Pearl Jam – Backspacer
“It’s not that hard to make a good record,” laughs Eddie Vedder. “You start with a great band, and a dictionary, and it should all go pretty smoothly after that…” It’s a lesson Vedder has learned from blessed experience: after all, the Pearl Jam discography has already notched up eight great studio albums thus far, using the same elemental ingredients he lists above.
Earlier this year, Pearl Jam revisited their very first full-length album, 1991’s Ten, for a reissue project that saw the group comprehensively remix the original tracks with regular collaborator Brendan O’Brien, presenting the album in a deluxe edition that reproduced all the memorabilia and historical context the dedicated Pearl Jam fan could wish for, right down to the original demo cassette Vedder sent his new bandmates at the group’s inception. Nostalgia isn’t a natural state for this group, however – at the very same time as they were re-browsing their back pages, Pearl Jam were also working on Backspacer, their ninth and very possibly most focused and energized album yet.
“We started with songs, as opposed to just time booked in the studio,” says Vedder, of the origins for Backspacer, which rattles through its twelve tracks in a sleek and sprightly 36 minutes, with rocket-fuelled urgency and laser-guided focus. “We had a momentum, and the songs were easy to write. It’s a real galvanized record, it has a tight form to it; its not loose, but rather tightly-orchestrated.”
“Our instinct was, let’s make a really great record,” adds guitarist Stone Gossard. “And let’s take out anything that doesn’t belong on a really great record.”
“It’s tight and concise,” agrees Mike McCready, “there are some beautiful violins and French horns on there, which is all new territory for us. I think people are going to be surprised and excited about that.”
Working separately on song ideas, the group met up last December at bassist Jeff Ament’s home in Montana for a songwriting and rehearsal session, knocking their new creations into whipsmart shape before a two-week recording session in Los Angeles in February. Brendan O’Brien – who first worked with the group for 1993’s Vs. album, and who has since worked with Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC and Mastodon – took the producer’s chair for the first time since 1998’s Yield, renewing a creative relationship that the group cherish.
“You couldn’t ask for a better producer for us,” says Gossard, “because we have our own thing, and it’s raw, it’s imperfect, it’s a combination of personalities. Brendan’s so good at blending our imperfections and our lumpiness, the things that make us human, with his professionalism.”
“He became a band member when we were writing our songs,” adds drummer Matt Cameron. “He’d strap on a guitar and get his hands dirty, he’s right in the middle of it with us, working on the music. There’s guys who can handle all the digital techniques now, and Brendan can do that too, but he also knows how to cut tape, how to get a good sound out of a mellotron and a clavinet, he comes from the analogue world, which is where we come from too. He knows how to relate to analogue bands, such as ourselves.”
“And he knows how to record a live rock band,” continues Jeff Ament, “which is how we record, the five of us in the studio together, cutting the songs to tape. There aren’t too many bands that make records that way anymore.”
Backspacer is the product of a particularly fecund creative period for the group, encompassing full-pelt rockers like ‘The Fixer’ and ‘Johnny Guitar’ and more reflective and affecting moments, like ‘Just Breathe’ and stunning album-closer ‘The End’. The group found inspiration everywhere and at all hours, Vedder offering that he wrote the album’s rollicking opening ramalama, ‘See My Friend’, in “a little tiny room, with people sleeping above me and people sleeping below me, so I didn’t want to make a whole lot of noise. I had a tiny little drum machine, and an electric guitar plugged through an FX box about the size of an iPhone, and somehow I got this real loud, garage-rock Kinks sound.” Given the full-band treatment, the song is, says Jeff Ament, “our first ‘Grunge’ song,” while Stone Gossard claims it is their tribute to old friends, garage-rock reprobates Mudhoney.
Meanwhile, ‘Speed Of Sound’, one of the album’s mid-paced standouts, was written and recorded at the last minute, Vedder bringing the song into the studio while the group spent two weeks mixing the album with O’Brien at Southern Tracks, in Atlanta. Vedder penned the song while working with Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood in the Hawaiian Islands, staying up late during the sessions, “trying to write a Tom Waits, Keith Richards-vibe type thing like, the last guy in the bar after everyone’s left, a song with kind of a sad feeling… I came back to Atlanta and I finished it on my own, and Brendan immediately had everyone play on top, and we built it up. It started out as an acoustic guitar and a guy singing like he’s incredibly morose, then all of a sudden it turns into this uplifting sonic landscape.”
On Backspacer, Vedder was eager to put to work the lessons he learned from his Golden Globe-winning soundtrack for Into The Wild, while an engrossing late-night discussion on the human psyche with actress Catherin Keener, who starred in the movie, inspired his lyrics for ‘Unthought Known’. “Because Into The Wild was just me on my own in the studio on that album, I couldn’t wait to get back to being in a group,” he says. “And not just any group, but these four guys. Having revelled in that independence, that absolute creative control, I don’t need to do it again for a while. It made the same old thing very exciting, and I became so appreciative of what came of this combination that we’ve mutated into.”
‘Just Breathe’ grew from an idea Vedder had originated on the Into The Wild soundtrack, the group and O’Brien building up a structure and arrangement around Eddie’s simple riff. “It sounds like a wonderful carry-over from Into The Wild,” says Matt Cameron, “a very orchestral, huge arrangement done in a way that’s still intimate, that the listener can relate to. Brendan added strings, French horns and whatnot, in a way that is not heavy-handed at all, but adds so much.”
