Have you caught that Pearl Jam MTV Unplugged gig on VH1 Classic lately?The 1992 set has Eddie Vedder jumping around, fluttering his rock-stareyelashes, scrawling the words "PRO CHOICE" on his arm, as the boys inthe band flip their hair like hippie-chick hitchhikers trying to flagdown a Camaro. "Jeremy" or no "Jeremy," these were guys who wanted tohave fun.
Backspacer, Pearl Jam's ninth album, backspaces to that boyishspirit, with the shortest, tightest, punkiest tunes they've ever bangedout. The whole album is done and dusted in 37 minutes, a record forthese guys. Unlike your average long-running rock band, Pearl Jamstarted off specializing in slow, ruminative, rope-a-dope ballads anddidn't have any instinctive knack for playing it fast or loud. On theirearly records, punk nuggets like "Spin the Black Circle" were justfiller, and you sat through them because you were waiting for the nextawesomely slack-jawed torch song á la "Black" or "Daughter." ButBackspacer comes out swinging with "Gonna See My Friend," "Got Some" and"The Fixer" — a nine-minute trio of gut-punchers that get themomentum rushing like no other Pearl Jam album openers ever.
BrendanO'Brien is producing the band for the first time since Yield, the 1998 gem that defines the parameters of the mature Pearl Jam the way Tendefines their frantic early days. Like Yield, this revs the tempo whileadding classic-rock texture to the punk rush, with layers of Thin Lizzytwin-guitar raunch going on down below. The pile-driving solos that spinout of control at the end of "Got Some" could be nicked from the Stoogesin "Gimme Danger" — but the Seventies-flavored cowbell-boogiecharges ahead way too fast for anything to feel quaint.
Eddie Vedder'sheart-on-fire vocals are the main attraction, as always. He seemsrelieved not to have to go on singing about George Bush, and he loosensup enough to share his guarded optimism in the new songs. There's adefinite positivity to the "yeah, yeah, yeah" choruses that jump out of"The Fixer," which evoke the old openhearted vulnerability of"Wishlist." "If something's old, I wanna put a bit of shine on it,"Vedder growls. "When something's gone, I wanna fight to get it backagain." And the rugged acoustic ballads Vedder did on the Into the Wildsoundtrack carry over into "Just Breathe," a love song that deserves tobecome Pearl Jam's wedding-song standard.
The songs seem to mess aroundwith a loose theme of addiction and recovery. "Got Some" (with Vedderchanting, "Got some if you need it") could be a dealer's invitation,while "Speed of Sound" is the flip side, a late-night barroom lamentfrom a guy who mourns that "Every time I get me some/It gets the best ofme." But the downbeat songs on Backspacer don't get too grim — even the desperate drunk who narrates "Speed of Sound" ends up lookingforward to a chance to start fresh tomorrow. Fans of Pearl Jam'schest-beating angst mode might look for some metaphorical resonance in"Amongst the Waves." Yet the more you listen, the more it just soundslike Vedder's spending a nice day surfing. After toughing out the Bushyears, Pearl Jam aren't in the mood for brooding; at long last, surf'sup.