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Where Does Pearl Jam Go Now? Just Follow 'Backspacer'
Album Evokes Band's Early-'90s Prime Time

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

2009 sure feels 1993-ish. We have a charismatic new Democrat in the White House, a health-care debate rages, Whitney Houston is big with the VH1 crowd and Pearl Jam sounds like a rock band with its hair on fire.

Seattle's great grunge survivors return this week with "Backspacer," the band's most exciting effort since those angsty Clintonian yesteryears. Much of the album's heat comes via "The Fixer," a fist-tight anthem that radiates zeal and urgency and pluck -- qualities Pearl Jam apparently lost beneath some couch cushions about 15 years ago. When 44-year-old frontman Eddie Vedder roars, "When something's gone, I wanna fight to get it back again," it's hard not to join in with the chorus of yeah-yeah-yeahs that follows.

It is the most thrilling tune the band has delivered in the 21st century. And yet Vedder's words suggest a longing for the past. That's because Pearl Jam's star has fallen considerably since the mid-'90s, when the group decided to funnel its energy into a crusade against Ticketmaster, the oft-maligned ticketing behemoth. It was a losing battle, and it took a dispiriting toll. After the multi-platinum success of 1994's "Vitalogy," the band's songbook devolved into a sullen mush.

Fast-forward to 2009 and Ticketmaster still looms like a shadowy corporate super-villain, while Pearl Jam has turned the concept of fan retention into a fine art. Even as the group dulled over the years, its up-with-the-people approach created a fan culture loyal enough to rival the most venerated of jam bands.

In many ways, "Backspacer" feels like a fresh invitation to Gen X'ers who have strayed from the flock. Just don't expect Generations Y or Z to care. Vedder's perpetual search for Big Spiritual Truths has felt largely out of sync with the information age and the sense of instant gratification that comes with having the Wiki-world at your fingertips. Preoccupied with the next big things, younger rock fans shrugged as Pearl Jam slogged through the Bush years, struggling to articulate an increasingly formless rage.

"Backspacer" quashes that meandering sense straightaway with an array of lean riffs and Vedder's reanimated howl. The songs come crashing fast and furious: "Gonna See My Friend" is a no-nonsense stomper; "Got Some" seethes and simmers; "The Fixer" is a revelation. The band sounds just as feisty as it did on its self-titled 2006 album but has repackaged that ire into taut, punky bursts.

The rest of "Backspacer," however, struggles to match that initial flash of energy, covering a wide swath of terrain with mixed results. "Just Breathe" is a twinkling ballad that stumbles down Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill," while the unimaginative guitar riffage of "Supersonic" feels like self-parody.

But even through the album's roughest rough spots, Vedder never dials back the intensity. It's what kept Pearl Jam kicking through its darkest hours, and it's what makes a track like "The Fixer" feel so timely, so triumphant. Nostalgic for the past while exalting in the present, the song captures the essence of a rock star smart enough to understand that tomorrow's good old days are happening right this minute.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "The Fixer," "Got Some"

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