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 Post subject: A Guided Tour of Backspacer
PostPosted: Fri December 28, 2012 12:43 pm 
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Joined: Thu December 13, 2012 6:31 pm
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It’s been over a year. The ‘new album’ buzz has long since faded, and so I think it’s safe to take a serious look at Backspacer--at what the album tried to do, and whether or not it was successful.

Although the songs on Backspacer are comparatively simple (and certainly shorter) than a number of the more artsy moments in their catalog, this is not a simple record, and its simplicity is deceptive. The songs feel light, but not because they are devoid of substance or good ideas. It’s because Backspacer, more than any other Pearl Jam record (even Yield, which is probably the record that Backspacer most closely resembles) is the first time Pearl Jam ever sounded unburdened. There are scattered moments here and there throughout their catalog that touch on this(most notably Given To Fly) but Backspacer is the first time Pearl Jam ever really dwells for an extended period of time on what it might be like to actually feel free—freedom as something immanent and present, rather than freedom as an aspiration. In that respect Backspacer represents Pearl Jam doing something genuinely new, thematically and even musically.

More than many bands, Pearl Jam albums are in conversation with each other. They tell a continuing story—not a narrative per se, but they chronicle the emotional development of the band, and each album is enhanced by situating it within that larger context. And so before we start to tackle Backspacer it is worth taking a few moments to reprise what’s come before.

Ten, as I’ve argued before, is an album about betrayal—a sense of being robbed or cheated of something you’re entitled to by the people and institutions that should be protecting you: your parents, your partners, your teachers, your society. It responds to that betrayal by finding solidarity in opposition—if we cannot trust everyone else we can at least make common cause with our fellow victims. There is anger on Ten for certain, but it is a bewildered anger, with the hostility cut by the pervading sense of confusion and the desire to rise above it. Vs. and Vitalogy expand these themes, although in different ways. While on its quieter moments (think Daughter, Small town, Indifference) Vs. finds itself in the same emotional space as Ten (more reflective, perhaps,) the rest of that record is pure anger and aggression. Vs, responds to betrayal with rage, although it cuts this with an undercurrent of solidarity that makes the approach more compelling than pure rage, and more substantive than simple angst. But in important ways this approach is a non starter, and Vitalogy marks the first major pivot in the conversation.

Vitalogy lashes out in much the same way Vs. does, but while Vs. swings wildly everywhere (perhaps because it can’t find a suitable target) Vitalogy narrows its focus to the commodification of music and art, not because being famous is such a pain in the ass, but because this commodification cuts off and makes profane one of the few sacred things left to us. Music has always been a means of transcendence for Pearl Jam—a way to rise above and to set yourself free—as well as a way to give voice to solidarity. Close that off and what’s left for us?

There’s never really any official resolution to this question, but Pearl Jam makes their peace with it (to an extent ) on the next two records. There is a line in an R.E.M. song (Ignoreland) that goes “I feel better for having screamed, don’t you?” and that seems to be the case for Pearl Jam, at least for a while. No Code, the most meditative moment in their catalog, dials back the rage and sees the band move away from asking the questions to providing the answers (or trying to). Eddie in particular moves away from a lyrical perspective that privileged solidarity in an uncertain world to one that strives to be a source of wisdom—someone who HAS experienced what you’re going through and knows what to do, rather than someone who has no answers but promises to experience it with you. Yield is a more complicated record. It continues down the path begun on No Code, but there is something slightly unsettling or uneasy about Yield, despite the seemingly sunny disposition on the record. Yield is an album about acceptance and escape, and while they try to make this process as active as possible, there is an element of disengagement to it that runs counter to the previous direction of the band. It probably makes more sense to understand Yield as an aspirational record, one that aims at a target it never quite manages to hit.

I’d argue that absent some clear cut trauma a group of artists that had actually experienced the serenity Yield promises could not have made Binaural two years later, a record that can perhaps best be described as haunted. While there is a placidity to Yield, Binaural is categorized by its claustrophobia—it’s sense that something is wrong, that walls are closing in, and its inability to figure out precisely what is causing it or what to do about it. Binaural is the first time Pearl Jam surrenders the sense of agency that had animated all its previous records (even the escapism of Yield had an active component to it).

It is not surprising that, coming off the sense of creeping, impending doom that runs through Binaural the response to the trauma of 9-11 (or, more concretely, the way 9-11 hijacked the American conscience and the way its moment of transformative desolation was exploited)would be the defeatism of Riot Act, where, despite the occasional glimmers of hope (front ended on the record or consigned to b-sides) Pearl Jam finds itself, if not quite giving up, wondering whether the fight can be won, and whether it is even worth engaging in the first place. Riot Act t is easily the low point in their catalog (thematically, not necessarily artistically), and the place where the process of disengagement that is begun, however subtly on Yield, ends up bottoming out.

If Binaural and Riot Act are the sound of someone drowning, the triumphant harshness of S/T is the sound of that first aggressive breath you take after surfacing. It’s not fair to call S/T a midlife crisis, since it’s far too concrete a record for that (an embattled response to a very real problem), but it certainly sees the return of an anger that hadn’t really been present since the days of Vs( although with a thematic focus the previous record lacked). It’s not necessarily surprising that they chose to self title this record, as it attempts to recapture the fighting spirit that is at the heart of what the band stands for. But the effort is imperfect. There are moments (parachutes and the wasted reprise come to mind) that come close to synthesizing the anger of the younger pearl jam and the wisdom of the old, but they never quite manage to strike the balance, and Inside Job, the track that needs to tie it all together, clearly falls flat (the first time the band ever really failed itself on the critical thematic track of a record). But it certainly signals where the band wants to go—the realization that anger only gets you so far, that solidarity has to be grounded in love, rather than opposition, and that one can simultaneously struggle while still being at peace—that you can accept the world (and yourself) for the way it is while still trying to change it.

Backspacer picks up where Inside Job leaves off, and accomplishes over the course of a record what Inside Job failed to do at the end of S/T. For the first time Pearl Jam doesn’t just glorify struggle—it celebrates life. For the first time we engage not because the struggle grants meaning, but because there is something precious that we need to defend. There is no narrative arc to Backspacer. It doesn’t try to tell a story. Instead it tries to capture a feeling, or even better a moment—that moment of liberation where you realize how blessed you are that you have both something to give and something to lose.

Gonna See My Friend

I cannot listen to Gonna See My Friend without thinking of Breakerfall—in part because of the reckless, loose, go for broke energy, and in part because they are two sides of the same coin. Whereas Breakerfall is in part about pushing away, Gonna See My Friend is about drawing close. I’m drawn to that somewhat awkward but nevertheless striking lyric in Breakerfall “It’s like she’s lost her invitation to the party on earth and she’s standing outside hating everyone in here.” Gonna See My Friend is a song for a person who, after standing outside for so long, finally comes inside—and the cathartic release they find in doing so.

GSMF explodes right out the gate with one of the most joyful and exuberant riffs in their entire catalog, galloping along to Matt’s furious drumming (he’s the real star of this song, and one of the heroes of the entire record). It’s full of celebration and familiar discovery, like we’ve just finally seen for the first time something momentous and wonderful that’s been right in front of us this whole time. I also love the revving up slide around 12 seconds leading into the first verse that gives you the ‘strap yourself in, we’re going for a ride’ feeling that the song manages to sustain for its entirety. I’m not sure there are any Pearl Jam songs that make me want to move quite like this one.

Eddie’s vocals match the fearless energy of the music and it gives the song a sense of importance that doesn’t feel overwrought or affected. Instead Eddie sounds excited, like he’s just experienced something amazing and cannot wait to share it. Despite the raggedness in his voice there is an innocence to the delivery that is quite compelling, and he sustains it for most of the song, with a the notable, but deliberate, exception of the chorus.

A good chunk of Gonna See My Friend is, if not self-parody, satirical. The lyrics sound heavy and freighted, like the singer is struggling with some heavy burden “do you wanna hear something sick, we are all victims of desire” but the delivery is playful and enthusiastic, even optimistic. It’s like he’s exploring dealing with old familiar feelings in a new way, and rather than focus on the burden his emphasis is on its release.

The choruses in this song (with the start/stop cadence and the vocal delivery) are some of the ‘grungiest’ moments in their entire catalog, and if this is appearing 18 years into their career long after they’ve left that sound behind (and on a record that is hardly a grunge revival) there’s something else going on here. If this song was 13 years older and he talked about ‘gonna see my friend , make it go away’ the board would be lit up with thoughts that this was about drugs or alcohol at best, suicide at worst’, especially with the dark, foreboding delivery in that first chorus (or the frantic, desperate intensity of the final chorus). Yet they’ve made clear in interviews (and the overall performance confirms this) that this is a song about confronting your problems—via leaning on actual friends, or music, or whatever—but it’s about finding strength in healthier places, rather than finding strength in your own misery. There’s a rejection of the nihilism that shot through so much of the grunge movement, and even the darkness of their own past. That they convey this by using that old sound, inverting its meaning in the process (turning it into a victory cry of sorts) is a pretty clever move. Gonna See My Friend takes what was always implicit even in Pearl Jam’s darkest moments and finally brings it to the fore.