This balance of orchestral lushness with a perceptive lightness of touch is a hallmark of Backspacer’s gentler passages. ‘Just Breathe’ found Jeff Ament playing a Carol Kaye-style bassline, in reference to its Beach Boys-esque flavour, echoed in the song’s affecting harmonies. Lyrically, it is prime Vedder, emotive and honest, powerfully so. “I was sitting in a little room, all the windows were open and I had a tape-recorder, and something came to me, some kind of emotion,” he remembers, of writing the song. “I didn’t want to write anything complex, I just wanted to get to whatever the emotion was. It’s about how some of our happiest times happen, and we don’t even realize because we’re always moving so quickly. It’s about just wanting everything to stop, to not even talk: let’s just breathe…”
For Vedder, lyrical inspiration can come from anywhere. The lyric for the dynamic ‘Johnny Guitar’, for example, is based upon a story that came to Eddie in the bathroom of the group’s HQ in Seattle. “The restroom in the back there has old record covers plastered on the piece of plywood next to the piss receptacles,” grins Vedder. “Just about head-high is the sleeve to an album by a guy named Johnny Guitar Watson; he’s kind of like Barry White crossed with Buddy Guy, and he had all these evocative album covers featuring not necessarily scantily clad women, but interesting women… I had this idea of a kid drawn to the girl on the cover, and wondering why she’s with Johnny Guitar, because obviously he’s got women everywhere. Why would you want to be one of Johnny Guitar’s women, one of hundreds, when you can be my one and only?”
Stone reckons that the titular repairman featured in ‘The Fixer’ (perhaps the album’s brightest, brashest rocker) is in fact Eddie Vedder himself. “I think that song is a little bit about Ed working with us and trying to figure out how to make everyone’s songs work. This song began with a riff from Matt, and after we’d spent a day hammering out the structure, Ed said he’d stay and work on it. We came back the next day, and Ed had used tape machines to edit it into a completely different song, and he had this incredible, hooky, optimistic lyric about someone who loves to make things better, who looks for opportunities to fix something that’s not quite right. At that point, the record found its heart, because everything fell into place after that.”
Another of the album’s lean, lairy punk-outs is ‘Got Some’, which the group debuted live on Conan O’Brien’s inaugural episode of The Tonight Show. Says Eddie: “‘Got Some’ is basically saying, if you want one of those rock’n’roll songs that makes you feel good and that’s loud, we got a couple of those; here’s one. It seems like a real simple song, but then we sneak in lines like ‘Have you heard of diplomatic resolve?’… That’s the stuff that makes me excited. Apparently, I’m easily excitable. This bunch of guys, they really write some challenging stuff, and they’re not satisfied with normal approaches to music. That’s rubbed off on my writing, for sure.”
The relative brevity of Backspacer’s songs doesn’t mean the album lacks for Mike McCready’s typically fiery fretwork. The album might not boast an extended guitar epic like the group’s legendary first single, ‘Alive’, but Mike’s guitar-playing remains as bold and creative as ever. ‘Supersonic’ offers a showcase for McCready’s skills; he describes the Gossard-penned rocker as “a little Ramones-y, a little Led Zeppelin, with a Black Sabbath riff in the middle,” and took great pride in the backwards guitar leads he plays on the song. ‘Amongst The Waves’, meanwhile, offered the guitarist a chance to return to his first love, the blues, delivering a melodic Mick Taylor-flavored lick that perfectly suits the song’s soulful lilt.
“Mike McCready’s a guy who throws his head back and things flow through him, this magic happens,” says Eddie, “and I think it’s exciting to see him rein it in and play stuff that’s really focused and melodic.”
For McCready, ‘Amongst The Waves’ is the album’s cornerstone, its lyric evoking a sense of rebirth and renewal that is very much in keeping with the album’s vivid and lively spirit. “It reminds me of being on a paddleboard,” he smiles, “of surfing, being literally amongst the waves, out there seeing dolphins, and catching a wave and wiping out, the power of the sea. Every time I go under a wave, I feel like I’ve been reborn, that I’m living in a different way. I get out of the water after about an hour, and my day is completely changed.”
The album’s atmosphere of freedom, meanwhile, echoes the group’s own free-roaming status, having ended their relationship with Epic Records after 2004’s rearviewmirror compilation. In the five years that have since passed (2006’s Pearl Jam was released through J Records), the music industry seems irrevocably changed, and the group are taking a commendably open-minded approach to marketing Backspacer, with Universal handling the album’s physical release in Europe, and embracing a plethora of new options for circulating their music in digital form.
“After all the hard work, all the fights and power struggles we’d had with Sony, we felt we’d earned our free agency,” says Jeff Ament. “We’ve paid our dues, and we’ve earned the right to put our music out any way that we want to. And it’s easier and it’s faster to put out music than ever; its great to be able to roll with how the technology is changing. We’ll still put it out on vinyl, the way us old dinosaurs prefer to listen to music, but we can also put it out digitally, whether it’s through your cell-phone or your computer… It’s an exciting time. It feels like the old model of the giant five record companies is over, so we’re happy to be in the middle of that.”
Moreover, the group are raring to take this music on the road. “When we were working out the running order for the album,” says Vedder, “I was actually thinking about setlists, and are we going to play this song on tour three times a month or three times a week?”
“When we were recording ‘Supersonic’,” adds McCready, “I just kept thinking, this is such a fun song to play, and people will rock out when they hear it live…”
As for what will follow Backspacer, the group have a handful of A-grade unused songs, and are already looking forward to their next stint in the studio. But Vedder adds, “When you finish a record, you give yourself just a little grace period where you don’t have to think about the future. Who knows where this one will put us?”
Backspacer is a record that grows further every listening just like a good Pearl Jam record should be…