I’m going to be 30 next month. I wasn’t quite a teenager when Pearl Jam’s Ten came out and their music resonated very strongly with me. At the time, I thought, “This is my music. I will love this music forever.” And I still love a lot of Pearl Jam’s early stuff (Vs. is flawless), but I’ve approached their last few records with a mixture of trepidation and skepticism. Early reviews of Backspacer (their new album, available semi-exclusively at Target. They made a deal with the indie shops to release the album as well, which has muddied the debate over whether or not the Target deal was a 100% dick move, but I know this much is true: 1992 Eddie Vedder would never have done that, and was probably missing more meals than 2009 Eddie Vedder) seemed to suggest that Pearl Jam had begun to rock again. My hopes, because they’re stupid, soared.
I think one question can help us narrow down whether or not you’ll like Backspacer. At first, the question will seem unrelated, but I’ll tie it all together with, to borrow a phrase from my (dead) hero George Carlin, my usual flawless logic. Here’s the question: Are you going to watch the Who perform at the Super Bowl halftime show? Subquestion within a question: are you going to watch it enthusiastically? Sub-subquestion within in a question: Really? Everyone in their right mind loves Who’s Next and would love to have a time machine so they could go back and see the Who play live. But do you really want to see Roger Daltrey (whose hopes were clearly dashed – he didn’t die before he got old) and Pete Townshend stumble about on stage in front of… of who, exactly? They sure as fuck won’t be playing with Keith Moon and John Entwistle, so why should I care? Pearl Jam is not quite that advanced a case (i.e., all of Pearl Jam’s most stable lineup is still living), but here’s what I’m getting at: the great albums of our youth may be great forever, but the bands that made them might not be (might not be. Some bands/artists can age amazingly gracefully – I’ve trotted out examples all over this blog in the last year and a half, so I’ll let you fill in the blanks on your own) and we’re doing ourselves a disservice to pretend that they are.
Backspacer makes me cringe from start to finish, resulting in a roughly forty minute frowny-face. Pearl Jam still sort of recognizes the essential elements of rock ‘n’ roll, but Vedder’s lyrics have gotten at least half-stupid (“I’m gonna see my friend & make it go away”?! Also, he rhymes “everything” with “friend” by pronouncing it “every thin”) and it feels like Pearl Jam has devolved into awesome guitar solos surfacing in the middle of a sewage leak. Yes, Pearl Jam’s two guitar players, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, are still the best part of the band. It’s just not enough any more.
Over the last several albums, Eddie Vedder has relied more and more on what I call his Screamy Voice. Vedder has a pretty nice baritone but these days, he’s singing like he resents it. Even the croony tunes on Backspacer are now augmented by a reedy, nasal twang – the kinda thing coffee house dudes add to their notes to let you know that they’re being soulful (this absolutely ruins “Just Breathe” for me by belaboring its rather obvious melodic hook. It’s a shame, too, because “Just Breathe” is one of the two songs on this album that I could nearly like). Seems to me that Vedder used to have a better grasp of when to growl and when to actually sing.
I’d be remiss in my disappointment with Backspacer if I didn’t devote some attention to its lead single, “The Fixer.” It’s Pearl Jam’s poppiest single to date (maybe “Last Kiss” comes close), which wouldn’t be so bad if “The Fixer” wasn’t so…well…dumb. “When something’s gone/ I wanna fight to get it back again” sings Vedder, like a guy who just wants to help you out, man. The intention is laudable but the phrasing is lazy and here’s why: you should be specific about what you’ll fight to get back when it’s gone. For instance, the Third Reich is gone. I wouldn’t fight to get it back but, within the context of “The Fixer”, Eddie Vedder will. “Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah,” (that’s the chorus!) sing the dancing Nazis. Am I really suggesting that Eddie Vedder would fight to bring back Hitler? Of course I don’t think he’s a fascist, but I agree with George Carlin’s assertion that “the quality of our thoughts is only as good as the quality of our language” and the quality of Vedder’s language on “The Fixer” is somewhere between poor and embarrassing. Please see me after class, Eddie.
Vedder and company sound like they’re having fun on Backspacer and I don’t want to begrudge them that – in the past, they’ve had a tendency to sound like they weren’t enjoying the hard work of being rock stars. But the fact remains that, if Backspacer is Pearl Jam letting their hair down and having a good time, maybe some sticks need to be reinserted in some asses – I mean, Ten was nothing if not a Very Serious Album (honestly, some of it was melodramatic) but the music was kick ass. I just listened to “Alive” a minute ago (I need to take breaks from Backspacer at this point) and it still works wonders for me. But I’m not having a helluva lot of fun listening to Backspacer. Instead, I’m having doubts about why I ever liked this band in the first place. Of course, I still have their old stuff to remind me of the power they used to have. I’m not sure where Pearl Jam lost it, but it’s definitely gone now. (Will you fight to get it back again, Eddie Vedder? I sincerely hope so.)
So what now? There are plenty of people out there who will watch the Who on Super Bowl Sunday and tell everyone how amazing their performance was (probably some of the same misguided souls who dug the epic fail parade that was the Cream reunion concert). But there are people like me who will listen to their recordings of “Baba O’Reilly” and recognize that the guys performing on the TV are merely a joke about a formerly amazing band. And there are people out there who can still defend Pearl Jam no matter how bad they get (these people are enablers of Pearl Jam’s worst tendencies and I wish they’d stop) and those people will find some way, dog knows how, to love Backspacer and call it a triumph. This Rolling Stone review (and the comments below it) will give you a picture of what I’m talking about. Not that Rolling Stone can be considered credible these days. Any publication that will list fucking Stadium Arcadium as one of the best albums of the decade is not to be trusted.