The second verse picks up where the first left off, with the same playful exhausted energy (but it’s a satisfied exhaustion, the kind you have after an intense and meaningful experience that leaves you bone tired and totally charged at the same time) and the bright guitar parts offsetting the primary riff. Again the lyrics are seemingly dark, with lines about needing to get away, about seeking oblivion, as if the only way we can escape ourselves and our desires is through self-negation (the language of retiring, making things go away, snuffing candles), but the performance clearly rejects the initial, obvious gloss on the lyrics. If the overall tone of the song doesn’t make that clear it certainly comes across in the bridge, with its sloppy, reckless determination and statement of purpose. Unlike previous songs that dwelt in darkness and cried out for release, this time there’s someplace worth going to, someone or something capable of helping. What that thing is vaguely defined (left for the listener to fill in as they see fit, based on their own needs and experiences), but it’s a source of strength and permanence—a rock to ground ourselves on in a sea of uncertainty (a theme he’ll return to in Force of Nature).

This determination runs through the final verse, and while the last chorus returns to the traditional grunginess of the chorus but the exuberance of the outro, and Eddie’s playful little woot makes it clear that this song is in the end an emphatic rejection about the need to retreat to those old dark places when things are rough. We finally have someplace better to go.

Got Some

Got Some picks up right where Gonna See My Friend leaves off. When Eddie sings that he’s ‘got some’, he’s referring to the charged sense of purpose and electrifying sense of personal satisfaction discovered at the start of the record. Got Some tries to make public what was, for all its energy and intensity, the private moment documented in GSMF. It’s pretty successful overall, but it’s not perfect.

Musically they nail it. The song rockets out the gate with a sense of frenzied commitment that matches GSMF, and is fitting for the pleading urgency of the song (they cut it off suddenly, but this makes sense given what the song is trying to do). The brassy sound of the guitars give the start of the song an aura of self-importance, and the way the music rises and falls between its puzzled verses (reflecting the confused and lost state of the person the song is being sung to) and the urgent declarations to lean on the singer, to find within him the strength to carry on, is pretty masterfully done (with quick, well done transitions between the two that reflect the emotional journey in the song). Other than the initial start there is an understated quality to Got Some that is designed to both create a kind of interpersonal intimacy that is unusual for a song like this, and of course to build up to and highlight the explosive climax (starting with the foreboding bridge and moving into the extra energy during the final verses and climax, and the terrific outro. My only issue with the music is that given how the song holds itself back for so long its final thoughts deserve to be longer—another 20 seconds of music after Eddie’s final Let’s Go would have been perfect.

Had Eddie been a bit stronger here vocally the ending might not have felt like such a tease, but after the fire and fury of GSMF he sounds flat here, almost weak. I think he’s going for weathered survivor, but it’s a little too weak to work here (it’s more effective in Force of Nature). Maybe he has trouble mixing that approach with the fact that he’s essentially begging here, but regardless I was hoping for something that hit harder. In a lot of Ways Got Some is a sister song to Save You, and it has some of the same vocal problems. In Save You Eddie sounds weary—like he’s had this conversation a million times before and can barely be troubled to have it again (one of the things that makes that song interesting is the tension between the understated vocals and the more aggressive music). He doesn’t sound weary in Got Some, but he does sound thin—exhausted even. It’s possible, even probable that this was a deliberate choice (I’d assume it was given the energy in the 3 songs that surround it)—as if his commitment is measured in how much of himself he’s given (the return of the martyr Eddie of Given To Fly). Given the pleading tone of the song this choice is understandable. The singer in Save You spends much of the song singing to himself, steeling himself for what is likely to be yet another fruitless confrontation. The singer in Got Some is clearly addressing the song to someone else—they’re there in the room with him, and he’s gripping them by the arm begging them to be strong, and to find that strength from within him if need be. The subtle backing vocal harmonies nicely color in the sense that there’s someone there, someone listening, and that they’re in this together.

But while this approach makes sense artistically it’s also somewhat underwhelming. Save you has the same problem. Though the vocal choices are what the song may need they’re just not as much fun to listen to. Had he really gone for broke vocally during the final moments of Got Some (as he does at the end of Save You ) it would have been worth it—the restraint pays off with the release of the bottle up intensity—but that doesn’t really happen here. At least not as much as I’d prefer. When Eddie screams ‘Please let me help you help yourself!’ through gritted teeth you celebrate him finally breaking through his own reluctance. The ‘carry on, lets go!’ at the end of Got Some just doesn’t hit as hard, especially coming on the heels of GSMF.

If Got Some was more interesting lyrically this might not be a problem, but the lyrics to Got Some are probably the weakest Eddie’s ever written (and a noticeable step down on an album that is otherwise pretty solid in that department). Part of the lyrical simplicity is to keep drawing attention to the offer and promise ‘got some if you need it’ but the stuff that surrounds it is just not that interesting. I could probably try and dig some deeper analysis out of the ‘precipitation verses, but it’s hardly worth it. Fortunately this isn’t a song that pauses long enough for the lyrics to ever really matter. Some songs need to be well written and this is not one of them, but it’s still a little disappointing, especially since Eddie’s performance could use the boost that a well crafted line provides.

Having said that, Got Some is still an effective song—my criticism is that while Got Some is a good song, it could have and should have been a great song. The music is strong the message is clear, and this forms an important part of the initial trilogy of songs that define the mood and tone of the record—finding peace and satisfaction within yourself and turning it outwards—using it as fuel for a fire rather than a blanket against the cold.

The Fixer

Since there’s no narrative to Backspacer it’s hard to call The Fixer is the centerpiece of the record. Each song on Backspacer explores a different aspect of the same moment in time, so it’s not like The Fixer is the end point of a particular journey. But it is probably the high point of the record in a literal sense—it’s a pure and unaffected moment of joy—if Backspacer is a triangle, this is its apex. Songs like Got Some, Unthought Known, GSMF all recall in some tangible way where the subject was coming from. But The Fixer has a perpetual immediacy to it. Even though The Fixer references its own memories, its low places, the song exists purely in the now. I can’t think of another Pearl Jam song where this is the case, and it might be what is off putting about it to some people. All of Pearl Jam’s music is burdened by their past. The force that runs through and lifts up their music is the struggle to overcome that past. It’s muted on Backspacer (the past is actually the past here, rather than the usual past as present), but nowhere more than on The Fixer, and this gives the song a strangeness that may not be for everyone. The fact that it’s such an accessible song makes this feeling even more disconcerting. This also makes The Fixer dependent on the band’s back catalog. The freedom celebrated in this song isn’t earned within the song itself, but in the 8 records and 150 songs that preceded it.

Musically The Fixer is compelling, with a deceptive level of depth (recall its origins). It starts out strong with another great ‘get up and move’ opening sequence (the first 3 songs on Backspacer are all similar in that regard). The fuzzy guitars and the bass give the song a warm, blanket like feeling; the tinkling guitar remind me of the end of Inside Job—the sound of peace and freedom; the guitar accents in the second verse have this cool wistful daydream sound to them; and the occasional sharp drum cracks (softened on occasion by the handclaps) and the main riff have enough bite to them to ensure the whole thing isn’t syrupy sweet. The bridge has this circular sense of movement to it, like it’s orbiting something really important. Hopefully someday we’ll hear what the 7 minutes sideways art piece would have sounded like, but I love what Eddie and Brendan turned this into. The Fixer sounds like mature, unaffected (or innocent, to use McP’s term), freedom.

For the most part Eddie sounds really good here. The opening yeahs and uh huhs do sound overly processed, almost insincere, and I can’t quite figure out where they’re going with it. I wonder if this is the same part of O’Brien’s brain that saturated the Jeremy remix with unnecessary ‘spokens.’ But from there forward it’s a strong performance (except for the repetition of the opening vocals coming out of the bridge). The Fixer has another winning vocal melody (overall this is probably Eddie’s finest record on that score) and Eddie manages to make the vocals sound just lived in and weathered enough to give the song a spark of triumph—like The Fixer is a reward for a hard fought struggle that, in this moment, is behind you. There’s a slight sense of wonder to it as well, not only at the gift of freedom, but the shock at finding it again after so long. The way the vocals are layered also gives the song the sensation that there’s multiple people signing along—it makes The Fixer less intimate and more inviting—it welcomes the listener in and asks them to sing along, rather than just bare witness (which most pearl jam songs do in the studio—they usually don’t live, which is why the live versions almost always turn into celebrations).

Backspacer is a political record, only insofar as the absence of any overt politics is kind of shocking given the content of the rest of Pearl Jam’s output this decade. I can easily imagine the band sitting down to write this song after hearing that Obama was elected. It reflects the sense of new beginnings and new possibilities, of a bright and clear dawn emerging suddenly after a long and dark night. The politics in The Fixer, and Backspacer in general, are found in the freedom of, after so long, not having to be political.

I always found the way The Fixer’s lyrics were structured interesting, barring one or two particular couplets I didn’t care for. I wondered if there was a name for the style they were written in (it seemed like there should be), so I asked a colleague in the English department. I sent him the lyrics and this was his response.

