Pearl Jam - Backspacer
It's a very,very mad world. In the early '90's, I and the rest of Generation X (cough) watched in awe as Pearl Jam and their scruffy peers scaled 120 Minutes, Rolling Stone, Billboard and finally the world. The smell of revolution was in the air. Well, the cologne of sweaty flannel shirts at least. But it's been many years since a single gunshot silenced that revolution. What price this glorious hour? Cobain's ghost now channels Bon Jovi songs through kids' Xboxs', Layne Staley is long gone to drugs and decay, riot grrl Courtney Love now contains more fantastic plastic than a Barbie factory and Chris Cornell? Well let's just keep talk of Scream to a sigh.
Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder was always the Fidel to Cobain's Che. He had the ability to see a little further along the path. This wasn't a race, it was a marathon. Pearl Jam were built to ride the storm and to paraphrase Castro's defence, 'history has absolved them'. Here they are, the soul survivors of grunge, entering their third decade with the typically cryptically-titled Backspacer. But despite owning all the albums, I'd honestly struggle to recall more than the odd tune from the last three. It's not that I'd fallen out of love, but I sure was beginning to take them for granted. The days of valentines, flowers, restaurants or Tesco fizzy wine were but a memory. But rest assured, Backspacer goes some way to reminding you why you may have fallen for them all those yesterdays ago.
Backspacer is the most direct, vital and visceral music they've made since Vitalogy. It's the sound of a band of brothers momentarily closing the door on mortgages and parents' evenings and trying to invoke their inner Beavis and discover those teenage kicks again. But there's also an underlining feeling of sentimentality, a relief to be alive and feeling the warm summer glow on your face. “I can feel like I have a soul that has been saved...gotta say it now, better loud, than too late”. The sense of redemption and salvation on tracks like Unthought Known (which echoes the landmark track Hunger Strike) is honestly invigorating.
That said, most of the songs roar like a bullet train, rumbling through your bones and spilling your tea. Three minutes. Bang. Job done. Lead single The Fixer swings a solid hit to first base and sets the pace for the rest of the game. “I wanna live my life with the volume full” would be a fitting tagline for this picture. The forecast reads upbeat, optimistic and you can dance if you wanna. It's Summer '79, wind down that roof, feel that heavenly breeze and pass the Kia-Ora. Always too gifted as musicians for pure punk, the playing is first rate and it does feel like they are actually playing. Johnny Guitar sounds like something from a '70's blaxploitation flick. It's fun'kay. Whilst the taut (but maturely subtle) guitar solos that saw through Amongst The Waves and the hey-ho Ramones-esque Supersonic are straight facemelters. Vedder's even resurrected his punk snarl spitting whole paragraphs of vitriolic intent into single lines, “I wanna shake this pain before I retire”.
Despite the firecrackers and catherine wheels, it's the sweet campfire sparklers that shine brightest. Just Breathe and The End could've been airlifted from Vedder's remarkable Into The Wild soundtrack. Beautiful reflections, warts 'n' all. “I wanted to grow old, just want to grow old”. Ditto, the life-saving bear hug of Unthought Known. This is what draws me back to this band, the idea that the world may be f*cked but if you can just find something to believe in, no matter how small, it might be worth sticking around. I'm reminded of William Burroughs' idea that if you could keep kicking you'd never die. Of course he's dead now, but you get the idea.
If you take the lyrics in isolation though, they are heavy muthas. Tear-stained letters, memories half buried under sand and a desperate longing to cling to something. Anything. “Yesterdays, how quick they change”, “Enough, I don't think there's such a thing”. It's the words of someone (all lyrics by Vedder, unusual for latter day PJ) whose experience has left them scarred but stronger, wiser. The weight of time passing is palpable. The album even closes ominously with The End and a parting gift, “I'm here but not much longer”. In short I think he's trying to say, save the last dance for me.
Backspacer isn't Pearl Jam's masterpiece but it's their strongest and most enjoyable set for a decade. Although I can't deny a nagging feeling of retreat, back-paddling - there's nothing here they haven't done before and better - this is a great rock record with real heart and spirit. In this synthetic, botoxed world any glimpses of sincerity are a rare bird indeed and should be cherished. Twenty-years walking the long road, this is a record made by grown-ups, but fuelled by the brief, burning-bright fires of youth. Go light 'em up.