This may be a little hard to believe, but Pearl Jam — the most popular rock band of the ’90s — actually had a very impressive second decade, turning in four quality albums in the new century’s first ten years of existence, despite the fact that they had whittled their fan base down to just the hardcore by the end of the ’90s. But let me back up and give you the proper context: Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut, Ten, was a monster hit, and was produced by Rick Parashar, who also produced the Temple of the Dog album released earlier that year. Pearl Jam then switched to producer Brendan O’Brien for their next four albums: Vs. (1993), Vitalogy (1994), No Code (1996) and Yield (1998). Perhaps feeling that it was time to introduce some new creative energy into the mix, Pearl Jam went way out into left field for their next album, Binaural, which utilized binaural recording techniques. (Hence the title.)
When Binaural was released in 2000, Pearl Jam had fallen off the pop culture map. The generation-defining grunge phenomenon had been swept aside in favor of the clumsy nü metal of Korn and Limp Bizkit, which was embraced by those who were too young to really identify with the ideals of Generation X. Getting swept aside proved to be the perfect cure for Pearl Jam’s chronic (self-diagnosed) problem throughout the ’90s: namely, that they were more famous than they wanted to be. By 2000, they were no longer under the global microscope, and they responded accordingly by releasing an album that they knew would attract little to no attention in the mainstream — and it didn’t. 2002‘s Riot Act was similarly solid, but sold even worse. Both albums received gold certifications from the RIAA, but were heard — let alone embraced — by few outside of the band’s rabid fan base.
Riot Act peaked at number five on the Billboard 200; ten years earlier it would have been unthinkable for a Pearl Jam album to perform so poorly (relatively speaking) commercially. Though Brendan O’Brien didn’t produce either album, he still remained close to the band, and handled the mixing duties. In fact, Pearl Jam’s 2006 follow-up was something of a rebirth — having concluded their contract with Epic, they released a self-titled album through J Records without any input from O’Brien at all. The result was another solid album, one that found Pearl Jam growing increasingly comfortable — even happy and content — with their new role as elder statesmen. Make no mistake, this was a brand new sentiment on a Pearl Jam album — throughout their career, the band was anything but comfortable.
Most of the band’s hysterical popularity landed squarely on frontman Eddie Vedder, who was shy and sensitive to begin with and responded to fame by turning inward — in plain sight. This resulted in some particularly fascinating experiments, such as the Vitalogy album, as well as some disastrously misguided ones, too, like the infamous Vitalogy Tour that was plagued by logistical issues as a result of the band’s much-publicized Ticketmaster boycott. Fast forward to 2009‘s Backspacer, and Vedder and co. sound completely at ease; in fact, Backspacer is downright extraverted. At first, it’s almost alarming to hear the band so relaxed — a result of O’Brien’s presence in the producer’s chair for the first time in over a decade, no doubt — since the songs have a more immediate feel and don’t stretch out like previous epics, but the album continues to resonate after many listens thanks in no small part to its concise length and light touch.
Furthermore, Backspacer was released independently on Pearl Jam’s own Monkeywrench Records label, and was the band’s first number one album since 1996’s No Code. Granted, overall album sales had fallen drastically by the end of the ’00s, but it was still a nice victory. Bolstered by the most prominent lead single in years in “The Fixer,” Pearl Jam was officially back in the American pop culture consciousness with its most compulsively listenable album since 1993’s Vs. Granted, the album is short, clocking in at under 37 minutes, but it feels like much less. I can’t tell you how many times I have started this one up only to discover that the whole thing was over. As pure enjoyment goes, it’s hard to find a better modern rock album to pass the time with than this one.
With Backspacer, Pearl Jam’s career arc became much clearer: after finding themselves in the eye of a hurricane early in their career, they were displaced, forced to chart a new course amidst stormy waters. Like Odysseus, they have had a lot of stops along the way, but at last have found their way home. The Ticketmaster fiasco is over; the revolving door of drummers has abated since former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron came on board over a decade ago now; they are recording on their own label; and they are working with their old producer again. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that Backspacer was embraced with open arms and that its follow-up, 2013‘s Lightning Bolt (also produced by O’Brien) debuted at number one, as well. Interestingly, neither album sounds anything like the grunge trio of Ten, Vs., and Vitalogy — both are straight-ahead alternative rock.
Back in the ’90s, Pearl Jam overreacted to their success by becoming a “message band” — they were desperate to prove they weren’t a bunch of sellouts and overcompensated, to say the least — and consequently found themselves lost in the wilderness. Their Seattle peers were no longer functioning units and pop culture had passed them by — the late ’90s was a very, very different musical landscape than the early ’90s. The mainstream didn’t exactly care about what Pearl Jam had to say when they were the center of attention — look no further than the fact that no one else joined Pearl Jam’s Ticketmaster boycott — and it wasn’t surprising that Riot Act, one of their most political albums, had the worst peak chart position of their entire studio discography, even though it had an excellent lead single in “I Am Mine.”
It wasn’t until the band stopped self-consciously flailing about and became comfortable with who they are that things started to fall back into place. On Lightning Bolt, that band shows some clear signs of journeymen settling into inevitable middle age, but Backspacer still carries plenty of that youthful spirit from nearly two decades earlier. Whether it’s the last time we will ever get to hear it on one of their studio records remains to be seen, but with Backspacer the former most popular band in the land received a long, long overdue homecoming celebration — and they delivered the perfect album to play during the party.