This is interesting -- the form, I mean, is interesting. I don't know of any term to describe what's happening, but what's happening is interesting. The second line of each stanza gives a kind of verbal antonym (opposite) to the adjective in the first line.

I am mentioning this just because I don’t think The Fixer has casual, throw away lyrics. Instead we have 10 lyrical couplets that together present, through their stylistic repetition, this overwhelming desire to repent the past, to put it behind you, to move forward. Eddie could certainly have picked some better antonyms in a few cases, but just because something is simple doesn’t mean it is unintelligent. In fact, if these lines were more involved it’s possible they would have tripped up the momentum of the song and taken the listener out of the immediate moment The Fixer explores. It also might have taken away some of the fun the song wants to have (the exciting couplet doesn’t work but he’s clearly being playful with that lyric and the ‘put a bit of fixing on it’ which I like). Regardless, it’s clear, through the resolution of these simple yet serious conflicts, that there’s a rejection of what’s come before, a desire to look ahead, and above all else an overpowering need to act and celebrate the ability to do so—all culminating with the promise and declaration that when something’s gone or lost we need to fight to get it back again. The fact that there is such a serious message in such an upbeat presentation is also striking, and after years of saying this in songs like Alive, Given To Fly, Grievance, and Present Tense (all songs that are better than The Fixer to be sure) it’s nice to see that they found another way to articulate Pearl Jam’s mission statement.

In another unusual move for the band, the song culminates in its bridge, with its ringing promise to free us from our burdens, to do whatever needs to be done, provided we find a way to make the most of what we have right now. The problem is that the song continues for another minute without giving us anything new—just asking us to live in this singular moment. That is not necessarily a problem, but the quick musical restart (and the over processed uh huhs) both undermine the moment and lead the listener to expect the song to go into a final verse. When it doesn’t we’re left wondering what happened. I’m not sure a verse NEEDS to be there, but if there isn’t one The Fixer would have been better served with a different transition out of the bridge. So interestingly enough, The Fixer’s weakest moments are its end and its beginning, two places where Pearl Jam is usually at its best. I wonder how much of this is due to the fact that The Fixer was adapted from a much longer song. Hopefully we’ll find out someday.

Other songs on Backspacer will explore the part of ourselves that looks back on where we came, or the part of ourselves that fears the future because it is afraid of losing what it has right now. Some songs will explore the promise of our newfound freedom, or celebrate being liberated from our burdens. But The Fixer inhabits a singular moment, one where we breathe clean air, cleanse ourselves in pure water, and know that we can do anything.

Johnny Guitar

Although it’s another fast moving, high energy song , Johnny Guitar explores a different aspect of Backspacer’s emotional and thematic space. Johnny Guitar celebrates not taking yourself so seriously, and in that respect it’s one of the more mature songs in their catalog—despite , or possibly because of, the juvenile lyrics.

With a handful of exceptions Pearl Jam’s approach to fun could probably best be summed up as FUN=SERIOUS BUSINESS. It’s like they were people who looked the word fun up in the dictionary, were aware of its technical definition, and were going to attempt to reproduce it without actually ever having had experienced it. There were moments in the past that came close. Who You Are becomes a much better song if it’s not meant to be taken so seriously. Black Red Yellow and All Night want to let themselves go, but they can’t quite manage it. It’s like there is a part of themselves that’s watching them, prepared to judge if they enjoy themselves too much . And the No Code attempts were probably the best of the bunch. They’re clearly having a great time with Johnny Guitar, and like a few other places on Backspacer the apparent simplicity in the crude lyrics and the puerile story told can make it easy to miss that the song has something important to say, critical to the overall message of the record.

Although this may not be obvious at first, Johnny Guitar is a companion piece to a song like I Got Shit—the opposite side of the same coin. The subject matter in both songs are the same—the main character’s response to a heart breaking, life shattering, unrequited love. I Got Shit plays it straight (there’s no way Pearl Jam could have played it any other way in 1995, and it’s not a problem that they did. These are emotions and experiences that demand voice), and so we’re left with this devastatingly sad portrait of a wasted, pathetic life thrown away in pursuit of someone who has no idea how this person feels, or even that they exist. It’s a totally emo song in the hands of someone else, but the sincerity of the delivery and the credibility earned from the previous records turn it into something more moving and profound.

Johnny Guitar takes this same set of circumstances and goes in an entirely different direction. It tells the story of a life long obsession about a girl—a fantasy in the most literal sense since she’s not even anyone real. She’s just an image on a poster, and so the subject can basically make her be whatever it is he wants her to be. This guy focuses on her innocence—the fantasy is about all the things he’s going to do to her when he awakens her sexuality—Sleeping Beauty being awoken by her handsome prince but filtered through ZZ Top instead of Disney.

He’s jealous of Johnny Guitar, who possesses the woman (any woman he wants it would seem—this guy is in awe of Johnny’s secret, seemingly forbidden knowledge—the ability to get a girl to sleep with you) and he’s envious of the ease with which he does so, but he has faith that someday she’ll be his. He hopes for the future even as he despairs in a present that extends on for decades. The little details in this song are sharp, like the image in the bridge of the guy sleeping with the lights on. Ostensibly it’s so she can find him (although what kind of fantasy can’t navigate the dark), but it’s probably more that he just falls asleep starring at the poster. And the bridge transitions into his dream (I picture him nodding off to sleep as he extends the second ‘in case she…’ going out of the bridge.

But finally, after thirty years of failing to even dream about this girl (that’s how pathetic this guy is) he has the moment he’s waiting for. Like the subject in I Got Shit the dreams are more real (or more important, anyway) than the reality since this is the one place their love isn’t unrequited. And his moment finally comes—after thirty years of patient devotion he has his reward. She slinks over to the bed in her red dress, leans over…and asks (almost certainly in a husky voice) if he’s seen Johnny Guitar. This guy is such a loser he can’t even win in his dreams.

But what makes the song work is that there’s no judgment here. There’s no warning. Johnny Guitar is not the cautionary tale that I Got Shit is. Instead it’s playful and celebratory, full of double entendres and filthy innuendo delivered in a rapid fire and extremely accomplished vocal melody that doesn’t give us time to take any of this very seriously (and without the awkwardness in a song like soon forget when Eddie trips himself up over the word horny). The faux desperation in Eddie’s voice gives the song a ridiculous sense of self-importance that’s poking fun of itself at the same time.

Musically they set the scene perfectly, with the muscular swagger of the guitar the soundtrack for how this guy no doubt WANTS to see himself. If the mournful guitars in I Got Shit sound like a heart breaking here we have the sound of guy trying frantically to strut since that seems to be what gets Johnny Guitar his ladies. The filthy guitar in the bridge encapsulates this best, but it’s present throughout the whole song.

Pearl Jam often ends their emotionally intense songs with a cathartic breakdown, and like everything else in this song Johnny Guitar ends by spoofing this tendency within their music. The singer is trying to stay strong “I hide my disappointment” but he can’t quite manage it and loses it at the end. But the music can’t keep a straight face and instead of suffering with him it affectionately cheers on this pathetic loser and his hopeless fantasy.

The song is ridiculous (or as ridiculous as Pearl Jam can ever really get) and that is in part the point. It celebrates our silly dreams and recognizes that a life without play, without nonsensical ambitions, one that cannot laugh at itself and its occasional ridiculousness, is not a life that’s really worth living. One of the key milestones in really growing up, really maturing, is learning how to be able to take life seriously and laugh at yourself at the same time. Pearl Jam knew how to take life seriously from the very beginning. It’s nice to see them get comfortable enough in their own skin that they’re able to laugh too.

Just Breathe

Yes yes yes, Just Breathe sounds like it was written for Into The Wild. That doesn’t matter. Musically it takes the ideas in Tuolumne (which was a very pretty little instrumental that I really wanted to see developed further) and turns it into a full fledged song. If not for the fact that Into The Wild really has no space for a love song in it this would have fit in there perfectly. But it fits in here too. Not counting a song like You this is really the first pure love song pearl jam ever wrote ( I went with an REM song when I got married just because Pearl Jam didn’t have anything I could use yet. If only I had waited 4 more years). This is probably not a song Pearl Jam could have written prior to Backspacer. There’s a sense of spiritual calm, certainty, and stability to it that reflects the peace of mind that comes from a long standing, healthy relationship—the realization that love is as much the small quiet moments as it is white hot fire, and that while it’s easy to miss those moments, when we stop and notice them they take our breath away.

Musically this song almost immediately relaxes me, transports me someplace quiet and secure, the gentle finger picking moving me along without actually taking me anywhere—it’s a pretty cool combination of movement and standing still—and the organ accents color this beautifully. The do a great job phasing in the rest of the band here—the bass comes in as Eddie turns to weightier thoughts, as he starts to reflect on the moment, rather than live in the moment itself. It gives his meditation here a bit of urgency without overpowering the song.

At least until the chorus. I’m not sure what to make of it. It might have been necessary to really have the chorus differentiate itself from the verses, and certainly there’s a pleading element to the vocals that requires the music to hit a little harder, but the transition here is a bit too jarring. It’s like going from sometimes into hail hail (well not that bad, but on the same scale) and it’s too much. I think my problem here may just be the volume. The strings are perhaps a little melodramatic, but its’ also a melodramatic moment and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with melodrama used sparingly.

