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)