Pearl Jam’s relationship with waves goes back to the band’s very beginning, when an unknown Eddie Vedder grafted audition vocals to Ten demos on little sleep but plenty of surf. Fifteen years and many oceanic references and liner-note doodles later, Vedder mused before the release of 2006’s Pearl Jam that lyrics need only rest on the crest or surface of songs. But Pearl Jam’s supposed comeback album only nailed down that poetic/nerdy sentiment for short stretches. Its opening blast offered the only harmonic slice of what the grunge lifers’ live show has come to promise: a rock band both colossal and direct.
And though Backspacer, Pearl Jam’s ninth and shortest studio album, doesn’t close that growing gap between arena and record, its songs have noticeably stronger legs. In fact, this doesn’t feel like an album released solely to make way for more touring. The first single, “The Fixer,” is third up in a saber-toothed leadoff trio, a straight-to-the-chest pop burner whose chorus and arrangement are among the band’s most buoyant to date. All five cylinders fire, and Vedder’s vocal performance throughout Backspacer is refreshingly optimistic and uncoiled. Atop the finger-picked incandescence of “Just Breathe” or inside “Unthought Known,” a weightless relative to Riot Act’s lament “Love Boat Captain,” Vedder meets every mood and melody flush. The record’s lifeless final third sags heavily, though: The throwaways “Speed Of Sound” and “Force Of Nature” lack much spark, face, or destination. Matt Cameron sounds bored, and even McCready’s exit solo feels phoned in. But “Amongst The Waves” goes the other way. Though it doesn’t hit with the same force as the early singles to which every future Pearl Jam anthem will be compared, it’s an oxygen rush nonetheless—one worth hoping for and high-fiving to when they unleash it live.