The transition out of the first chorus (vocally and musically) is excellent, and the music reflects the weightier thoughts without really overdoing it. It’s much busier than the first verse, but the chorus does prepare us for this. The second chorus is still a little jarring but it’s not as bad as the first time, and the song swirls away underneath eddie’s vocalizations and final thoughts. It’s impressive how this song manages to sound so busy and so simple and delicate at the same time. R.E.M. could write a song like this in their sleep. It’s nice to see Pearl Jam take a stab at it and be so successful.

Eddie is surprisingly nasally on this song. He doesn’t sound like this on the rest of the album, so it’s clearly an artistic choice. I’m not sure why he made it. He’s going for delicate and vulnerable, but he’s done that better before (see Into the Wild, for instance), and they make the aw huh’s at the end of the line too prominent—those are meant as punctuation and they turn into statements. These are certainly not my favorite vocals of his, but again another accomplished vocal melody, the way the words just glide so effortlessly over the music, goes a long way towards cutting the impact of the vocal choice. Plus his voice is full of the nooks and crannies , the cracks and the warmth, so that the overall effect is still compelling.

Lyrically this one is going to rise and fall on the sincerity. If you believe him it’s compelling. As stand alone lyrics divorced from the performance they’re not bad, but they’re not great. Other than ‘I’m a lucky man to count on both hands the ones I love’ which I think is just a gorgeous lyric there’s nothing too memorable here. But the approach he’s taking to love is interesting. Like I mentioned earlier this is a mature love song—mature in that it’s speaking to a love that’s long past the initial stage of discovery where everything is white hot and exciting and new. It’s writing from the perspective of a love that, while cooling (as it inevitably will), has plugged all the cracks and settled in the foundations of these people’s lives—the way in which it becomes impossible to live without even as you cease noticing it all the time.

Just Breathe is a quiet moment of reflection—the singer is taking the time to remember, to consciously remind himself, just how fortunate he is to have the gifts he has, and how empty he would be without them. There’s a maturity to this song, a sense of peace, a willingness (a need even) to live in a moment outside of time which isn’t possible until we become comfortable enough with ourselves and the world around us to realize that there are times it is okay to just shut it out and exist for ourselves—that it is within these spaces we find the strength and purpose to fight again. The fact that this moment is shared is also significant. It speaks to the self confidence needed to leave oneself so vulnerable, so dependent on someone else. There are undercurrents of death in this song (every life must end, hold me ‘til I die) but I doubt very much either character is dying. Instead the references to dying and to departures are a reflection of how utterly dependent the main character is on the other person in his life, how lucky he is to have it, and a promise to himself to remember that this cannot last forever and so he must not take it for granted. It’s clear that the person he’s signing to is his rock, his refuge and certainty in a violent and uncertain world, and that this is the most precious thing she can be for him. And so the most romantic line in the whole piece may be the ‘stay with me, let’s just breathe.’ There may not be a purer expression of love than the desire for that person to just be there, to demand nothing more of them other than that they exist.

Amongst the Waves

Amongst the Waves is one of the centerpiece tracks on Backspacer (I’d say alongside The Fixer and Unthought Known). This is not to say that these are the best songs on Backspacer (I certainly do not think so) but they make the most important statements on the record. They anchor the themes, in the same way that Corduroy and Given To Fly anchor Vitalogy and Yield. So it’s really important that they get these songs right. I think they’re successful (not perfect, but successful) on Unthought Known and The Fixer, but after a very promising start they come up a little short on Amongst the Waves—one of the few moments where I think Backspacer stumbles a bit.

I keep referencing Yield in this review, and that’s not surprising, since Backspacer reprises and develops more fully the potential and promise of Yield, promises that get cut off on the record itself and then come to a full stop on Binaural (I’m talking thematically here, not necessarily in terms of the quality of the songs themselves—I prefer Backspacer to those two records but that’s just a subjective preference). And so, with that preface, Amongst the Waves strikes me as the song (again thematically) that In Hiding wanted to be. Musically the songs sound somewhat similar to me (although In Hiding is structured better, with the crucial pre-chorus that Amongst the Waves needs—more on that below). Both are songs about personal salvation, with the crucial difference being that in In Hiding the singer can save himself only by retreating into himself, by admitting defeat. It’s a song about isolation, about being unable to deal with the world. It’s implied towards the end that through this retreat he is able to resurrect himself, but then the song goes right back into celebrating the fact that he’s in hiding. As we’ll see Amongst the Waves is also about salvation, but absent the moment of retreat. It may not be the better song (I like them about the same), but it’s more consistent with the core of who the band is and what it stands for. Amongst the Waves is the song Pearl Jam wanted In Hiding to be, and it celebrates the fact that they’re finally able to write it.

Amongst the Waves accomplishes a great deal during its verses. Musically it sets the scene perfectly. The gentle buzzing and quiet electricity of the melody, the bright coloration, the deep bass and gentle drumming all create the image of a man overlooking a dark lake at midnight with the slight wind rippling the water (I hear a lake more than an ocean, but I’m more drawn to lakes than oceans). It’s a perfect backdrop for peaceful reflection, for feeling grateful about the life you’ve fought for and the fact that you can share it (and the opportunity to share it may be instrumental in the creation). The music sounds like a living memory, like past and present coming together and lifting you up in the process.

Lyrically I’m a big fan of each verse, and each compliments the music well. In the first he’s clearly signing to someone else. It makes sense to assume it’s the person in Just Breathe, given the placement on the record and the same lyrical themes, the way in which love and commitment has finally granted him the peace (just you and me and nothing more) and stability he’s spent so long desperately trying to achieve (what used to be a house of cards has turned into a reservoir—a lyric that would be clunky if not so expertly delivered—as is the case on pretty much all of the record Eddie is masterful here). The quiet moonlit night overlooking the water is a gift, and he’s giving thanks for it. Having struggled so long for it he’s well aware of its valued. His is a peace earned through struggle and resistance and achieved ultimately through surrender, but by surrendering to someone else, not the world. Freedom and love are found through dictating the terms of your submission. This was the promise at the end of Faithful, the hope of Given to Fly, lost during In Hiding, finally achieved AND sustained.

In that sense the second verse is a flashback—rather than addressing his partner in the first verse he’s addressing himself, his past, his struggle, and while the flashback may make more sense for a reflective song, I wonder if having this verse come first—giving the song a narrative arc—would have made more sense, especially given some of the concerns I have with the bridge and chorus (more on that later). I like the loss of innocence in nameless violence described in the second verse. It’s possible there is a statement to be teased out of the television reference, but it does feel a little out of place. This isn’t Ghost, and this song is too internal to really make room for social critique (TV as hyper reality, TV as a filter to block out reality, etc—lots of things you can do here, but not necessary for the song). I like that he sticks with the blood metaphor (cut to later/bled yourself) and the way the verse conveys that sense of being the last man standing after a long and grueling struggle, having found the strength needed to endure and even triumph over constant struggle (this also makes me wonder if Force of Nature, which chronicles this struggle without a resolution, should switch places with Amongst the Waves).

It’s the chorus where Amongst the Waves loses me. Lyrically it’s fine. Waves and water are Eddie’s go to lyrical inspiration, and it’s been done before, but I have no problem with the usage here. I’ve never surfed, but the sense of release and freedom and possibility and salvation found in that moment is clearly conveyed. The “gotta say it now, better loud than too late” lyric is interesting to, especially the way he unexpectedly juxtaposes loud with late—the recognition that life is not only about seizing the necessary moments, but doing so with a full bodied and totalizing commitment, holding nothing back, surrendering to that moment.

Convey this asks more of the music and the delivery than the song gives. The chorus doesn’t provide the exclamation mark it needs to. The delivery sounds more like a pre chorus—like Eddie’s ramping up for a pay off that never actually happens. In Hiding is a good parallel to draw here—you can’t go from the verses to the ‘I’m in hiding’ chorus without the pre chorus, but the pre chorus itself would not have been sufficient without the release. Maybe if they repeated or developed further the ‘gotta say it now’ part of the song (like they do at the end of the song) that would have helped. But even there Eddie needs to push more. His brilliant performance in Hard Sun makes moments like this fall flat. He can clearly still hit those notes and he’s not. At his best no one soars quite like Eddie, and this song needs to soar here (this kills Love Boat Captain as well). It rides its waves, but it doesn’t rise above them. The music doesn’t pick up the slack here either—it carries Eddie along but doesn’t lift him up. I like the atmosphere in the music, stormy and purifying at the same time, but it’s not enough. It’s possible that too stark a difference between chorus and verse would have sounded out of place, but if that’s the case the song really needs that transitional pre chorus that it lacks. Given to Fly has it. In Hiding has it. Amongst the Waves needs it. There’s a little more energy for the second and even for the third and final chorus—more is at stake each time, but it’s never enough. Even the final chorus has a certain sameness to it—a song about surviving, triumph, and salvation needs to ascend in its final moments, and Amongst the Waves doesn’t.

