Pearl Jam were never remotely indie, let alone grunge. Sony did an unbelievably clever job of repackaging and promoting their debut album Ten, which languished on record store shelves for months before Nirvana made Seattle and flannel royalty points gold, to make it seem like PJ were reconnecting the Pacific Northwest sound back to classic rock. In fact they were doing no such thing; Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard had done the grunge/Melvins thing to little financial reward with Green River and were overjoyed to now be in a band that liked guitar solos and had San Diego's biggest Roger Daltrey fan as a lead singer.
If PJ had formed a few years earlier, they would have signed to a major and made good records in the 70's album-rock mode while making a decent if not superstar living on the road. In short, they would have been Eleventh Dream Day, not such a bad thing. In fact, in hindsight superstardom was the worst thing that could have happened to Pearl Jam, as they wasted most of what should have been their prime creative period picking fights they weren't prepared to win and filling their records with terrible experiments in an attempt to come across as more than they really were.
Whether it was the plan all along or not, Pearl Jam have now succeeded in whittling away their following to just the devoted cult of a long-lived indie band. Their last record marked their coming to terms with themselves as a very good band with a recognizable and still potent sound -- and absolutely no new ideas; they went ahead and self-titled it to make the point plain. For a lot of bands giving up on greatness would be a stupid decision, but Pearl Jam at their absolute best was never more than a B/B+ kind of band. Rather than leaning in on each other and contorting to the ideas of a sequence of misguided producers, they've gotten back with Backspacer to writing songs separately and using the sympathetic Brendan O'Brien to make them sound more like they always sounded than ever.
And gee whiz, it's their best record in thirteen years. Backspacer breaks no huge new ground, but it's a dual salute to the band's last two really good albums, and since it's the first fully successful recording they've made with their best-ever drummer, it might be their best one altogether. The last two really engaging PJ records were No Code (where the band practically broke it down into Ummagumma-like solo showcases) and Yield (where they rocked it out for their greatest album side ever, than coasted to a solid three-star finish). Backspacer is like all of the Pearl Jam records ever in that the first half is all rockers and the second half is slower, but not since No Code (and for only really Code and Vs. in their whole catalog) has the second side been stronger than the first.
It's their shortest-ever record, which is fine; jamming out and elongating material was never Pearl Jam's strong suit. In fact the tightened-up arrangements emphasize the loose theme, which is a way less confident, milquetoast Pearl Jam version of Sgt. Pepper or The Who Sell Out where the band separates all of its influences out into separate strands and does a bit of a jukebox hits record. Of course Eddie Vedder's voice is too singular, and the band's playing too worn into established grooves, for them to really sound like anything besides Pearl Jam at this point. What it is, however, is their least self-conscious record by miles; No Code had a similar mixture of distinctly different songs but linked with a very ponderous journey-of-self-discovery theme.
The same elements that always made Pearl Jam comforting, if not innovating, remain: Mike McCready's just-enough-inverted Hendrix and Gilmour licks, Jeff Ament's touches of garage and psychedelic, Stone Gossard's surf riffs. Given a lovely, clear space in the mix by O'Brien is Matt Cameron, who takes on the task of linking all the material together with a consistent drum sound and nails it; he's really the star of the album. What makes the workmanlike quality of Pearl Jam's instrumental section sound particularly bright on Backspacer is the uncommonly light touch here of Vedder, a singer and lyricist who normally makes things sound about ten times heavier than they really are (like the gravity on Jupiter). He sings the other members' lyrics here, something he only consents to do about once a decade, and his own songs are his lightest in ever: "Just Breathe" is a "Wishlist"-y love ballad (is that Mellotron, or recorders, or both?) but aren't the lyrics about Eddie's bandmates and not his girl? "I'm a lucky man, to count on both hands the ones I love.... Did I say that I need you? If I didn't, I'm a fool. No one know this more than me."