I hesitate to say that the new PEARL JAM is a return to form. It's really not fair to compare their most recent work with the first couple of records because those albums, "Ten" in particular, were touchstone musical moments. When a band crosses over beyond just the appeal of a fan base to something that is more mass then the weight of expectations often overwhelm the band. They may continue to write, record and release music but it will always pale in comparison to that seminal work of their initial recordings. This is different than a one hit wonder or a single album that sells well, this is the expectation that comes with music that has entered the shared consciousness as a common thread of youth. Like "Sgt. Pepper's", "Nevermind" or "Led Zeppelin IV". "Ten" holds that sort of place. The songs speak to a given time period and place for many of my generation. Anything after that will be a let down and it's not really fair to compare them.
But of course we will compare them. Pearl Jam's recoiling from stardom into a shell of just a band making music was in many ways refreshing. It would have been easy for Eddie Vedder to become a global star and part of the machine (which would have most likely killed the band). Vedder was a star on his own terms, trying to reconcile his fame with who he was (ultimately the same fight Kurt Cobain fought and lost). It has reached the point where Pearl Jam now justs put out a record ever couple of years, then tours, then disappears again. The fact that they do not feel the need to live in the constant spotlight says something about why they make music. I honestly believe they don't care if people buy their albums and for those that do they are appreciative. Being a Pearl Jam fan means loving them for their music, without pretension.
So here we are with "Backspacer". Any run of the mill band releasing this would be heralded for their songwriting acumen and lyrical prowess. With Pearl Jam, it arrives with little to no fanfare. It is certainly the friskiest we have heard them in awhile. The last record had all the press of a "comeback" album that it failed to connect. Here, the songs have a punch that hasn't been heard in awhile (it's as if they went back to their old Ramones records to remember what kickin' ass sounded like). Call it Pearl Jam's punk record if you will. "Got Some" could have been lifted from "Vitalology". "The Fixer" is a pop song played at warp speed, while "Just Breathe" is Vedder at his most sentimental. Then there is "Amongst the Waves". The song sounds like one would imagine surfing. A nice slow build, the anticipation of ride, then the soaring chorus. A truly remarkable bit of songwriting.
Vedder makes a calculated risk with his writing. He has assumed that his audience has followed him into middle age. Rather than pander to the youth with universal themes, he embarks on a voyage of discovery of middle age. He celebrates the joy of life and the maturity of adulthood while having his eyes firmly fixed on what lies ahead. This is not self-reflection, but the understanding of one's place that comes with moving on in life. These are themes that will not sell millions of records, but they are themes that his fans are feeling at their point in life.
I can usually tell where a record will fit in my personal life's playlist pretty quickly. Some records get a quick burst of airplay then disappear. Some build slowly over time till they find permanent home. Some come and go when the mood strikes me. While "Backspacer" is not on par with their first three records (and really very little is), I get the feeling it will be a key part of life for me for the next few years as my journey follows theirs to where ever we are all going...