Pearl Jam hit bigger than big with its debut album, 1991's "Ten." Since then, the Seattle quintet has been trying to prove that it's the band of its generation that matters most.
Instead, it ended up proving itself to be the only one from its immediate milieu that mattered at all.
Pearl Jam's ninth studio album, "Backspacer" -- out Sunday (initially, only at iTunes and Target stores) arrives at a time when cries heralding "the death of the album" have become old hat; when most of the bands from the class of '91 have lost members to drug-induced death, broken up, or become meaningless nostalgia acts; and when a general cynicism toward a band insistent on sticking around long past its industry-dictated sell-by date is rampant.
Into this mess comes an album stuffed with lyrical themes revolving around vigilant, willful optimism and hard-won, battle-scarred idealism, and brimming with music that is so forcefully buoyant it belies the band members' median age of 45.
If you're wondering -- during a period of time when Lady GaGa is treated as a serious artist and Kanye West makes more headlines for acting like an idiot in public than he does for making music -- if rock can possibly still mean something on any mass level, the answer to your question can be found amid the life-affirming cacophony of "Backspacer."
At 37 minutes of mostly underproduced guitar rock, "Backspacer" might be written off by the casual observer or listless listener as a less-than-groundbreaking reaffirmation of the virtues of '70s-era rock. The sort that sounds good in arenas. These folks miss the point; "Backspacer" is not out to reinvent rock music. It is more of an existential statement than a musical one.
Singer Ed Vedder's lyrics offer optimism not so much as salvation, but as one possible choice among countless others. "Making the best of the flawed life you are given" doesn't come across as much of a grand statement on paper, but when it's married to melody and rhythm, and mirrored by the manner in which Pearl Jam makes the most of its own limitations as a musical entity -- well, then you've got the transformative power of rock music in action. Opening with the taut power-punk of the Vedder-penned "Gonna See My Friend," "Backspacer" is off to the races, its primary theme stated succinctly -- "I'm gonna tunnel through denial/I'm gonna shake this day/I wanna shake this day before I retire," Vedder proclaims in a breathless rush -- before a minute has passed.
"Got Some" is another punch to the face, a simple insistence on the ability of music to frame and give meaning to moments. Both songs are exultant, celebratory, made-for-cranking-up-in-the-car rockers, and they lay an appropriate base for the pure bliss that is "The Fixer," "Backspacer's" most pop-friendly piece, and one of Vedder's more confessional lyrics.
The centerpiece of "Backspacer," though, is Vedder's "Just Breathe," a transcendent bit of chamber-folk redolent of the airy vistas the man explored for his soundtrack to the film "Into the Wild."
Interestingly, "Backspacer" doesn't crest the hill at midpoint. Instead, it keeps climbing -- "Amongst the Waves" is a sparse, refined update of the yearning-infused anthem "Given To Fly." "Unthought Unknown" carries on the work begun by the last Pearl Jam album's gorgeous "Parachutes," and simultaneously refrains the glorious simplicity of "Yield's" "Wishlist."
"Backspacer," like the narrator in "The Fixer," just doesn't let up. It bars darkness from the door, though it knows full well that darkness is out there. It's a noble work by a band that continues to matter.
Review: Four stars (out of four)