It’s with equal parts anticipation and trepidation that some longtime Pearl Jam fans (myself included) react to the announcement of new material, a symptom of the band’s recent releases ranging from mildly to depressingly disappointing.

It’s pretty much a given that the band will never live up to the high standard they set for themselves with their extraordinary first trio of albums in the early 1990s, but there are moments on “Backspacer” their ninth studio album, on which they nearly do.

Artist: Pearl Jam
Title: Backspacer
Label: UMG
Release Date: September 20, 2009
★★★½

“Got Some” for instance, which the band debuted on Conan O’Brien’s first show back in June, harkens back to the hard-hitting “Vs.” era, while first single “The Fixer” could blend seamlessly with the band’s 15-year-old album “Vitalogy.” Other tracks like “Supersonic” prove that guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard still have what it takes to make their instruments wail like no other.

It’s a rock clichƒ©, but Pearl Jam sounds older and wiser on its latest effort, out Sept. 20. (They’re also apparently no longer concerned with avoiding the “sellout” tag, having partnered with Target as the only big-box retailer that will sell “Backspacer” in the U.S., where it is being released without the help of a record label.)

Nothing conveys bittersweet nostalgia better than singer Eddie Vedder’s immediately identifiable strained baritone. He pours the weight of the band’s nearly 20-year career into the contemplative album closer “The End” incorporating strings for a heightened effect. And the gorgeous, goosebump-inducing acoustic ballad “Just Breathe” finds the 44-year-old re-treading the musical territory he covered on his solo soundtrack to “Into the Wild” singing, “I’m a lucky man to count on both hands the ones I love / Some folks just have one, yeah, others they’ve got none.”

“Backspacer” is not without its weak spots. Leadoff track “Gonna See My Friend” reveals the band to be re-energized, but feels a bit lazy as it progresses, and “Amongst the Waves” causes the album to lag a bit in the middle. But overall, it’s the band’s strongest material of this decade. Credit for that might be due in part to one-time go-to producer Brendan O’Brien, who reunited with the band on “Backspacer” for the first time since 1998’s “Yield.”

On “The Fixer” Vedder croons, “When something’s lost, I wanna fight to get back again.” He might be referring to Pearl Jam’s chutzpah “" in which case, mission accomplished.

About The Author

Elizabeth Raftery is senior editor of Blast. Follow her on Twitter.

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