Pearl Jam may never achieve the same level of romantic fanaticism as a lot of their early ’90s contemporaries, but then again, they’ve had to cope with a problem none of those bands did: continuing to exist.

Kurt Cobain’s suicide forever froze him in the role of a fabled anti-hero; soundgarden called it quits before they ever had the chance to suck; and Alice in Chains took a decade off before replacing their late frontman through it all, Pearl Jam has endured without so much as a hiatus.

Even if every album they’ve released since entering the 21st century has followed a similar formula four or five riff-driven rockers, four or five slow burning ballads about the power of love and stuff like that, fill in the remaining space with left wing rants or an experimental throwaway or two Pearl Jam has managed to keep breathing life into the same old tricks, never releasing a bad album and never wearing out their grunge-era welcome.

But their latest release, ‘Backspacer,” is something rather unwelcome. Judging by the press release bullet points that are brought up in every review at 37 minutes, it’s their shortest album yet! With a bunch of short rock songs, it’s a return back to basic! it would seem as if ‘Backspacer” represents Pearl Jam with a revitalized ferocity, like the energy behind the fiercest ‘Ten” and ‘Vs.” songs has been condensed into one album.
And for some songs, that’s actually true: The first four songs on ‘Backspacer” are nearly flawless, probably the most intense 12 consecutive minutes on any Pearl Jam record. ‘Gonna See My Friend” bursts through the gate instantly, bringing out the best of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard’s guitar dueling, and that intensity is sustained all throughout ‘Got Some,” ‘The Fixer” and ‘Johnny Guitar.” Eddie Vedder has been adding more marbles in his mouth on the last few Pearl Jam releases, but he sounds great letting loose here his slurred delivery turning into an unchained force. This great opening suite is capped off with ‘Just Breathe,” a finger-picked acoustic song that comes as a gentle relief from the preceding hell storm.

But ‘Just Breathe” doesn’t just represent a cool-down from opening songs, it signals a change in pace for the rest of the album, never revisiting the initial momentum.
Like aging classic rockers who use a few awesome singles to promote an album not worth promoting, Pearl Jam has loaded all the good stuff right up in the front.
The remaining six songs bring out a sentimentality that the band, while never completely avoiding, has never flaunted so unabashedly.

On songs like ‘Speed of Sound” and ‘Force of Nature,” Vedder and his band members go overboard; he by mistaking songs about inspiration as inspirational, them by backing their leader with listless arena rock. Vedder has appointed himself as the self-help guru of rock for years now, and he’s always been pretty good at it. When pulling a move like making ‘All you need is love” the refrain to one of his band’s songs, he was at least wise enough to precede it with, ‘I know it’s already been sung, but it can’t be said enough.”
The philosophizing brandished all through the last half of ‘Backspacer” has all been sung and said enough, namely by these guys.

Some may take comfort in Vedder’s mass production of grand statements like ‘Is it so wrong to think that love can keep us safe?” or ‘I can feel like I have a soul that has been saved,” but he doesn’t spew them with any discretion; there’s so many bumper sticker slogans scattered through the last few songs, it’s hard to take any of them seriously.
The contrast between the great initial bombast of ‘Backspacer” and the sappiness it wallows in while drawing to a close results in the most insanely uneven album of Pearl Jam’s career; more so than the one with lengthy worldbeat experiments, more so than the one featuring spoken word poetry set to an accordion and concluding with an eight-minute found-noises collage.

‘Backspacer” certainly has its moments some of them amongst the band’s greatest and, as always, is made with the best intentions.

But for a band that has managed to age so well, Pearl Jam sounds, for the first time, worn-out and ready to mellow into the dad rock canon.

Perhaps they’re actually overreaching in their sudden attempt to make almost every Pearl Jam song the definitive Pearl Jam song, but that’s not how it comes off; here, it sounds like they’re merely going through the motions.

Silverstein is a member of
the class of 2013.

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