Backspacer presents two interesting perspectives on the state of Pearl Jam.The first is immediately apparent as soon as the music starts; these guys are rocking as hard, if not harder, than they have in a very long time. The first 3 songs jettison you 9 minutes into the 37 minute disc and leave you breathless. Guitar, bass, drums and Mr. Vedder go at it with jet propulsion intensity. Pearl Jam is still capable of making combustible music.

The second thing that pops out is an underlying theme that winds through the lyrics. “I wanna shake this pain before I retire” is the 4th line of the first song, “Gonna See My Friend.” Eddie Vedder and company have been contemplating endings, of work, of fame, of life. Middle age has a way of refocusing priorities and encouraging self-examination. The disc’s art work features a childhood picture of each band member. Does this suggest that getting back to basic – backspacing - is the best indicator as to forward motion?

The members of Pearl Jam are in great spirits despite these weighty themes. Over the past several decades Vedder’s songs were often opportunities for political venting. Vedder appears to have found some relief on that front. Now his focus falls squarely on relationships, including the one we have with ourselves. On “Among the Waves” Vedder writes, “ Riding high above the waves/I can feel like I/Have a soul that has been saved/I can feel like I/Put away my early grave. Survival and redemption are topics Vedder revisits throughout the 11 songs.

The band’s playing is as sharp as ever, maybe better. The arrangements offer depth and variety. As for Eddie Vedder, he belts out the rockers with ease and, yet, his ballads reveal a delicate balance between nuance and strength I haven’t heard from him before, particularly on “Just Breathe.” Backspacer wraps up with a serious ballad, appropriately entitled “The End.” It’s a stunning acoustic ballad about death, told from the perspective of a man preparing himself and his family for his imminent demise. It’s a yearning, sad acknowledgement that life is short and sweet, and in that statement there is more optimism than doom. Pearl Jam, in backspacing, find the joy in moving toward the future.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix Host)