Backspacer is a record largely devoid of Mike solos, which for me are almost always a highlight of any song that features one. It’s nice to hear one on Amongst the Waves, and it’s pretty good (not great, but pretty good) as far as solos go, but it feels out of place. Some of this is the way the song is structured. It’s a flashback solo—it’s the musical accompaniment for the actual events that Eddie remembers in the second verse, but with a chorus between the two of them it’s easy to forget why it’s happening. Sandwiched between the two choruses it lacks context. A few bridge lyrics to transition into it would have helped. Stronger choruses (musically and vocally) might have helped the solo seem less out of place by providing the struggle with more of a payoff than Mikes gives the solo itself. Someone who can write such cathartic pieces like Alive and I Am Mine (or even the outro of Force of Nature, which pulls off what Amongst the Waves fails to fully do) can do better here. It’s a shame that after the vocals and music compliment each other so well on the verses they each fail to come through for the other when they need it.

And so in the end Amongst the Waves fails to sustain the incredible energy and first rate run of songs that precedes it. The momentum falters here. Unthought Known picks it back up but now we’re starting over, and the record never quite fully recovers since there isn’t enough time to rebuild the lost momentum. Tracklisting could have helped here. You don’t necessarily want to have all your fast songs and then all your slow songs but moving Amongst the Waves to later in the record (which is more reflective and less immediate than the first half enables you to go from Just Breathe to Unthought Known, which is a better musical transition and fits in better with the immediacy of the first half of the record (Just Breathe makes a bit more sense later but you usually don’t want to stick all your slow songs next to each other). Amongst the Waves would be better served following Force of Nature towards the end. There are other songs I’d move around (it’s always fun to play the retracking game) but this is the placement I have the most trouble with.

This is a pretty unsatisfying way to end this review, but I suppose it’s appropriate given that Amongst the Waves ends up being something of an unsatisfying song.

Unthought Known

Alongside The Fixer and Amongst the Waves I’d argue that Unthought Known is one of Backspacer’s critical thematic moments—one of the songs that defines the record. Whereas The Fixer celebrates the moment of action, and Amongst the Waves rewards its subject with the blessing of a spiritual peace earned through a lifetime of struggle, Unthought Known is a song about promise and possibility, about not just experiencing the world as an agent, but of appreciating the world for what it is—a stage on which we are able to act, and through the process of action, define meaning, fulfill potential, and create ourselves. In this, Unthought Known is a more reflective exploration of the moment captured in The Fixer—it gets caught up in the same emotional space, but it takes the time to stop and look around, to marvel at the gift of agency.

The start of Unthought Known immediately brings to mine Wishlist, and while some of this is superficial similarity (the palm muted beginning) the tone is similar as well—the quiet determined desire to think about the world and your place in it, and follow those thoughts wherever they lead. As in Wishlist, this simple foundation is given its weight and gravity by the way the rest of the band colors in the empty spaces and gaps left by the melody—as if the melody is the act of thought and the musical flourishes the content. But where Wishlist (one of my favorite songs on Yield) stays in a quiet and sober place, Unthought Known quickly finds itself overwhelmed by the majesty of the universe, and the certainty that, for at least this moment, we belong. The band does a wonderful job here conveying this sense of wide eyed wonder and cosmic liberation with the rapid fire build and sustained climax—the way the instruments pile onto each other (the chiming guitars whispering their promises and 33, the sense of purpose conveyed by the drums at 48 seconds, the liberation offered by the piano at 1:05, and the way it all comes together to celebrate the joy and possibilities found within existence at 1:20. Even a year later my heart beats a little faster as the music sweeps us up into an expansive celebration of life itself and essentially maintains this high for essentially the rest of the song—we come down after the bridge, but only temporarily, and simply so the song can lift us up again.

In some respects it’s an exhausting ride. Unthought Known attempts to maintain a climax for basically the entire song (minus the brief build in the beginning and the cool down at the end), with little time for the listener to rest or come down. This is a surprising approach for a reflective song to take, and the music is not always up to it (or perhaps it is the production). Once the song reaches its high (the gems and rhinestones lyric) and plateaus there isn’t really a whole lot of variety and so the high has to sustain itself primarily on what is already there. It works great the first few listens, but once it’s familiar it starts to feel a little thin, like it exhausts itself. Given how much energy this song has to consume to occupy its space what we’re given needs to sound richer than it does. The simple production aims to capture the clarity and purity found in the moment of epiphany that Unthought Known chronicles, but it needs more. It’s at about 1:45 (after the ‘path cut by the moon lyric’ where the song enters what I suppose passes for its bridge) that the song starts to feel slightly empty. Not starved, mind you—but it definitely needs to sound fuller than it does.

Vocally and lyrically this is one of Eddie’s stronger performances on the record and, interestingly enough, one of the weaker vocal melodies, although the later isn’t as necessary because the former is so stronger. Eddie commits to the song right from the beginning, with a child like sense of wonder, enthusiasm, and joy, filtered through the experiences an older, wiser man returning to a place he never expected to see again. This is what Amongst the Waves (the chorus anyway) needed to sound like. Usually I find Eddie less persuasive on his advice/wisdom songs, where he tries to impart the listener with the lessons he’s learned from his own life and his own experiences. But it works quite well here because, unlike a song like Life Wasted or Love Boat Captain, he isn’t pleading and he isn’t telling us something he half expects us to reject. Instead he’s asking us to share a moment with him, and since Eddie’s power as a vocalist comes from his empathy, his willingness to commit to the experience he’s describing and invite us to do the same, this approach, and the final product, ends up being much more persuasive.

Lyrically some lines here are better than others (Eddie has always been an inconsistent writer, even when he’s on the top of his game) but the key lines here are great, and capture and communicate in provocative lines and stunningly simple images the spirit of the song.

It’s a slow start for sure, with the first four lines (‘all the thoughts you never see’ through ‘yeah this is living’) being pretty unmemorable, almost like he’s rushing through them to get to the parts of the song that really matter (it’s not surprising that the song takes off musically, vocally, and lyrically at the same place). But since this song (unlike most pearl jam anthems) captures a moment instead of telling a story the introduction isn’t as critical as it is on a song like Alive or Given To Fly.

The call to ‘look for love and evidence that you’re worth keeping’ is perhaps a little syrupy, but it’s a wonderful sentiment that cuts to the heart of what Pearl Jam’s music is about. They had always rejected the nihilism of their peers and believe that there’s a core within just about everyone that’s worthy of love and salvation. It’s easy to lose sight of that in a world full of institutions and social arrangements that separate us from the world, each other and ourselves, and so we need that reminder.

He does a great job running with his nature metaphors (and thankfully they aren’t all water based), capturing the mystery and majesty of our world (this song might not have been out of place during some of the landscape montages in Into the Wild), reminding us that we’re blessed to be a part of it, and that within it are unlimited possibilities if we’re prepared to reach for them. Obviously this is oversimplified and the band knows better, but at the same time this is the only way out of the dead end of Binaural, Riot Act, and even S/T—the moment of critique can show you what needs to change, but it cannot inspire you to actually make the change—that in order to act there needs to be both a way forward and a belief that this way points to a better world. And the images in Unthought Known are pregnant with that empowering sense of hope and possibility—the beauty of a pool of blue sky, the way in which love takes a void and fills it with light, the sense of oneness with the world that makes you think that the moon shines down to light YOUR way, that within the sound of the waves is secret knowledge only yu can understand, that the world holds its breath for you. The gems and rhinestones lyric is my favorite in this sequence—in part because it’s delivered with such ecstasy but in part because of the juxtaposition between the two—the way in which the world is going to offer you its gems, its tokens of objective value, and its rhinestones, it’s potentially valueless moments that we can make priceless by assigning value to them ourselves, and that the meaning the world has is up to us—that there may be no difference between gems and rhinestones. Again we can argue about whether or not this is true in reality, and it’s an important conversation to have, but it’s also important that on occasion we truly believe that there is no difference.

The nothing left bridge is a little tricky since it’s not clear what he’s talking about. Given the way Eddie exults in the delivery I take it that there’s nothing left of our burdens, nothing between us and the joy of pure experience and limitless possibility, especially given the lyrics that bookmark it.
The other high point of the song (and Eddie’s delivery draws attention to this) is the ‘dream the dreams of other men/you’ll be no ones rival’ lyric which, with a slight change, Eddie delivers twice in a row. It’s a great line, in part because of its ambiguity. What does he mean by rival? This is not the only way to interpret this line, but given the surrounding context I think of it as a challenge to build relationships with other people like the relationship with the universe that the rest of the song celebrates—that if we bind ourselves to each other, if we commit to the lives of the people around us, if we’re prepared to love them and learn from them, the barriers between us fall. We free ourselves from the artificial restraints that keep us from each other, and in the process, from ourselves—that we really discover who we are through this sense of communion with the world, with each other, and with ourselves. We complete who we are through the merging of the three.

The song comes down from its extended high to end on a sober note. This is the ideal. We’re not there yet. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were. Unthought Known lays out the possibility, at an emotional level, of a richer, fuller world—one that we belong to rather than stand in opposition of, and asks us to commit to that vision.

