Two decades ago, Kurt Cobain dogged Pearl Jam as sellouts, dismissing his grunge rivals as "cock-rock fusion" and its gala debut, Ten, as insufficiently "alternative" because it had too many guitar leads. Ever since, Vedder has been out to prove the dead guy wrong, overtly or covertly. But with the release of Backspacer, Pearl Jam's half-awesome, half-blah ninth studio album, Vedder and the boys from Seattle have come to the realization that maybe they are sellouts of a sort—and that there's nothing wrong with that.
The strongest evidence of the band's newfound disposition lies in their unexpected partnership with Target. The big-box giant is the only place you can buy Backspacer, save for the band's own Web site and randomly selected "indie" music stores. It's a controversial, aggressively capitalist move after years of toeing the line against corporate America. But this new music, too, proves that Pearl Jam's no longer concerned with living up to expectations. There's a new focus here on the band's prowess as a unit, as opposed to an all-Vedder-all-the-time approach. Prime examples include "The Fixer" (a song literally about collaboration, penned by drummer Matt Cameron) and "Johnny Guitar," a grease-in-the-hair, cigarette-pack-in-the-T-shirt-sleeve jam with a totally unorthodox arrangement, also compliments of Cameron. Indeed, Pearl Jam is at peace here, but not yet complacent, diversifying in the autumn of its career, while contemporaries like U2 or Wilco are either getting more contrived or sticking with what's tried-and-true.
The record's second half unfortunately offers retread topics and middling music that seemingly calls for everyone to play at once, on top of each other, without any regard for nuance. "Amongst the Waves" is yet another ode to surfing that tries—but fails—to live up to the epic, grunge-era classic "State of Love and Trust." On "Speed of Sound" and "Force of Nature," the titles pretty much speak for themselves. The only highlight, really, is the strings- and horns-inflected closing track, "The End," and that's because it ends like a ruptured aneurysm on the lines "I'm here/But not much longer."
Too morbid for comfort? Sure, but Kurt Cobain can't say the same.
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