Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Pearl Jam, "Backspacer" (Monkeywrench) [2.5 out of 4 STARS]

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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.

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18 Comments

What do you know? Pearl Jam isn't looking more backward than forward with Backspacer.

Jim,
I could not agree with you LESS in your review of Backspacer. I was lucky enough to get an advance of the album, and I have to say, this is Pearl Jam's strongest effort since Yield in 1998.

Each song on here is tight, ferocious, and moving in its own way. Songs like Johnny Guitar and The Fixer are unlike anything they've done in the past, especially lyrically. You mention that they haven't reinvented themselves and this is "more of the same". Again, I am in utter disagreement with you here. First off, did you ever listen to No Code or Riot Act? While many people do not believe these to be their greatest albums, they are certainly a shift from their earlier work, and even different than Backspacer.

The new album is filled with hope, and songs like "Unthought Known" and "Force of Nature" I believe are some of the most beautiful songs the band has ever written. I don't know if you bothered listening to the lyrics or simply just enjoying Eddie's signature baritone, but "Unthought Known", for example, is a combination of some of Pearl Jam's best songs in my opinion, such as "Given To Fly", "In Hiding", and "Wishlist".

It doesn't get better than this.

I think you should go back and give this album another listen, or another 8 listens, and tell me this is still a step backward.

You are a musical invalid Jim. Did you happen to go to the United Center and catch Eddie and Co? Your grudge of PJ is getting in the way of your writing...not an accolade for a journalist......Oh well I guess you can listen to the Kid Cudi album....that just came out too.

mate, you must have skipped just breathe, speed of sound, got some, amongst the waves, the end .... it's evolution baby!!! get back to that stereo Jim... now my friend!! quick ... I'm dreading the thought of the boys from PJ even catching a glimpse of a review that doesn't simply say, "THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU ,,, YOU NEVER FAIL TO BREAK MY HEART, SEW IT BACK UP AGAIN AND SEND IT SOARING"!!!!

I don't understand how you can say this is a step "backwards" Jim.
It sounds to me like the only thing that's "backwards" is your taste in music. This is a great album -unlike anything the band has done before-

Perhaps you should have bought a pair of headphones.

I think Eddie said it best back in 1994 and it is relevant today.

This is not for you!!!

Jim DeRogatis. The sad music critic who hates Pearl Jam. You missed out on a great album, Jim. Your review is an outlier and your personal dislike of this band is absurd and shameful.

Don't understand your expectation of them needing to reinvent a la Achtung Baby. Have they ever been known for the big pop culture reinvention? Reinvention is pop culture is overdone overrated any way, and Pearl Jam doesn't have a contrived bone in their body to do that anyway. How about just sounding fresh and invigorated and current? Part of what gives this band staying power is the fact that they have spread their changes and "reinvention" in little pieces over many albums. As opposed to going full tilt techno like U2 (who soon thereafter had nowhere else to go but 'back to basics'). Making a happy and joyful album is a pretty big departure for them anyway.

Jim - you obviously have some dislike towards the band for whatever reason because your review is "way off". It's irrelevant really... try again...do over...move on...

Jim your opinion sucks Stus balls.

Welcome Pearl Jam fans vitriolic response to a mediocre review. I'm a huge fan and love the record, but he's right... it's nothing new.

Why do bands need to reinvent themselves? If you saw both the shows at the UC last month and listen to this album, if you think there are any bands who were around in the early 90s (or, hell, early 00's) doing anything close to the energy and vitality of Pearl Jam, you're sadly mistaken. Saw U2 last Saturday at Solider Field and even though I loved the show, it was nothing compared to what Eddie & Co. brought over those 2 nights at the UC. Varied setlists, fantastic energy and tight playing combine for unparalleled live shows. Compare to Achtung Baby as a reinvention? Why? PJ's Self-titled (the Avocado album) back in 2006 was a return to form after a disappointing album in Riot Act and Backspacer sounds even better after 10 listens. The first three tracks, Just Breathe and Unthought Known is better than most anything what "rock" bands are putting out these days.

Wen did PJ every say they were trying to reinvent themselves with this album?? This album is a great mix of up-tempo rockers and a few beautiful ballads. PJ still sells out arenas anywhere in the world for a simple reason. Time and time again, they continue to put out great rock albums. DeRogatis is just one miserable, negative person who doesn't seem to enjoy anything unless it's some obscure, indie band that no one has heard of.

Apparently an album can't score a 3/4 unless the band reinvents themselves. Got it - I now know how to interpret these reviews.

It's amazing that PJ gets a bad review from you all the time, and Wilco can't do anything wrong.

Your day is obviously too busy to listen to a 37 minute album. I thought this was your job. Next time listen to the album instead of just hearing it. The last thing I want to hear is what you call reinventing. Get On Your Boots, U2, is the kind of song that should not be invented or I guess a song you say is from a band that is reinvented. If this is reinvention, Pearl Jam please stay the way you are, a better band than Jim will ever give you credit for. I wish there were more bands like this out there, that consistently put out great albums.

Reinvigorating its fans???? Are you kidding me???? Next time, get out of the buffet line and go take a look at what's happening at their shows. Fans hanging on to every song, every word, with passion and energy. The 2 shows they put on last month at the UC were incredible. Darn, they didn't bring a 150 foot stage.... nevermind. You're right U2 is the greatest band ever.

Pearl Jam is a ROCK band, go reinvent that you ass.

Will be nice when the Sun Times goes out of business so no one needs to listen to you anymore.

I wanted to like this album but after a few spins I can't reconcile the earnest faux punk rockers with Eddie Vedders tired Hallmark ballads. Yes we get it, you're sensitive, you're human, your the flannel lint tumbling in the dryer of mankind. As a 35 year old I have a certain nostalgic fondness for Pearl Jam. I'm probably the guy shelling out fifty bucks to see them and nod along to Smile, In Hiding, and Do The Evolution. Unfortunately the new product doesn't seem to do anything other than provide a reason to tour. Which is a good thing by the way, fantastic energy, adoring fans, and the occasional stunner. It'll never be cool to like Pearl Jam but I'm glad they're still fighting the good fight, real or imagined.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on September 16, 2009 5:26 PM.

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