Eddie Vedder has finally shaken the dead guy who has been haunting him. Two decades ago, Kurt Cobain dogged Pearl Jam as sellouts, dismissing his grunge rivals as “cock-rock fusion” and their gala debut, Ten, as insufficiently “alternative” because it had too many guitar leads. Ever since, Vedder has been out to prove the dead guy wrong, overtly or covertly. But with the release of Backspacer, Pearl Jam’s half-awesome, half-blah ninth studio album, Vedder and the boys from Seattle have come to the realization that maybe they are sellouts of a sort—and that there’s nothing wrong with that, if they’re comfortable with who they are as a band and with the contradictory decisions they’ve made.
The strongest evidence of the band’s newfound disposition lies in their unexpected partnership with Target. The big-box giant is the only place you can buy Backspacer, save for the band’s own website and randomly selected “indie” music stores. It’s a controversial, aggressively capitalist move after years of towing the line against corporate America. But this new music, too, proves that Pearl Jam aren’t concerned with living up to expectations. Instead of trendy Bush-bashing or third-person narratives about marginalized youngsters common in his prime, Vedder now favors first-person introspection and meditations on mortality.
There’s also a focus on the band’s prowess as a unit, as opposed to an all-Vedder-all-the-time approach. Prime examples include “The Fixer” (a song literally about collaboration, penned by drummer Matt Cameron) and “Johnny Guitar,” a grease-in-the-hair, cigarette-pack-in-the-T-shirt-sleeve jam with a totally unorthodox arrangement, also compliments of Cameron. Indeed, Pearl Jam are at peace here, but not yet complacent, diversifying in the autumn of their career, while contemporaries like U2 or Wilco are either getting more contrived or sticking with what’s tried-and-true.
It’s not hard to see how Pearl Jam landed in this predicament. After their initial thrall of mid-’90s success (despite Cobain’s derision), they developed an iron-clad ethical compass, transforming into, first and foremost, a band of integrity—occasionally, to the music’s detriment. The Ticketmaster court battle. The activism. The anti-corporate loathing, made manifest in Vedder’s tearing down of ad signage at concerts. All rocking notes. The trouble is that Pearl Jam tickets now usually cost a small fortune. Their widespread benevolence has undermined their intent toward any cause in particular. And, obviously, Target.
There’s a flipside to that, though, because after eight albums with Sony, the band is releasing Backspacer themselves. It’s not clear which party made that decision, but it doesn’t really matter: Pearl Jam don’t need a major label. Chances are they’re stoked to dictate their own marketing, release music when and how they want to, and, of course, increase their margins (the band will reportedly make $5 on each copy of Backspacer, whereas they’d make roughly a third of that under previous conditions). Besides, what’s so wrong with exercising a little entrepreneurialism, creating a new paradigm in an industry without one? If the superfans who pre-ordered the record through the band’s website want access to the live performances available only on the Target disc, well, then they’ll just have to buy the album again.
But back to the music. Backspacer, a mere novella at only 36 and a half minutes, was produced by Brendan O’Brien, who helmed what many Pearl Jam connoisseurs consider the band’s four finest albums—Vs., Vitalogy, No Code, and Yield—before going on hiatus. O’Brien is responsible for honing the band’s ragamuffin sound into something that emphasized musical virtuosity, lyrical focus, and fewer cock-rock guitar leads, an excellent philosophy largely ignored on their last few albums and wisely resurrected here, albeit intermittently.
The first five songs are brilliantly sequenced, wide-ranging in texture, and ridiculously melodic. Furious opener “Gonna See My Friend” finds Vedder shredding his nodes as he riffs (maybe) on staging an intervention for a long-lost friend, followed by “Got Some,” with Vedder barking more words of encouragement, building on the previous song’s momentum. “The Fixer” is a total about-face, a pop song with just enough snazzy guitar licks to qualify as rock despite the buoyant “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” refrain that’ll have Jonas Brothers fans singing along en masse by Christmastime. Then comes potential sleeper hit “Johnny Guitar,” featuring some of Vedder’s most adventurous phrasing, rounded out by “Just Breathe,” an acoustic leftover from Vedder’s splendid Into the Wild soundtrack that finds him passionately lamenting, “Yes, I understand/That every life must end.”
The record’s second half unfortunately trades in retread topics and middling music that seemingly calls for everyone to play at once, on top of each other, without any regard for nuance. “Amongst the Waves” is yet another ode to surfing that tries—but fails—to live up to the epic, grunge-era classic “State of Love and Trust.” With “Speed of Sound” and “Force of Nature,” the titles pretty much speak for themselves. The only highlight, really, is the strings- and horns-inflected closing track, “The End,” and that’s because it ends like a ruptured aneurysm on the lines “I’m here/But not much longer.” Too morbid for comfort? Sure, but Kurt Cobain can’t say the same.