Monday, November 23, 2009

When something's lost, I wanna fight to get it back again.

It's time to talk about Backspacer.

It’s been almost two months since it was released and I’m not lying when I say it’s the only album I have listened to in that time. I don’t have a radio in my car so this is entirely plausible.

Here’s the thing about this album. You won’t like it.

You’ll listen to it quizzically the first time through and after another stubborn run through the 37 minute long puzzle, you will wonder what Pearl Jam was thinking.

You’ll think about all the time and effort you have put into loving one band, one band alone, for the most formative years of your life and you’ll frown, knowing that this is their latest reciprocal effort.

You’ll feel a sense of disappointment, kind of like the first time you heard Yield come distinctively stumbling through your 90’ Pontiac Grand Prix speakers.

Then, during Track 7, “Unthought Known”, right before the chorus comes crashing through, you hear the words, “Feel the sky blanket you, with gems and rhinestones…” and somewhere inside the gravel and raspy sincerity in Eddie’s voice you will begin the process of falling in love.

It will happen just like that.

For me it happened after three times through the album. It was Tracks 5, 6 & 7.

“Just Breathe” is easy to love. It’s simple acoustic guitar and that voice. A love song, in its own right. Poignant in its lamenting. And, of course, I am just a pushover for love songs; but that is not a big surprise to anyone.

“Amongst the Waves” didn’t interpret for me right away. At first I thought it was a song about regret, but after several listens, it smacked me right upside the head.

This is a song about hope, much like “The Fixer”, and of confidence in the future. That is a notion I have recently distanced myself so much from that I couldn’t listen to “The Fixer” for a few weeks. I wasn’t about hope, I was about darkness and “The Fixer” only served to pull me out instead of wallow in and that’s not what I wanted.

In fact, many of the tracks on Backspacer are woven with glittery, immutable threads of hope; optimism even. The dissonance and dissent from their last self-titled album are curiously absent.

And no, I don’t think it was because they are going main stream to sell more albums. I know a lot of fans do, but I didn’t feel that with this album.

What I felt was a less self-conscious effort to music-making. I felt a band more comfortable in their own skin, and more up-beat than ever before. I don’t know if this is a product of where they are at in their own lives, or the mood of the country, or anything, really, but I know I liked it and I believed it.

Ten and Vs. were epic. There is no denying that. But Backspacer is wholly different. Fundamentally and characteristically, it sounds nothing like anything that came before it.

In the course of listening to only this album I experienced some strong emotions in the wake of a particularly tough break-up. If you are looking for an angry, edgy song like “Black” or “Whipping”, perhaps this isn’t the album for you. Backspacer gave me no pent-up, aggressive release. Instead, it turned me inward and contemplative. It made me nostalgic in not a wistful way, but in a reflective way.

Lyrics like, “Amongst the Waves”, “Love ain’t love until you give it up/Gotta say it now/better loud/than too late” really sliced through the misty, false reality I had been forging ahead into, and “Force of Nature”, "Makes me ache/makes me shake…/is it so wrong to think that love can keep us safe?” finished the process by bringing my head back down from the clouds.

Eddie never lets you forget that above everything else, he's just a guy with a screwed up past who is trying to heal, just like the rest of us. There's something earnest about him. He makes you feel like you're a part of his private relationship with the music. And it does matter. To me, at least.

Don’t get me wrong, “Supersonic” will rock your balls off and has enough energy to power Tokyo with its electricity. “Gonna See My Friend” is equally ferocious, and an adrenaline shot right into your heart, right off the bat.

I just didn’t expect so many insightful pockets of joy from a Pearl Jam album.

For once I had to turn to other bands to fulfill my rock needs. That is not to say that Backspacer is not a rock album. That is plainly not the case. Pearl Jam cannot help but rock. Mike McCready won’t allow anything less.

But during those moments when only the slow, angry build up of “Why Go” or the cold-cocked recklessness of “Spin the Black Circle” will do, I found myself turning to other bands, other songs.

Because there isn't an angry, cynical note on this album.

And that's what made Backspacer a memorable album for me. I will always remember that listening to it helped me through a particularly hard time in my life, pushing me forward, urging me to rethink my future when I could only see one outcome. And then confidently patting me on the back, reassuring me that my past mistakes are not who I am. That I could shatter all my old expectations and create the potential for possibility, to reinvent myself in a way people don't expect.

And, ultimately, that's why music is so important.

I went from "And now my bitter hands/chafe beneath the clouds/of what was everything" to "Riding high amongst the waves/I can feel like I/Have a soul that has been saved/I can see the light/Coming through the clouds in rays."

And that’s why we needed to talk about Backspacer.


peterdewolf said...

I'd still be avoiding this album if it wasn't for you. It only took me a listen and a half to really start falling in love with it. (There is only one song I am unsure of.)

And "Force of Nature" remains my favourite.

Amazing job, Megan. There is no way I could have written a review like this. I told a friend, "It's good. Just fucking listen."

Tia said...

okay between you and dewolf, you've convinced me.

i haven't bought a pearl jam album since vitalogy, mainly because i was left with a good impression and i didn't want to ruin it.

but i'll give it a whirl.

David said...

I'm glad you personally found hope inside you. If this album helped bring it out, even better.

I will say that I'm unclear if you took a potshot at patted Yield on the back. It is the best PJ record front to back...followed closely by No Code. I think there's something for you in each.

Let me know if you need a copy...

Sarah said...

I bought this for the fella the week it came out and while he really likes it, he puzzled over the difference too, until I suggested that "Maybe they got...happy?" He's still trying to make his peace with that.

Michael said...

Some of the best music criticism I've seen in a while. Well done. Post XMas, I'll pick it up.

novocianer said...

Thanks for the warning, I'll steer clear!