Pearl Jam made peace with their hard rock past on their eponymous eighth album, but its 2009 sequel, Backspacer, is where the group really gets back to basics, bringing in old cohort Brendan O'Brien to produce for the first time since 1998's Yield. To a certain extent, the band has reached the point in its career where every move, every cranked amp, every short tough song is heralded as a return to form – call it the Stones syndrome – and so it is with Backspacer, whose meaty riffs have no less vigor than those of Pearl Jam; they're just channeled into a brighter, cheerier package. Despite this lighter spirit, Pearl Jam remain the antithesis of lighthearted good-time rock & roll – they're convinced rock & roll is a calling, not a diversion – but there's a tonal shift from the clenched anger that's marked their music of the new millennium, a transition from the global toward the personal.
Nearly 15 years after Ten, Pearl Jam finally returned to the strengths of their debut with 2006's Pearl Jam, a sharply focused set of impassioned hard rock. Gone are the arty detours (some call them affectations) that alternately cluttered and enhanced their albums from 1993's sophomore effort, Vs., all the way to 2002's Riot Act, and what's left behind is nothing but the basics: muscular, mildly meandering rock & roll, enlivened by Eddie Vedder's bracing sincerity. Pearl Jam has never sounded as hard or direct as they do here – even on Ten there was an elasticity to the music, due in large part to Jeff Ament's winding fretless bass, that kept the record from sounding like a direct hit to the gut, which Pearl Jam certainly does. Nowhere does it sound more forceful than it does in its first half, when the tightly controlled rockers "Life Wasted," "World Wide Suicide," "Comatose," "Severed Hand," and "Marker in the Sand" pile up on top of each other, giving the record a genuine feeling of urgency. (AMG)
A strange phenomenon with anthemic hard rock bands is that when they begin to mature and branch out into new musical genres, they nearly always choose to embrace both the music and spirituality of the East and India, and Pearl Jam is no exception. Throughout No Code, Eddie Vedder expounds on his moral and spiritual dilemmas; where on previous albums his rage was virtually all-consuming, it is clear on No Code that he has embraced an unspecified religion as a way to ease his troubles. Fortunately, that has coincided with an expansion of the group's musical palette. From the subtle, winding opener, "Sometimes," and the near-prayer of the single, "Who You Are," the band reaches into new territory, working with droning, mantra-like riffs and vocals, layered exotic percussion, and a newfound subtlety. Of course, they haven't left behind hard rock, but like any Pearl Jam record, the heart of No Code doesn't lie in the harder songs, it lies in the slower numbers and the ballads, which give Vedder the best platform for his soul-searching: "Present Tense," "Off He Goes," "In My Tree," and "Around the Bend" equal the group's earlier masterpieces.
Seventy-one minutes of live Pearl Jam plus an unreleased song? It's aural nirvana for fans of the reclusive, integrity-driven Seattle quintet. Pearl Jam are nothing if not passionate and unabashedly rocking, and this 16-track offering, recorded during their Yield tour, illustrates why the mumbly voiced rock deity and his band of merry men inspire such ardor in their followers. Eddie Vedder's emotive vocals, Mike McCready and Stone Gossard's raw and raging fretwork and edgy, catchy, whisper-to-a-scream dynamics are deftly and inspiringly captured. Though a few staples (including "Jeremy") are missing, songs running the gamut of the band's seven-year career–from "Corduroy" to "Nothingman" to the Neil Young-penned "F*ckin' Up"–more than make up for any exclusions. The breadth and scope found on Live on Two Legs (a take on the Queen song, "Death on Two Legs"?) proves the once über-"alternative" Pearl Jam have struck a loud chord in the mainstream…and that's not a bad thing.
Thanks to its stripped-down, lean production, Vitalogy stands as Pearl Jam's most original and uncompromising album. While it isn't a concept album, Vitalogy sounds like one. Death and despair shroud the album, rendering even the explosive celebration of vinyl "Spin the Black Circle" somewhat muted. But that black cloud works to Pearl Jam's advantage, injecting a nervous tension to brittle rockers like "Last Exit" and "Not for You," and especially introspective ballads like "Corduroy" and "Better Man." In between the straight rock numbers and the searching slow songs, Pearl Jam contribute their strangest music – the mantrafunk of "Aye Davanita," the sub-Tom Waits accordion romp of "Bugs," and the chilling sonic collage "Hey Foxymophandlemama, That's Me." Pearl Jam are at their best when they're fighting, whether it's Ticketmaster, fame, or their own personal demons.