Following the release of Pearl Jam (aka “The Avocado Album”) in 2006, Pearl Jam once again found themselves at the forefront of the modern rock world, a place they were initially extremely uncomfortable being in. That album was a return to the band’s straightforward rock roots – a path the Seattle natives veered from on 2000’s Binaural and 2002’s Riot Act. Though subsequent tours proved that Pearl Jam’s rabid fanbase was in it for the long haul, whatever the group’s direction, “The Avocado Album” showed they could still write killer tunes. By the time they were ready to follow it up with their ninth album, 2009’s Backspacer, expectations were sky high.
An urgent vigor
In 2008, Pearl Jam embarked on one of the sharpest (and best) tours of their career. Perhaps inspired by the upcoming US presidential election, or just needing a break from the studio, Eddie Vedder and co sliced through the East Coast of America with an urgent vigor that demonstrated their collective power as a six-piece (organist Kenneth “Boom” Gaspar had joined the band in 2002).
Entering the studio with longtime producer Brendan O’Brien, the Backspacer sessions were sharp, slick, and offered a variety of tunes that nestled well within the band’s sound. Recorded in a brisk 30 days, Backspacer was the first album since 1996’s No Code that Pearl Jam recorded outside of their Seattle base. As a whole, it is earnest, retrospective, energetic and crisp; Vedder’s lyrics were generally optimistic, at least compared to the bleak worldview pervading many albums of the George W Bush years.
Full of bright moments
Backspacer’s lead single, “The Fixer,” which was accompanied by a live performance video shot in Seattle by Cameron Crowe, was a fireball. It fit in sharply on modern rock radio and was a burst of energy that revealed Peal Jam wasn’t ready to fade into middle age quietly. Backspacer’s overall tone was, however, set by the sharp “Gonna See My Friend,” which, in under three minutes, was a speedball of guitar-driven fury thanks to the always reliable guitar tandem of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard.
The ballad “Just Breathe,” released as a double-A-side with the rocker “Got Some,” was another success. Not only did it showcase Pearl Jam’s tender side (and a nice bassline from Jeff Ament), it landed at No.5 on the Billboard rock chart and No.6 on the alternative chart. The song later went platinum in 2014, making it Pearl Jam’s first million-selling single in a career full of enduring hits.
The essence of Backspacer, however, is encapsulated by “Unthought Known,” which builds slowly before blasting off to become another one of the band’s signature anthems. It’s one of the brightest moments on an album full of them, and remains a wildly popular staple in Pearl Jam’s live shows.
Capturing everything that’s great about Pearl Jam
Released on September 20, 2009, Backspacer was a huge commercial success. It topped the Billboard 200 and was Pearl Jam’s first No.1 album since No Code. The band toured on and off behind it for several years before going back into the studio for 2013’s Lightning Bolt. But, for many, Backspacer captured everything that’s great about the group: riff-driven rock fueled by infectious energy.
While many of their contemporaries have fallen to the wayside due to band politics or personal demons – and then some – Pearl Jam is the pre-eminent rock band of their era. Few, if any, bands with two decades under their belt could make a record as complete as this one.
Even though Backspacer clocks in at a brief 37 minutes, Pearl Jam doesn’t waste a second. Giving listeners what they want, they produced one of the best late-era albums of any band’s career.