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Pearl Jam's Backspacer

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September 21, 2009

Critics’ Choice: New CDs

Thumping the Basics, With Amp Cranked Up





Heading into a new career phase can make a band reassess itself and try to rev up. That’s what Pearl Jam does on “Backspacer,” its first studio album outside the major-label system. (Merging pragmatism and conscience, Pearl Jam is selling the album nationwide exclusively through Target, but also at small independent record stores and on iTunes and pearljam.com.) “Are you on the rise? Are you falling down?” Eddie Vedder hollers in “Got Some,” then whoops, “Got some if you need it!”

“Backspacer” looks toward rock basics that predate Pearl Jam’s beginnings. It’s a set of 11 concise songs in 37 minutes that are mostly fast, loud, sinewy and live sounding. “I wanna live my life with the volume full,” Mr. Vedder declares in “Supersonic.” Like R.E.M. on its 2008 album, “Accelerate,” Pearl Jam leans on the throttle and cranks up its guitar riffs, refusing — mostly — to equate maturity with slowing down.

The band isn’t revisiting its early years, when inventing grunge meant battling depression in heaving midtempos. It’s looking back decades earlier: to the late 1960s and particularly to the Rolling Stones. Pearl Jam’s two full-time guitarists, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, often chord in tandem like Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood in the Stones; there are also hints of the Ramones, the Police and even the Beach Boys. The core of Pearl Jam, which also includes Jeff Ament on bass, has been together since 1990, with Matt Cameron on drums since 1998. And in Brendan O’Brien’s production they mesh like a jam band, even when they’re navigating tricky meter shifts.

While the music hurtles along, Pearl Jam’s new songs don’t try to fake youthful attitudes or troubles. Mr. Vedder no longer sings about surviving traumas, as he did on Pearl Jam’s first albums, or vents political anger as he did on the band’s previous studio album, “Pearl Jam,” in 2006. Now his lyrics reflect — sometimes raucously, sometimes pensively — on a fulfilled life.

He flaunts his earnestness in songs like “The Fixer” — cataloging his do-gooder impulses while someone socks a cowbell — and in the inspirational crescendos of “Amongst the Waves” and “Unthought Known.” Between bursts of adrenaline Pearl Jam eases back the tempos and considers its age, and mortality, in the folky “Just Breathe,” and in “The End,” a dying man’s farewell to his wife, with acoustic guitar backed by an orchestra.

Pearl Jam’s quandary is that with fewer outside targets or frustrations to rail against, it risks turning sanctimonious. No doubt Mr. Vedder means it when he sings, “Fill the air up with love,” or “I’m still holding tight to this dream of distant light.” But Pearl Jam’s music doesn’t align well with satisfaction.

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