So many tournaments, so little time

 Post subject: Re: A Guided Tour of Backspacer
PostPosted: Fri December 28, 2012 12:44 pm 
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The worst

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Backspacer begins to stumble in its middle act. Amongst the Waves fails to live up to its potential. Unthougth Known comes closer but in the end is too skeletal a song to sustain its heavy ambitions (although it deserves credit for its magnificent reach). Speed of Sound, as we’ll see, is a difficult and complicated song that is hard to get a read on. But for me the real weak spot in Backspacer is Supersonic, which lacks the wild abandon of spin the black circle, deceptive intensity of All Night, the tongue in cheek attitude of Don’t Gimmie No Lip (which is a stupid, but nevertheless charming song), or the playfulness of Black Red Yellow. Supersonic is Pearl Jam trying to convince its audience that it’s having FUN, and not entirely succeeding. In fairness, I should disclose that in general I’m not a fan of this kind of power pop, so Supersonic was going to have a hard time winning me over. If nothing else, Supersonic means I no longer have to wonder what Mankind would have sounded like with Eddie singing and for that I’ll always be grateful.

Musically it’s simple, but it’s decent. I like how the song revs up at the start (and how it comes out of the bridge), and there is a catchy head bopping quality to the music, an innocent brightness to the whole thing that is kinda fun. The bridge solo is good, but utterly utterly out of place—almost like they had this really good 30 seconds of music and were struggling to find a place to include it on the record. I’m not sure what purpose it serves here. It’s a nice piece of music in a song celebrating music, but without stronger transitions it feels like an afterthought. It’s also one of the more muscular moments on a record that, outside of Johnny Guitar, doesn’t have many. This is not necessarily a problem for the record as a whole, as most of the songs don’t require these moments, but then again neither does Supersonic. They should have saved this for whenever they plan to release Of The Earth. It would fit in much better there. The end of the song is a bit flat as well—it cries out for more yeah yeahs and probably an outro solo. Even an extra 15 second would have been enough, but what was supposed to be an exclamation point ends up sounding like a period. Supersonic just kind of stops, rather than taking off as the title demands.

Vocally I’m not a huge of fan of Eddie on this one. Some of this may just be personal taste (I just don’t like how he actually sounds—there’s too much U and Leatherman in here, two Pearl Jam songs I really just hate listening to), but I don’t feel like there’s any real character to Eddie on this one. He’s in theory completely swept up in his love of music and the spirit of the moment, but there’s no abandon here, no reckless surrender like there is on Spin the Black Circle. There’s enthusiasm, but no celebration. It’s genial and friendly, but it’s not passionate. I feel like I’m getting a 1950s advertisement for music: Good Clean Wholesome Fun. He starts to recover during the outro, but it’s too little too late.

Lyrically Supersonic is fairly bland but that’s okay. It’s not a song begging for strong lyrics (although they would, of course, make the song better). The problem is that the lyrics actually end up further undermining the performance. “I catch a break, then a punch to the head”—where is the punch to the head? The follow up line works “I smile big with a toothless grin”—it fits the happy, pleasant, innocent vibe of the song—but the rest of the actual lyrics demand more. I alluded to this earlier, but the title itself demands a speed and momentum that the song lacks. There’s no sense here that music ‘took my soul’ or ‘I don’t need you to live, but I’ll never let you go” or ‘I need to hear it, need to feel it loud’ and ‘I wanna live my life with the volume full.’ The song celebrates an all consuming passion in the form of a pleasant diversion.

In theory Supersonic makes sense on Backspacer, although perhaps not here. Early on, in the purer celebrations of the moment devoid of reflection (the back half of the record is certainly more self aware than the first half) Supersonic would fit in perfectly well, and the song could feed off of the momentum and energy of those earlier numbers. It could rely on its surroundings to overcome its shortcomings as a stand alone piece. But Supersonic is not a logical follow up to the Amongst the Waves and Unthought Known mission statements, nor is there any useful connection to the sober reflections in Speed of Sound. Maybe the song is useful as a footnote, a reminder to the listener of what came before, but Backspacer is a quick record that probably doesn’t need the reminder in the first place, and given the weaknesses of the song, Supersonic ends up acting more like a long digression in the middle of a paragraph. Rather than remind you of where you’ve been, it simply distracts you from where you’re going. The song means well, and it doesn’t have the ambitions to be truly offensive (and the music is good enough), but this is the only song on Backspacer whose absence would definitely improve the album.

Speed of Sound

I am not sure I’ve ever had as much trouble getting a handle on a Pearl Jam song as much as I do with Speed of Sound. The fact that the demo--so very different from the studio version-- was released first complicates things. People may prefer the Gone demo to the version on S/T (I prefer the S/T version myself, but I don’t enjoy either song all that much) but they are still basically the same song. The full band version fleshes out the logic of the demo—whether or not you like the final product it still makes sense. The full band version of speed of sound utterly transforms the mood and feel of the original.

Usually I talk about the music before the lyrics, as the music provides the background for the story the song tells, but I’m going to discuss the lyrics first. We need a clear sense of what Eddie was trying to do with Speed of Sound before we can figure out whether he was successful.

Lyrically this song is a gem—some of Eddie’s best writing in years (this song alongside Force of Nature is Eddie’s best 1-2 lyrical punch since Given to Fly -> Wishlist). It may help to think of Speed of Sound as an older, still unsettled but somehow more mature version of Off He Goes. Both songs are about trying to stay grounded in the middle of an oversized, overwrought life—the desire to hold onto the core of who you are against the howling pressures of the rest of the world. Off He Goes is not a song about fame. It’s autobiographical, but we all have to struggle to retain our integrity and our sense of self against what the world throws at us. We all fight the same war, even if our particular battles are different. But there’s a tentative quality to Off He Goes—not tentative in that he’s unsure of the outcome, but tentative as if he’s not necessarily comfortable raising the questions, or sure how to think about it. When I say that Off He Goes is immature I mean that it’s really a first attempt at coming to grips with how to survive in a world that really insists on making survival difficult, and it reflects the confusion, uncertainty, occasional overwroughtness and awkward hesitation that accompanies our first pass at these questions.

Speed of Sound approaches these same questions a decade later from an older, perhaps wiser, certainly more experienced and confident perspective (you can have confident uncertainty). Like Just Breathe, The End, and parts of Amongst the Waves and Force of Nature, it asks us to slow down and reflect. Much of Backspacer asks us to let go of the past and celebrate the moment of experience, something fairly unique in Pearl Jam’s catalog and the source of the album’s energy and abandon. But this is a Pearl Jam record, and Pearl Jam is far too self aware, too externally focused, to live in this moment forever. A song like Speed of Sound (and the others I mentioned) remind us that we will have to come down, and that if we want to hold onto part of the perfect immediacy of now we need to figure out how to make the present come to grips with the past and the future, to celebrate what we have now while recognizing how fragile, precious , and dependent that gift is. This is the story of Backspacer as a whole—no one song tries to capture that entire experience—and so Speed of Sound needs to be understood as playing a particular, concrete roll in the overall album arc. Inverting its name, it tries to slow us down. It warns us that if you only live right now you’ll lose sight of the things that made ‘now’ possible.

The song starts regretting how delicate and fragile the past is, how hard it is to find stability and permanency in a world that changes so fast and sweeps us up alongside it even as we change with it (moving at AND with the speed of sound—simultaneously subject and object). The chorus is hopeful and regretful at the same time. The singer keeps fixed in his mind his dream of distant light—of warmth, peace, illumination, belonging, and there’s no sense of surrender in the song (there is a certain sad sense of futility in Off He Goes—like we know how the story is going to end and so we might as well make our peace with it), but there IS a weariness to it. Not exhaustion, mind you—Backspacer is not Riot Act—but instead a grim awareness of just how long we sometimes have to float through dark empty spaces waiting for the sun.

The lyrics get a little urgent as he explores his inability to come to grips with his momentum. It’s an important verse: “Can I forgive what I cannot forget and live a lie. I could give it one more try.” There’s a sense in which his speed comes from his refusal to accept that the world he lives in is imperfect, and that it always will be. Acceptance is not the same thing as surrender (you can accept the way the world is while still trying to change it) but he cannot come to grips with that. It rings false. He feels guilty—like moments of serenity, calm, acceptance are unworthy of him—like he’s selling out a life long struggle. The problem is the hand wringing, the angst, the defiance, the anger fuel him but at the same time they push him further and further away from the peace he’s so desperate to find. The struggle for a perfect peace makes imperfect peace (all we’re probably capable of in an imperfect world) impossible.

The gravity of his situation, the way in which he feels trapped, the way in which he finds himself imprisoned by the same principles and commitments that are able to set him free, catches up with him in the final, confused verses. He hears a voice and reaches out to it, the promise of stability, fulfillment and security in an uncertain world, but he doesn’t know if what he’s trying to grab onto is real or not, whether he’s worthy of it or not, and in his own uncertainty, his reluctance to accept (not surrender, accept—again this is a key difference) he misses his window. He finds himself alone, isolated, moving too fast to commit to the rest of the world around him.

