The cover to Pearl Jam’s latest album “Backspacer” is reminiscent of their 1996 release “No Code” with its collage of random images. The big difference of course is that “No Code” featured blurry photographs while the new release displays well defined comic style drawings. The same comparison can be made about the music on the two albums. The band that once blurred the lines of style and genre have transformed into a distinct, predictable caricature of their former selves.
On “Vitalogy” and “No Code”, Eddie Vedder became the godhead of the group, writing the majority of the songs and taking their sound into more experimental territories. After “No Code”, the band almost had a falling out, and Eddie realized he needed to pull back and let the whole group take part in the creative process. Their collaborative approach, beautifully captured on the documentary “Single Video Theory”, resulted in one of their finest albums to date, “Yield”. From that point forward, the songwriting continued to be equal opportunity. Unfortunately, the process that once worked so well didn’t yield the same results on mediocre releases like “Riot Act” and “Binaural”.
That’s where we sit today with “Backspacer”, a collection of milk-toast songs with little, to no attempt to push the boundaries of their sound. Instead we get arena rock anthems with paint by numbers guitar hooks that sound contrived and forced. But maybe that’s the type of music they need at this juncture in their career where filling arenas takes precedence over filling their albums with sincerity and soul. The majority of the songs on “Backspacer” would fit nicely on a concert playlist, while you’ll never hear a concert performance of such arty classics as “Bugs” and “Push Me, Pull Me”. (I could be wrong on this point, although I doubt anyone wants to take the time to scour the collection of over 200 concert albums to prove it).
There are a few highlights on “Backspacer”, and they just so happen to be the songs solely written by Eddie himself. “Unthought Known” is the pick of the litter while “Just Breathe” and “The End” sound like they were written alongside his work for the “Into the Wild” soundtrack. But even these diamonds in the rough seem a bit too produced. What made his solo work so great on “Into the Wild” was the barebones approach, no string section necessary, which are relied upon heavily in both songs. Still, any overproduced Vedder song trumps a Jeff Ament song any day.
Eddie should be commended for sacrificing the self for the whole, the five against one approach, but writing music for “Into the Wild” may have been a bit of a blunder because it illuminated how much the band is holding Vedder back.