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. Ironically, by looking within the music opens up, as the group isn't fighting against the dying light but embracing how this most classicist of alt-rock bands is an anachronism in 2009. Of course, Pearl Jam were an anachronism even back in 1992, worshiping the Who instead of the Stooges, but this odd out-of-phase devotion to the ideals of post-hippie, pre-punk rock is better suited to bandmembers in their forties than in their twenties; fashion has passed them by several times over, leaving Pearl Jam just to be who they are, comfortable in their weathering skin. Pearl Jam battled their success for so long, intent on whittling their audience down to the devout, that it often felt like a chore to keep pace with the band because no matter the merit of the records, they always felt like heavy lifting, but that's no longer the case: here, as on the self-titled 2006 album, it sounds as if they enjoy being in a band, intoxicated by the noise they make. This means, all things considered, Backspacer is a party record for Pearl Jam -- a party that might consist of nothing but philosophical debates till the wee hours, but a party nonetheless -- and if 18 years is a long, long wait for a band to finally throw a party, it's also true that, prior to Backspacer, Pearl Jam wouldn't or couldn't have made music this unfettered, unapologetically assured, casual, and, yes, fun.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine