(Note: This essay was originally written in 2009 and appears in the 2017 anthology book Pop Life.)
Pearl Jam’s newest album, Backspacer, has been released this week. I waited until today to get the vinyl LP version, where the cover design truly shines. Tom Tomorrow’s surreal pop collage design perfectly evokes the spirit of Vitalogy and No Code, and that’s where the heart of the music lies.
Back in 1991, I owned only two CD albums: Van Halen’s live album, Right Here, Right Now, and Pearl Jam’s debut Ten. I’ve been a devoted fan ever since the beginning, and Pearl Jam has always been the greatest rock band of my generation. Yes, even more than Saint Cobain, but had he lived, everything would have been different. You see, it’s really Cobain’s fault that Eddie Vedder hurled his band into the wilderness for a decade. Had April 8, 1994 passed by without incident, the incendiary and masterful Vitalogy–Pearl Jam’s true masterpiece–would never have happened. It certainly would have been a very different beast, and maybe Vedder and crew would have continued their uneasy alliance with rock stardom. It’s impossible to say, really. That direction points towards an alternate universe.
Saint Cobain took one last fix, pulled the trigger, and we have felt the shock waves ever since. Pearl Jam rebelled with shock and horror, then escaped into the wilderness. I still remember how truly shocking No Code sounded in 1996, the band’s first major work since the tragedy. It took me several years to finally accept it on its own terms. A masterful collection of songs, true. There’s brilliance in its confusion, brilliance, and sense of discovery. The kings renounced the throne and entered exile–now what do we do?! That question haunted their next three albums, Yield, Binaural, Riot Act. All three are uneven, confused, yet occasionally brilliant.
Perhaps this is a challenge only time can solve. Wait for middle age to settle in. Wait for the musical tides to roll everything away once or twice. Of course, their 2006 album had to be simply called Pearl Jam. Like that other great mid-career eponymous album, Metallica, the Great Rock Band of My Generation renewed and rediscovered itself. Pearl Jam finally came back home. When you reach a certain age, you truly love and appreciate the miraculous power in these comebacks. Most of your youthful idols have withered away, grown fat or lazy, drifted away into “respectable work” or died. When you’re old enough to say you’ve outlived your best friends, everything changes.
That’s why Pearl Jam’s 2006 “Blue Avocado” album is so powerful. That, and the fact that it totally kicks. It’s a spectacular rock album by any stretch, and it’s the kind that seasoned veterans must conjure to prove to the kids who’s really in charge. Have I mentioned how much this album kicks? Hoo boy, three years later and Pearl Jam 2006 has never sounded better. It’s intense, angry, emotive, and fiercely passionate. It’s such a rush to hear Eddie Vedder sing with his mouth open again, no longer mumbling within the shadows of his early greatness.
On my best days, I’ll argue that Pearl Jam 2006 is the band’s greatest album, or certainly deserving to sit alongside the first three, which were deified into a Grunge Era Holy Trinity long, long ago. That first album, Ten, is simply untouchable, and there simply won’t ever be another rock album that topples it from the minds of Generation X. That’s just the way these things roll. But I always thought Vitalogy was better, and I think Pearl Jam 2006 rivals it in its best moments.
Which brings us to the end of this lost decade, a decade when America was gang raped by criminal vampires who now howl about the black man named Obama who usurped their unholy throne. This was the decade when the music business we once knew died, murdered by their own short-sighted greed and a computer revolution quietly initiated by ’60s computer nerds. This was the decade when turntables became fashionable again. Remember when Pearl Jam released Vitalogy on vinyl two weeks before the CD? That was an act of anarchic rebellion, wasn’t it? What the heck happened to the “aughts” decade in the new century? Where did history become all bent, skewered?
I’m rambling, excuse me. So what does any of this have to do with the brand-new Pearl Jam album, Backspacer? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. Other than this is a smashing fantastic album by the Great Rock Band of My Generation. Eddie Vedder once feared that he’d meet the same end as Saint Cobain. Now he’s lived long enough to bury all the Nirvana Wannabes, all the poseurs, all the fakers. He’s lived long enough to bury the music industry itself. Buy the black t-shirt at your nearby Target and download the songs to your iPod. Or pick up the vinyl LP and really mess with your parents.
The moral of this story: Just get Backspacer, already. Get with the program.