In 1991, Pearl Jam helped to usher in a sound that practically overnight put an end to the triumphant big-hair paradigm that had ruled the ’80s. Good-bye Aquanet, spandex and makeup. Hello flannel shirts, Doc Martens … and a scowl. The band’s angst-filled songs became the somber soundtrack for a new generation. And for a while, the Seattle-born genre known as grunge ruled the world.
Eighteen years later, Pearl Jam is one of the few acts from that era that’s survived and thrived. And frontman Eddie Vedder’s gruff and growling baritone remains as recognizably distinctive as ever on this stripped-down, mostly positive 37-minute effort.
Backspacer feels like an album that was written after someone told Pearl Jam, “Go away for a weekend and write down all the things in life you’re thankful for.” Lead single “The Fixer” focuses on the ways Vedder and Co. hope to straighten things that are crooked (“When something’s dark/Lemme shed a little light on it”). That track also mentions prayer in a positive light (“I’ll say your prayers/I’ll take your side”). “Just Breathe” is a poignant reflection on the beauty of long-term commitment (“Did I say that I need you?/ … No one knows this more than me”). That track also ponders the fragility of love in a world full of hurt.
“Amongst the Waves” celebrates a love that has survived tough times (“If not for love I would be drowning”), and it’s something that gives Vedder a reason to keep on living (“I can feel like I/Have a soul that has been saved/I can feel like I/Put away my early grave”). “The End” narrates the aching last words of a man who hoped to grow old with his beloved but who is succumbing to a terminal illness. “Unthought Known” exhorts people to see life’s glass as at least half full (“Look for love and evidence that you’re worth keeping”).
A bit more complex is album opener “Gonna See My Friend,” which seems to be about a man who wants to kick his drug addiction. And on “Speed of Sound,” Vedder questions whether living life at a breakneck pace ultimately robs him of peace.
“Supersonic” includes one s-word. Hitting the bottom of the barrel in “The End” is “h‑‑‑” to the singer. “Johnny Guitar” laments that the once virginal object of a man’s affection didn’t trade in her virtue with him. (It’s implied that she did so with another guy.) A suggestive line elsewhere in that track finds him fantasizing about looking up her dress.
Pearl Jam’s ninth studio album reflects the perspective of a band that has moved beyond the clichés of the ’90s grunge scene in which it was spawned. Angst has largely been replaced by a growing sense of maturity as the band affirms that there’s a lot in life worth living for. Still, as has been the case with Pearl Jam’s last several albums, a couple of problematic moments manage to muddy the optimistic messages. It’s too bad they didn’t hit the backspace key on those before publishing.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.