Album: Pearl Jam, Backspacer (Universal)

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The Independent Culture

Commercially, Pearl Jam have followed a fairly steady downward trajectory since the huge success of Ten in 1991, a momentum the band has attempted to arrest by re-positioning itself as the Grateful Dead of Grunge and issuing "official" bootleg recordings of virtually every concert it's played since 2000 – some stretching to double- and triple-album length.

At a reported 3.5 million units, these aggregate bootleg sales may even outstrip those of their studio albums, which is why so much importance is being placed on Backspacer, their debut for Universal. And, to give the band its due, it's more spirited and less mawkish than their earlier releases: "Gonna See My Friend" leaps out of the traps with vigour, a surprisingly animated attempt to escape anomie, while, on "Amongst The Waves", Eddie Vedder celebrates escaping the ultimate fate of youthful self-pity. Elsewhere, "Supersonic" recalls the proto-punk pop of Eddie & the Hot Rods, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson, the original Gangster of Love, becomes a touchstone icon of envied sexual prowess in "Johnny Guitar". But it's a pair of matching acoustic ballads, "Just Breathe" and "The End", which are the most impressive pieces here, touching reflections on blessings counted and deathbed regrets respectively. But plenty of Backspacer sounds worryingly similar to Guns N'Roses: heavy plodding with attitude.

Download this: Just Breathe, The End, Gonna See My Friend, Supersonic