Last week, I whined about South African band Prime Circle’s crappy album, All Or Nothing (so dire that I did you an unintended favour by forgetting to name the album in my review). I also mentioned how their singer desperately puts on the ‘grrr’ act of Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder with fatal consequences. Well, there is a benign god who still presses CDs. Because in the year of their lord 2009, the real Pearl Jam has returned with Backspacer, the Seattle band’s sweatiest, most rock’n’rolly album. I would even stick my pongo out and say it’s Pearl Jam’s finest album since 1994’s Vitalogy.
There’s no bull shit as the proceedings start with the Chuck Berry-picking guitars of ‘Gonna see my friend’. Eddie sings as if he’s traded his old flannel shirts for Fonzie-style biker gear. It’s rock simple, stone-rolling. After the pudding comes the proof that the pace isn’t going to slacken. In ‘Got some’, Jeff Ament’s bassline plays spider to guitarmen Stone Gossard’s and Mike McCready’s hyperactive flies. Frankly, all that Eddie has to do to make the song work like an Egyptian is to proclaim, “I got some if you need it.”
Get your heaviest pogo boots out, because even as the first stretch of guitar chords with the ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ prod comes followed by the more subterranean breathing of ‘ah uh-ha hah, ah ha-uh hah’, we know that ‘The fixer’ is the Pearl Jam car with high-beam on that we've so missed crashing into for so long. “When something’s daa-ark, let me shed a little light on it/ when something’s co-ww-wld, let me put a little fire on it,” insists Eddie, throwing each line up in the air for us to catch.
‘Johnny Guitar’ brings heavier things on the plate, rock’n'roll turning its rock cheek in one almost sinister, unravelling yarn. “Johnny Guitar Watson staring at me/ riding on three wheels, a woman on his knees,” Eddie sings this ditty that he wrote after seeing the cover of blues’n’funk musician Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s 1979 album What The Hell Is This? Trust me, this track grows on you.
Ok, the gear does change in ‘Just breathe’, acoustic, quietly sunny and a little hokey for my taste. This sounds like a minor Cat Stevens song among the pigeons. ‘Amongst the waves’ is a more ‘traditional’ Pearl Jam slow song where you’re supposed to pay attention only to the words. Alas, I find it snoring. Not a patch on those old tracks from the same stable like the staggeringly luminous ‘I am mine’ from the 2003 album, Riot Act, but hey...
‘Unthought known’ has an uncomfortable Neil Diamond quality about it. But before you can say ‘Roadrunner, roadrunner, going faster miles an hour,’ there screeches in ‘Supersonic’, a nifty lovechild of grunge and twist. I close my eyes and there he is, Eddie Vedder as Chubbie Checker, so what if the guitar distorts are all a-raging.
Things slow down after that in ‘The speed of sound’, one of those songs I would have preferred the ‘new Blues’ Dylan singing through his nose. ‘Force of nature’, a nice, harmless song that follows, will surely sound better in the video. And ‘The end’, well, comes in the end with its candlelight-bathed folksy crie de coeur, ‘Just want to grow old’.
Backspacer as a whole is more than its parts — and most of its parts are shockingly good. If Pearl Jam planted their flag with a raw, dripping fresh take on heavy rhythm and blues in their debut album Ten, in this album they do the same with classic rock’n’roll 17 years later. In other words, Backspacer could almost be Pearl Jam’s first punk rock album.