A record of purposeful, crisp, and enjoyable rock tunes, Pearl Jam’s Backspacer is the band’s shortest album and one of their best. It takes off right out of the gate with a trio of punk-tinged numbers and flows charmingly into a chain of divine ballads and groovy rock cuts.
Part of the reason for the pure fun of the album may lie with the quintet’s decision to tap Brendan O’Brien for production duties. For the first time since 1998’s Yield, O’Brien’s bag of tricks is unleashed on a Pearl Jam album and it shows.
There is a wonderful sparkle to the music and lyrics, making it easy to forget that theirs is a legacy few other rock outfits will be able to match. With every stroke of guitar and every deep corner of Eddie Vedder’s voice, there’s a transcendent sense of character and of joyful suffering, but there’s also a sense of newness to the habit.
Backspacer, released on the band’s own Monkey Wrench label, can barely contain Vedder’s fortified hopefulness. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have to sing about that motherf***er anymore, but it’s quite refreshing to catch him smiling through the cavernous tones. “Love ain’t love until you give it up,” he sings on the heartbreakingly beautiful “Amongst the Waves.”
Along with the fitting optimistic streak, the record fires out some of the most compact work from bassist Jeff Ament, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, and drummer Matt Cameron in several albums. There are gut-wrenching solos, killer drum fills, and, yes, some rather magical strings arranged by Eddie Horst.
Backspacer features some musical moments so extraordinary that they’re somewhat hard to take. The gorgeous “Unthought Known” is one of their best songs ever, making use out of swelling tension to float Eddie’s terrific lyrics to the stars. “Fill the air up with love,” he sings.
“Speed of Sound” packs a punch with its narrative from the point of view of a drunk at a bar reflecting on the long day, while “The End” aches with words of love lost set to strings.
“Force of Nature” pushes a hedge of guitar to a soaring chorus to come up with a sharp, confident rocker that gets a further lift from McCready’s sweltering solo. The guitarist is in top form on “Got Some,” too, showing off his bluesy riffs with care and cleverness.
Whether it was because the sun finally went down on the Cheney/Bush Administration or whether it was for other puzzling reasons, Backspacer catches Pearl Jam basking in the beauty of optimism and love. The results of this sun-baked brightness are awe-inspiring, blending together for one of the best pure rock records of the year.