- The Washington Times - Friday, September 18, 2009

Pearl Jam

Backspacer

Monkeywrench

For once in his life, Eddie Vedder seems basically happy. That’s good news for Mr. Vedder, but it’s bad news for the rest of us.

On “Backspacer,” the ninth studio record from Mr. Vedder’s legendary grunge outfit, Pearl Jam, the singer ditches the belligerence of his previous records and, instead, channels the easy comforts of being a rock superstar. These days, he doesn’t have a care in the world, which may explain why the record sounds so saccharine and careless.

That’s quite a change for the singer and the band. As Pearl Jam’s longtime frontman, Mr. Vedder helped set the tone for early ‘90s radio rock.

One of the keys to the appeal of the band’s especially warbly brand of Seattle grunge was that, like the legions of angst-ridden teens who adopted it as the soundtrack to their lives, it wore its heart on its dirty flannel sleeves: It was passionate, angry, gloomy and aggravated by everything about the world.

Part of it was personality, part of it was politics. With Mr. Vedder, the two sometimes were inseparable. Along with his campaigns against MTV and Ticketmaster, the singer’s outspoken advocacy of legalized abortion and, later, his opposition to President Bush earned him a reputation as an irritable alt-rock firecracker.

Now, though, Mr. Vedder claims he has calmed down and warmed up, thanks in part to the election of President Obama. These days, he says, it’s easier to be hopeful.

“Backspacer” starts strong with a string of serviceable up-tempo rockers. None matches the wildness of the band’s best work, but “Gonna See My Friend,” the opener, and “The Fixer” both have pleasantly catchy, if thoroughly generic, pop hooks and punchy riffs to keep them going.

After the upbeat openers, the album quickly loses energy. Despite needlessly slick production from Brendan O’Brien, many of the songs nevertheless feel underdeveloped.

“Johnny Guitar,” for example, is so simple it feels more like a demo than an album-ready track. “Amongst the Waves” aims for a soaring, epic sweep, but instead, it’s obvious and derivative - like a terrifying mix of U2 and Celine Dion.

Still, the most notable influence on the album clearly is Bruce Springsteen - another artist whose work has been shaped by Mr. O’Brien’s production. Unfortunately, the comparison isn’t flattering: On “Backspacer,” Pearl Jam often comes off as a listless, maudlin retread of the Boss.

“Speed of Sound” feels tailor-made for the “finding yourself” moment of an ‘80s teen drama, and “The End,” the record’s finger-picked closer, is embarrassingly sappy, as touchy-feely as a session with a New Age guidance counselor.

“Supersonic” is at least peppy and ignorable - that is, until the thoroughly embarrassing breakdown, which aims for funky cool but ends up cringe-worthy.

Grunge’s virtue was always its angst and emotion. It might have been overly aggressive at times, but one thing it wasn’t was sentimental. These days, Mr. Vedder’s still very much in touch with his feelings, but he’s as sloppy at expressing hope as he was skilled at lashing out.

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