Pearl Jam Pass the Torch
Nobody can deny that Pearl Jam are a truly impressive rock band. Vedder and company have been playing music together for almost two decades. And despite spending most of it as one of the biggest music acts in the world, they’ve managed to steer far from the ravenous black hole of pop mediocrity that often sucks in such artists.
It’s an especially notable feat considering the fate of their closest peers. The other “big four” of the grunge years have all imploded. Soundgarden caved under the weight of fame, while the lead singers of Alice In Chains and Nirvana both became well-publicized casualties of heroin addiction. If not for Pearl Jam, the critics who pegged grunge as inherently self-destructive might actually be proven right. And nobody wanted that to happen.
With their ninth album Backspacer out Tuesday, these same naysayers might have to keep their mouths shut a little longer. At just eleven songs and under forty minutes long, it might be hard to believe that this is one of the group’s most poignant efforts. But that is in fact the case.
When word spread, per lead guitarist Mike McCready earlier in the year, that Backspacer would be heavily influenced by (gasp!) new-wave, fans balked—given that PJ have always been firm believers in the power of a crunchy, loud guitar. Rest assured, though; the distortion and feedback have gone nowhere. Rockers like “The Fixer” and opener “Gonna See My Friend” burn with just as much jagged garage punk fury as almost anything off of Vitalogy. Between these tracks and the introspective melancholy of such songs as “Just Breathe,” Backspacer sees the group walking the same line they’ve become so adept at treading without becoming stale or parodic.
One ingredient that is missing, however, is the imprint of a major record company. Backspacer is solely on the group’s own Monkeywrench label. Furthermore, all eleven tracks are already streaming in their entirety on their MySpace page. Nobody familiar with Pearl Jam’s long-standing beef with the industry can be surprised they took such a route when the opportunity finally arose.
That being said, Vedder’s fierce brand of political outrage also seems notably absent on Backspacer. It’s especially striking considering since the release of 2006’s politically charged self-titled album, the lead singer has by no means stepped back from activism. On the contrary, he’s been involved with everything from voting drives to assembling the bevy of acts that comprised the Body of War soundtrack.
Vedder’s lyrics seem to have turned inward, focusing on themes like love, loneliness and addiction. By the time we get to the closing track—aptly titled “The End”—we hear Vedder pining for (another gasp!) the simple life: “people change, as does everything / I wanted to grow old / I just want to grow old.”
Coming from a musical movement who personified rock’s “live fast, die young” ethos, that’s a gutsy thing to admit. But that is, alas, what those of us inspired by Pearl Jam’s early message did. We moshed, we raged, we gave our parents the bird and let them know we had no faith in their order. And when the music we loved so much was sucked back into the system we loathed some time in the mid-to-late ‘90s, we did, in fact, grow up. Those of us who came out with our souls intact, still believing we had the power to change things, were a lucky few.
Now, that faith in something better is coming full circle. There are countless acts taking up the same torch Pearl Jam kept burning all these years—acts willing to push the creative envelope while saying something meaningful. They might be outside the realm of the major labels, but that hasn’t stopped them from gaining loyal fan-bases and urgently relating to the world at large.
Perhaps the biggest strength that Pearl Jam have brought to Backspacer is their maturity. Rather than laughably strutting a fake youthfulness and acting like they’re still the vanguard—as so many established acts are wont to do—they admit that it’s time to step to the side and let the youth do their thing.
That being said, they aren’t going anywhere either. Good thing, too. It’s not often that the giants on whose shoulders you stand look up to give you advice.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the blog Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and is a columnist for SleptOn Magazine and the Society of Cinema and Arts. His writings have also appeared at SocialistWorker.org, ZNet, MR Zine, CounterPunch and PopMatters.com.
He can be reached at email@example.com.