In the end Speed of Sound is a cautionary tale, and probably the darkest moment on the record. Speed of Sound warns us of what will happen if we cannot dial back our war against the world, if we cannot realize that we should change the things we can change and make our peace with what we cannot—even as we work to change the context that makes the possible impossible. We have to learn to accept that there are limits to what we are capable of (the wisdom of the old) even as we refuse to surrender the passion of youth that makes all things possible. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Utopia cannot be the enemy of happiness. Ours is an imperfect world, a dark world, but not lacking in moments of light that are all the brighter for the surrounding darkness. To that end, Force of Nature probably has to follow Speed of Sound, since it affirms what Speed of Sound can only say through negation.

It’s a heady song, and captures in important ways the intellectual journey the band has been on for the last 17 years. It requires the previous records to give it context, but when that context is there Speed of Sound says a great deal. So let’s see how this vision translated.

The Demo:
Eddie sounds great here, his voice delicate, floating along on the ups and downs of the vocal melody. Although there is no water imagery here, the performance paints the picture of a man carried out to see by a tide he’s too tired to resist, but not so defeated that he cannot look backwards with longing towards where he came from. This is one of the most wistful songs Eddie’s ever written and it showcases the weathered quaver in his voice that he uses to replace the power he’s lost over the year. His Bruce Springsteen influence is on display here—not in the lyrics, but in the delivery and the melody. I can easily see this song appearing on Nebraska or Devils and Dust. The double tracked vocals, especially towards the end, give the song a sense of urgency during the climax, the high part sounding running away while the lower register keeps him grounded—straining for the shore even as he makes his peace with the tides that carry him away. There is a starkness to the music that is simultaneously cold and warm, stark and full—as if you’re floating through an empty space but you have old memories to keep you from freezing and fill the void (I hear space alongside water). The plaintive, straining guitar notes that punctuate the song give the song a mature sadness that comes from reflecting on the failures of a life lived. Most of Eddie’s demos that we’ve heard (think Man of the Hour, Small Town, Gone) feel, to a greater or lesser extent, incomplete. The Speed of Sound demo, on the other hand, is complete the way it is—in fact there’s a very real risk that weighing it down with more music will destroy the sense of starkness, distance, and cold warmth that the song depends on.

Full Band:
And oh man, do they add more music. I wonder if Speed of Sound was sacrificed so that The End might live. I said earlier that this song reminds of Springsteen’s Nebraska, which was a record of demos that Springsteen decided to release. He definitely brought this one in for the E-Street Band. The music is actually pretty interesting. The problem is that, even moreso than the Supersonic solo, it is really poorly matched up with the song they added it to. For people who want more experimental Pearl Jam, this IS experimental pearl jam. There’s an alt-country feel to this one that they rarely play with, guitar tones they don’t use, and I actually like how it sounds. It’s spacey, pretty, rich, and has a hidden sing-songy quality to it that they manage to keep hidden without ruining the appeal. But it doesn’t match up to the song. I don’t know whether it’s faster than the demo, but it feels faster, and way too crowded. This is a song that demands quiet spaces for reflection, and here Eddie (who sounds good here, even though this song showcases him less than almost any other song on Backspacer) is struggling to think over the noise and the clatter. It makes some sense as an approximation for the subdued and reluctant alienation in the lyrics—the purpose behind the speed of sound lyric is not to necessarily convey speed (as a fast song might) but a lack of focus—unable to get perspective because everything around you is out of focus, a blur. The music pulls that off, although it’s probably too pretty for the subject matter. But still, had I not heard the demo I suppose I’d be satisfied with this. It would be imperfect, the same way that Unthought Known and Amongst the Waves are imperfect, but the song would make sense. However, the original presentation of Speed of Sound, reflections in a void rather than straining against a pleasant sensory overload, is so much more powerful that I cannot help but feel disappointed.

Speed of Sound ends the dip in Backspacer. You have a four song stretch of good ideas, vital to the arc of the record but imperfectly (or in some cases poorly) realized. It’s this block that keeps Backspacer out of the top tier of Pearl Jam records, but the album rallies magnificently for the final stretch of songs and the strongest finish to a Pearl Jam record since Vitalogy, and arguably of any of their albums.

Force of Nature

Force of Nature is a necessary counterpoint to Speed of Sound. If Speed of Sound is a cautionary tale, a warning to slow down and make your peace with the world, Force of Nature is a celebration of a stubborn, unwavering faith that things can change, that if we hold fast to what we believe in we’ll be rewarded with a better world. In some respects these two songs are at odds with each other, but both perspectives are needed (an acceptance of the way things are and a faith that they will get better) for a healthy, meaningful existence. It is really on Backspacer where we finally get this fusion, and Force of Nature is probably the high point of the album precisely because this song embodies the weathered optimism that is always at the core of Pearl Jam’s best music. While I think Pearl Jam intended for The Fixer, Unthought Known, and Amongst the Waves to really be the core of the record it is actually Force of Nature (filtered through the context of the rest of the record) that best captures the emancipatory heart of the record.

Musically this is a deceptively simple song. The main riff is not overly complicated or particularly dramatic, but it is remarkably evocative. The entirety of Force of Nature sounds like a person standing on a widow’s walk or on a shoreline looking upon the horizon, battered and soaked by a storm, but unwilling to give in. You can hear the grim defiance and stubborn hope in the delivery and the music. This is the sound of refusal, of one person willing to stare down vast empty spaces without blinking, to lean into howling winds and perhaps bend, but never break. In this Force of Nature differs from songs like Insignificance or Deep. These are also stormy songs, but musically they focus on the destructive energy of the storm itself. These are songs that emphasis impact. This is a song about endurance, and endurance is not a particularly flashy emotion, and one that may be hard to appreciate until you get swept up into the song itself.

Musically part of me wants a bigger entrance than the song gets, something more explosive in the vein of Deep, but that might have made this song a little too dramatic, and there is an understated toughness to the main riff. It churns along, with the bass and drums pushing rather than propelling. They don’t give Force of Nature legs, but they give it a spine, while the main riff continues to doggedly put one foot in front of the other, and is clearly prepared to do so for as long as it takes. There’s almost something petulant about Mike’s primary counterpoint to the main riff, the sound of the put upon grimace we all have when we’re trapped in the rain and long to be dry, even though we know that it’ll be a long time before we are. It’s not an appealing part in itself, but it is a necessary component of the overall piece. The soundscape is less evocative without it.

Force of Nature is a headphones song. Most atmospheric songs are (and this is an atmospheric song, despite the conventional riff). There are a number of great flourishes throughout the mix that are buried a little deeper than I might preferred, but they’re striking when they fade in and out of your hearing, and it means that every time you hear the song you’re picking up something new (especially in the second verse). The brighter guitar parts pushing through the wind and rain right before the choruses are well done—rays of light peeking through a storm, moments of hope on a lonely vigil. They become more prominent with each chorus as the singer steels himself. Mike’s ‘leads’ in the bridge are great. They sound like flashes of lightning. The atmosphere in this song is terrific, especially because it is so subtle. And while some have called it cheesy, I think Mike’s outro is perfect, its bright chimes pushing through the murk, muted but no less diminished for it. It speaks of hope and optimism and new beginnings and the promises finally fulfilled. It’s simple, but so is the solo at the end of I am Mine, and both are powerful in their simplicity, managing to convey so much with so little.

This is a song about determination and defiance, but it’s also a song about faith, and it may be the finest song they’ve yet written about it. There is an anger to Faithful, and a certainty to it, that FoN lacks. The singer in Faithful has his anger to ground him, and his partner. He has what he needs, as long as he stays true to it (the love and the anger). It’s a love song, albeit a circuitous one. The singer in Force of Nature has nothing but promise. It celebrates refusing to give in when confronted by absence and uncertainty, of never wavering even when everything around you is hostile, when there are no guarantees of victory, when there are no small rewards or mile markers to let you know you’re on the right path. This is the essence of faith. It’s faith in love (and faith in each other) rather than a faith in God, but faith nevertheless. There are elements of Given To Fly to be found here too (which also, in its way, celebrates faith as refusal and defiance) but without the martyrdom. Both songs celebrate sacrifice, but Given to Fly transcends. Force of Nature endures, at least until Mikes outro lifts us out of the storm and carries us to our reward.

Eddie’s vocals capture the feel of the song perfectly. Eddie doesn’t lift us up, but he’s not supposed to. The waves crash down on us here. They don’t’ carry us away. He needs to be a rock. His voice needs to convey refusal (which is like defiance, but weathered and beaten down—unable to lash out but still unwilling to give in). He sounds like he’s been through a war, and he has, but there are notes of pride here too, honoring the fact that even though he’s still a long long way from home he is able to hold his head up and this is no small victory. His performance here is subtle, but very effective—the way his voice slightly lifts up for the ‘somewhere there’s a siren singing’, the way he finds comfort and inspiration in his memories and his faith; or the way he trails off coming out of the chorus, like he’s steeling himself for what he knows is still to come (he does the same thing in the pre chorus, the way he carefully drags out each word). I love how he delivers the ‘makes me ache, makes me shake, is it so wrong for us to think that love can keep us safe’—the slightly exacerbated way he questions an indifferent universe and then answers his own question since something has to respond to the silence (the nature of faith is that you’ll never get an answer and so you need to provide it yourself). These are subtle moments, but this is a subtle song, and they’re no less powerful for being understated, and Eddie deserves credit for turning his new vocal limits into strengths, for allowing craft to substitute for power.

