Much of the attention focused to date on the ninth studio album by Pearl Jam, a.k.a. the last grunge band still filling arenas, has fixated on the means of release: The Seattle group has broken with the major-label system that's nurtured it since its 1991 breakthrough "Ten," opting instead to self-release the disc through its own Web Site and an exclusive deal with a major retail chain. The rest of the advance buzz has held that this is the group's "happy" album lyrically and snappiest disc musically since... well, pretty much ever. (Pearl Jam vocalist, Evanston homeboy and sometimes tortured soul Eddie Vedder has said the cause of his newly upbeat mood is the election of President Obama: "I've tried, over the years, to be hopeful in the lyrics, and I think that's going to be easier now," he told Rolling Stone.)
Neither of those quick takes tells the whole story. Pearl Jam is in bed with Target, true, but it broke ground by insisting that indie mom-and-pop retailers still be allowed to sell the album, too. And while the band's old alternative-era producer Brendan O'Brien (returning to the fold for the first time since "Yield" in 1998) does oversee a number of quick-moving, good-time rockers--the opening trio of "Gonna See My Friend," "Got Some" and "The Fixer" among them--there are almost as many stripped-down Vedder ballads, including "Just Breathe," "Speed of Sound" and "The End" and his only slightly more up-tempo "Unthought Known," all unimaginable without the quiet detour he made in 2007 when crafting his solo contributions for the soundtrack of "Into the Wild."
This is to say, for better and for worse, there aren't any surprises here: We've heard Pearl Jam in speed-freak mode before ("Spin the Black Circle," say) and we've heard Vedder strumming and crooning 'round the campfire. Pearl Jam hasn't sold out, but neither has it bravely reinvented itself; it essentially has given us more of the same--some strong, some filler, but nothing mind-blowing. If the group is capable of a daring late-career reinvention a la U2 circa "Achtung Baby," reinvigorating both the group and its fans at the outset of the third decade of its career, it certainly would be welcome in this corner. But "Backspacer" is more backward- than forward-looking.