It’s probably no exaggeration to say that I have lost my way with Pearl Jam of late. And when I say of late, I mean since 1994, when I eagerly snapped up my vinyl copy of Vitalogy two weeks before its release on CD. It completed a trilogy of great records that took in the stylised grunge debut, its assured follow up and a third album that suggested that Pearl Jam were given to fly any genre they were wrongly boxed into. I loved them. Why then I didn’t go with the band from there is a mystery, but the succession of new albums that followed simply passed me by. Rightly or wrongly, it seemed as if there was always something new coming out of the Pearl Jam camp, so much so that it all blurred into one. To paraphrase a great country song, how could I miss them if they wouldn’t go away?
Pearl Jam didn’t ever go away, of course, but 2009 finds them more entrenched in their own world than ever. Backspacer is to be released in the US completely by the band themselves, no label, no nothing. Such a step has proved one too far for the rest of the world, where they still find themselves in the arms of a major, but for a band of their stature it counts as a massive statement of intent and no small gamble. If this doesn’t work out for them, you suspect there might be no way back.
So, in some ways, Backspacer may be the most important record of Pearl Jam’s career. And, thankfully, quite possibly their best. It certainly doesn’t hang about, coming in at a tidy 36 minutes. That feeling of urgency is enhanced by the first four tracks, which come tearing out of the blocks like a punk rock Usain Bolt. For a band this far into their career to sound so fired up, so inspired is not just admirable – it’s nigh on astonishing. Whether it be thanks to complete artistic freedom, a post-Obama euphoria or the return of producer Brendan O’Brien, this opening quartet roll away the years in a noisy, spectacular fashion.
And if that had been it, if Backspacer was their snotty rock album, well that would have been fine. However, there has always been more to Pearl Jam than that and this is an album that has it in spades. ‘Just Breathe’ is just beautiful, full of acoustic guitars and strings and a vocal that makes you go weak at the knees – no matter what your persuasion. ‘Amongst The Waves’ is a suitably epic peon to the joys of surfing, while ‘Supersonic’ raises the tempo again but stands out like an invigorating yet sore thumb in the second half. Backspacer is the sound of a band first exploring its roots and then proving that they have utterly outgrown them. The likes of ‘Unknown Thought’ and the utterly gorgeous ‘The End’ are simply amongst the best things they have ever done, proof that there is no better mix in music than experience, belief and passion. Goodbye music industry, hello true greatness.