quality beggars belief. To hear the songs they recorded in ’91-’93 that DIDN’T make their first two albums is to understand the size of the talent that these guys possess.
Fast-forwarding to 2009 brings us slap-bang in front of my appraisal of PJ’s 9th studio album Backspacer. If truth be told I’ve been a little worried about this album. I heard the first two singles and didn’t really like them. They weren’t bad, just not that great. And coming off the back of their very average eponymous album in 2006 I didn’t have high hopes. It seemed increasingly likely that after 17 years of producing incredible music Pearl Jam were running out of ideas. The stats didn’t bode well either: at just 11 tracks long, culminating in barely more than 36 minutes of music this is by far their shortest album. I was fast beginning to predict a disaster……..Thank funk I was wrong. The more you listen to Backspacer the better it gets. Now I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up here: it’s not on a par withTen, Vs., Vitalogy or No code but then frankly I don’t think we should be comparing something written at the end of a 17 year career with material recorded at the start of it. Pearl Jam are a very different bunch of people to the guys that formed in 1990 (just as I am a very different appreciator of music): They’ve had a fair deal of success, are all married, some of them have kids and it would seem are pretty content. And contentment does not ground-breaking music make. If there is one thing they don’t believe they have, it is commercial appreciation. I recall an interview with McCready in which he bemoaned the fact that they didn’t get more radio play in the States. This seemed a little strange to me: it’s not as if they are under-appreciated. Their concerts sell out in nano-seconds, they’ve spent their entire careers doing exactly what they want to do and have earned a hell of a lot of money in the process. To worry about whether some gibbering, idiotic DJ chooses to play their records or not seems trite to me. But then maybe if you function on such a high musical level all you want is to reach as many people as possible. Who knows? Up-shot of all this is that there is a discernible sense of the commercial in their new stuff. Some people will no doubt rally against this commercial slant, branding them sell-outs, but to do so is to miss the point. Sure, the music on Backspacer isn’t as visceral as it used to be. But then if they were still churning out material of the same ilk as their early work it would strip the intensity and life from those songs. Things change….hairstyles change…get used to it.
That is not to let them off the hook: they still need to produce the goods. If they had written eleven terrible songs I’d let rip. To my mind their last 3 albums have failed to deliver and it is because they have had no stand-out tracks. The early stuff seemed to be made-up entirely of highlights and although the latter albums continued to showcase well executed, tight song writing, something was definitely lacking. For a while it looks like Backspacer is going to continue in this vein. Tracks 2 & 3 (incidentally the two singles I didn’t really like) aren’t mind-blowing. They are well-crafted and do grow on you but fall short of PJ brilliance. It is not until track 5, Just Breathe,that things start to look up. Reminiscent of something from Vedder’ssolo soundtrack to Into The Wild this is a genuinely affecting and dare I say rather beautiful song. It out-classes anything Pearl Jam have written in the last 9 years. Amongst the Waves keeps things ticking along, gaining in momentum and featuring a really good solo fromMcCready before Unthought Known is released on a listener starting to believe again. There is a brief diversion from greatness in the next two tracks which aren’t bad, just not very good. But that’s OK because by the second listen through you know what’s coming. Track 10, the penultimate song, is the one they kept in the locker. And its positioning just adds to its greatness. You think the albums gone, over, finished. You think, “yeah….bit of a shame….two really good songs sandwiched between a slice of ok-ness and one of mediocrity. The album is just going to peter out now, confirming that my favourite band have lost that….oh…hang on….HANG ON…..what the funk is this? OH SHIT!” Force Of Nature, Track 10, is an absolute monster. A song you can play over and over again and never tire of. It’s got it all: great vocals, one hell of a riff, a soaring, elating chorus and a superb solo. THIS is how you write a great song; a song that would be every bit at home on any of their very best albums. After this it doesn’t matter how the album ends (well enough as it happens) because your still thinking about what you’ve just heard. Pearl Jam are a different band to the people I heard when I was twelve. But then so am I and that is no bad thing. I will listen to this album at important points in my life that are yet to come and Force Of Naturewill grace any compilation of their work I choose to cobble together. They have delivered, I am delighted to say, and if my brother owned this album I would steal it and wouldn’t give it back.
If you want a media-friendly, dare I say “commercial”, summary of Backspacer then it is this:
At times the album achieves what has eluded PJ for the last 9 years. It isn’t a classic, but it is a worthy addition to what has to be the greatest canon of song writing in the last two decades: ***1/2 Stars
1: gonna see my friend
2: got some
3: the fixer
4: johnny guitar
5: just breathe
6: amongst the waves
7: unthought known
9: speed of sound
10: force of nature
11: the end