Word has it that Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder had the deceptively simple pop songs of indie legend Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices, countless other solo and band projects) in mind when trying to write the latest PJ record, itself an 11-song, 37 minutes standard for economy. It’s clear from the album’s length (despite the fact that Pollard would fit 20 songs in those same 37 minutes) that things were going to be different this time around, at least at some level.
And sure enough, Pearl Jam is no Guided by Voices. They try too hard on the heavy-handed opener “Gonna See My Friend,” and while the following “Got Some” is more limber, it still features too many words and not enough emotion. But it all comes together on the next song and first single “The Fixer,” which not only borrows vocal inflection from GBV’s “Everywhere with Helicopter,” it also taps into the fist-pumping, pop nirvana glory that surrounds the best of Pollard’s influence and work.
Unfortunately, as much as I have loved what he has done for Bruce Springsteen’s recent work, I also think that producer Brendan O’Brien lends a hand at limiting this record’s impact. His consistent practice of compressing the sound mix, specifically with the guitars, allows for certain subtle instrumental touches (tinkling keyboards, flowing strings) to shine, but also seems to suck the life out of some of the more intense moments. Even “The Fixer” features a bridge that I can see O’Brien coaxing out of Vedder (or likewise Springsteen) when the song could have lived without one, and then clock in at a more Pollard-esque 2:20 vs. the just over 3 minutes that it currently fades out at…
But in the end, there is a lot to like in general about Backspacer, though beyond “The Fixer” and perhaps the teeming “Supersonic,” there isn’t too much out of the Pearl Jam ordinary to suggest a turn in any specific direction, other than an insistence on trimming out the jams. Moreover, Vedder’s voice at times grates or seems forced, belying most of the potential pop intentions with its inherent sense of despair (though it does shine through the slow build-up of “Unthought Known” and in the contained release of “Force of Nature”). Yet Backspacer does find its rhythm enough to provide not only a vibrant palette for expansion in Pearl Jam’s live performances, but also a new avenue to explore more thoroughly on their next recording. Perhaps with Pollard producing?