"Do you wanna hear something sick?" moans Eddie Vedder as the guitars swirl like cyclones at the onset of Pearl Jam's new album, Back Spacer. "We are but victims of desire." Not surprisingly, Vedder sings of purging said desire upon its discovery ("I wanna shake this pain before I retire.")
Love? Addiction? Mortality? Vedder might well be referencing all three. But the rant is a bit of a tease, this time. On its ninth studio album, Pearl Jam lightens the temperamental load, sidesteps post-grunge attitude for more digestible '70s album-rock guitar lingo and even serves up a few serious romantic yearns.
To fans of the flannel-clad fury that was an earmark of such early Pearl Jam gems as Ten and Vs., Back Spacer might be sick indeed. But it's likely those crowd surfers have grown up or found a band with a more lasting sense of misery.
That's not to say Pearl Jam has gone soft. On the opening Gonna See My Friend and Got Some, Vedder still sings like a bag of hornets getting poked with a stick. Similarly, the band has re-enlisted producer Brendan O'Brien for the first time in more than a decade, and his aim is clearly not to pay homage to the grunge gods. The guitar sweep on Back Spacer is cleaner, while the lyrical scope sounds positively uplifting at times. In fact, an undercurrent of pop — unsettled, though it might be — runs through the album.
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With a running time of only 37 minutes, the Back Spacer's block party mood seldom lags. Johnny Guitar, which just might be the funniest Pearl Jam tune ever, employs a double-barreled guitar hook to underscore a dream involving the late soul/funk hero Johnny Guitar Watson. It's not so much a tribute as a fantasy, where envy isn't paid to Watson's artistic ability but his well-documented image as a ladies' man.
Elsewhere there are all kinds of images of light and darkness that often — and somewhat unexpectedly, given Pearl Jam's angst-ridden past — favor the former. Some flirt with darkness at bay, as in The Fixer, in which Vedder sings of redemption, renewal and, in its final verse, digging his lover's grave. Others are more overt. Just Breathe, in fact, is as unapologetically sentimental as Johnny Guitar is daffy. Oh, and did we mention Just Breathe and the album-closing The End come with full blown string arrangements? A long walk from Jeremy, you say? Shoot, it's a long walk just from Gonna See My Friend.
A little less extreme but still very removed from conventional Pearl Jam is Speed of Sound, with a rolling, autumnal melody and chiming guitar/keyboard figures that echo the grace of late '60s Beach Boys much in the way that R.E.M. did so expertly on Up in 1998. But like the greatest Brian Wilson songs, the levels of hope and hurt on Speed of Sound are equal. "This night has been a long one," Vedder sings, "waiting on a sun that never comes."
The song pretty much sums up the mood on Back Spacer. Still vital and pensive as it shifts pop gears, the album offers as much fun in the sun as possible without forsaking all those beautiful gray skies.