Lyrically this is some of Eddie’s finest work in a long time. The central phrase ‘force of nature’ evokes something wild uncontrollable and eternal—something impossible to stand against, and it’s this impossibility that makes his vigil so moving, his refusal to back down in the face of something he cannot possibly hope to master. In this particular case the force of nature is love, and his determination to stand by and not give up on someone deeply flawed and deeply wounded. The songs imagery speaks of waits and vigils, but he’s not waiting for someone to love him back (this isn’t I Got Shit), but for someone to save themselves (and to let him in so he can help). It’s going to be a difficult journey, and the Alice In Wonderland allusion is effective. There’s no romance here. No grand adventure, no dream someone is just going to wake up from. This is long, hard, thankless work, with no guarantee of a happy ending (again faith)—the ‘no way to save someone who won’t take the rope and just lets go’ lyric gets to the heart of the problem. Do you abandon this person? Do you give up on someone or something that has made it manifestly clear that they do not (maybe even cannot) be saved, or do you stand by them?

The chorus and the remaining verses make clear that you stand by them, even in the face of the impossible demands this places upon you (the storm and shipwreck imagery), but they’ll never make it back if you’re not there to light their way. Someone has to be the beacon. Someone has to make sure the light doesn’t go out. Someone has to have faith. The first chorus captures this beautifully, and is addressed to the person who is lost. When you’re ready to come back, I’ll be here to show you the way.

The second chorus is even better, and one of my favorite lyrical moments in the catalog. This is addressed to an internal audience. He’s signing for himself. The siren’s song drives the listener mad, and his faith is mad. It defies reason. It cannot be explained. But it doesn’t have to be—he just needs to hear it, to hold onto it. He doesn’t need to justify his resolve. He just needs to maintain it. There are moments of doubt, and the crashing bridge witnesses his crisis of faith as he cries out to a cold and indifferent world. “Is it so wrong to think that love can keep us safe?” It’s a more profound question that it first appears, since there’s a lot at stake. Love is more than caring for another person. It is more than how you feel about someone else, or even yourself. Love is safety. Love is shelter against a storm, love is the baseline that makes all futures possible. Without it we have nothing but ourselves trapped in a hostile, disenchanted universe. Should we give up on it, even when love is little more than faith in the possibility of love, and when leaving ourselves open leaves ourselves incredibly vulnerable? Love is risk, after all. The world doesn’t answer (the world never does), and so he has to answer himself

There’s a brief lull in the music and the storm starts up again, but we see him still standing there. He refuses to move. His faith endures, and the outro rewards us with a happy ending, although we don’t know whether the object of his love heals and returns to him, or if the faith is its own reward. It’s a better ending that way.

The End

Since there’s no real narrative to Backspacer we can’t really say our journey ends with The End. It’s more appropriate to say that The End marks the conclusion of an exploration—an investigation into a state of mind. The whole record reflects the culmination of two decades of confrontation, reflection, retreat, and growth, and celebrates the hard won sense of peace, acceptance, commitment and meaning. Parts of Backspacer celebrate the immediacy of now, while others remind us that its sense of perfect freedom is somewhat meaningless in a vacuum—that without context (a sense of how the current moment is earned through past struggles), and without other people to share it with we cannot appreciate, take for granted, and are likely to lose, what we’ve worked so long and hard to achieve. Parts of Backspacer ask us to occasionally surrender to guilty pleasures, silly dreams, and an enchanted world, while other parts of the record remind us that anything worth having requires struggle, commitment, and sacrifice. While the record explores this moment in its totality, it is worth paying close attention to Backspacer’s final message. Pearl Jam chooses their final tracks very deliberately. They almost always encapsulate, if not the theme of the album, then the take away lesson they think is most important. These are not always the albums best song, but they are almost always among the most important. So what does The End ask us to take away from Backspacer?

Musically it is at once the simplest song on the record, and at the same time one of the most beautiful Pearl Jam has ever recorded, with a significant portion of its beauty deriving from its simplicity. Eddie has gotten really good at these graceful finger picking melodies. Unlike Guaranteed or Just Breathe, this one, for all the subtle movement, feels heavy, like it’s carrying the weight of history—but the weight is intimated. It’s implied, rather than forced upon us. It gives The End an understated quality that enables Eddie’s emotive performance (and the strings) to avoid descending into melodrama.

The orchestration does a wonderfully unobtrusive job filling the empty spaces in the song, providing the background images and coloration that makes The End feel like a life lived, not lived in. Each note evokes an image, reminds us of a moment, and encourages us to slide our own memory into that space, to make this the story of our life. There’s some urgency in the music, especially as the song peaks, but there is rarely sadness in the music itself. The bittersweet feel of the song comes from Eddie, not the music. The music is a quiet celebration of a life that, against long odds, found serenity and joy. It is the sound of salvation.

This is probably Eddie’s finest vocal performance on the record, and one of his best to date. It is also noteworthy that this is the case in spite of (or better, because of) the decline in the power of his voice. There’s vulnerability (‘I just want to hold on and know I’m worth your love’/’looking out from inside the bottom of a well’), defiance (‘slide on next to me’) , and empathy, like there’s always been, but it sounds lived in, rich with the quiet wisdom of experience, and the delicate vulnerability and subtle strength of age rather than the raw elemental power of his youth. I’m not sure there’s another Pearl Jam song where Eddie is as invested in every word as he is here. Eddie has always been good at sounding exposed, but there was usually a part of him that pushed back against that exposure—almost like it was involuntary. Here we have the sound of someone who, rather than fight it, hopes to open himself up to that exposure, and learn something from it. So what does he learn?

Lyrically The End is a well written enough, although the power of the song comes from the fusion of delivery, music, and history—the performance and the context—more than the actual words themselves. But, since this is a song, the performance matters, and Eddie makes this convincing.

As I said earlier, The End is not a sad song. At worst it is bittersweet. It is tinged with fear and regret, but it is the fear and regret that comes from finally winning something priceless and realizing that no matter what you do, and no matter how badly you want it, you’re going to lose it. Backspacer celebrates now, but now cannot last forever. Other songs explore how important it is to understand the struggles that led to this moment, so that we can preserve and recreate it. But The End implores us (as does, in its own way, Just Breathe) to recognize how fragile and fleeting this moment is, and so we need to embrace it while we can.

There is a slightly haunted quality to The End, but it approaches this emotion from a different direction than usual. The first few verses (really the entire song) are self-recrimination (what happened to our dreams and plans, what happened to the promises I made, why haven’t I lived up to the expectations I had for myself, why haven’t I been the person for you I always wanted to be— ‘believe I’m better than this’) but the guilt comes from his inability (he blames himself, but it’s not a failure) to fully embrace and experience the gifts of love and a life worth living—he’s not haunted by what he lacks, but by the fact that no matter what he does, no matter how much he commits, it’s simply impossible for him to ever drink it all in. There is a frustrated quality to Eddie’s delivery—now that he finally has everything he ever wanted he’s almost overwhelmed by its power.

We’ve all speculated about whether the singer here is dying, whether this is about guilt due to cigarettes (is The End inspired by his little girl asking him to stop smoking?), and what have you, but I’m not so convinced that this is the case anymore. This isn’t a song about anything so concrete. It’s not about dying, it’s about the abstract fear of dying, of having to leave everything precious behind. It mourns the impossible finality of death and exit because, for the first time, there’s something too precious to contemplate losing that would be left behind. The sickness in his bones is an awareness of his own mortality. The ‘just a human being’ lyric points to his own (unjustifiable, but no less powerful for being unjustifiable) guilt at not being able to live forever, not being able to be there forever for the people at the center of his existence. Pearl Jam’s music has always clinged to the possibility of love as the one light that could stand against the darkness of the world. Now he has it, and he’s grateful for it, but with it comes a whole new set of fears and regrets—the terror of losing it, and the remorse of not fully taking advantage of it. It gets almost frantic towards the end, as he imagines it all growing distant and slipping away—in Speed of Sound there was always the possibility of slowing down, of a distant light drawing nearer. But what happens when the light starts to dim and you know it is for the last time?

Someday, at the end of a long life, there may be such a thing as enough. We are all going to reach the point where we look to the past, rather than the future, for comfort. At that time our thinking may change, but at this point in time there’s no way to answer Eddie’s fears. There’s no comfort to be had. And so there’s a part of us that needs to not think about it. The fear of loss can paralyze us as surely as can the absence of anything worth losing, and we need to surrender to now to avoid being frozen by everything we will never experience and never know. But at the same time we need to make space for this fear, we need to hold onto the enormity of what we have to lose, so that we never take it for granted. We need those reminders sometimes, that even a dark world is full of impossibly precious things. I think that’s the real meaning behind the gasp at the climax of the song—the shock of how much has been given, and how little time we have for it. We need to make time for the past and clear space for the future, but the end draws near, and now is all we have. We had better make the most of it. Backspacer celebrates our being given the chance to do so.

So many tournaments, so little time

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