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Pearl Jam’s ‘Backspacer’ is short and sharp

Pearl Jam’s “Backspacer,’’ out tomorrow, is the first album the band has self-released. Pearl Jam’s “Backspacer,’’ out tomorrow, is the first album the band has self-released. (Paul Drinkwater/Nbc via Ap)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / September 19, 2009

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The skeptics can take a deep breath and exhale. Early buzz on Pearl Jam’s new album, courtesy of an interview lead guitarist Mike McCready gave this summer, was that “Backspacer’’ had pop and new-wave accents. No doubt visions of Eddie Vedder with a Flock of Seagulls haircut began haunting the dreams of Pearl Jam diehards.

Turns out those new-wave flourishes are . . . well, pretty much undetectable on “Backspacer,’’ the band’s ninth studio album and one of its most cohesive and satisfying in terms of brevity, crisp production, and a sharp focus.

Bucking the usual Tuesday release day, the record is out tomorrow on Monkeywrench, the band’s own label, marking the first time Pearl Jam has self-released an album after nearly 20 years on major labels. The band also partnered with Target, which will be the exclusive big-box retailer to carry “Backspacer’’ in the United States, in addition to independent stores, iTunes, and the band’s website (www.pearljam.com).

But even with limited distribution, “Backspacer’’ stands to do big business, as much for its high quality as the music’s accessibility. Long removed from its ’90s-grunge roots, Pearl Jam has grown into a straight-ahead rock outfit, especially on its last two albums, 2002’s “Riot Act’’ and 2006’s self-titled release.

“Backspacer’’ picks up where “Pearl Jam’’ left off, but the new album is notable for its dexterity and conciseness. It’s too early to tell if this terser direction marks a sea change for Pearl Jam, but for “Backspacer’’ at least, it puts a welcome spotlight on one of the group’s overlooked assets: Vedder’s songwriting. And the arrangements pack as much punch to the gut as the subjects he’s exploring.

With George W. Bush out of office, Vedder’s politics aren’t prominent on “Backspacer.’’ Instead, he writes from a more introspective angle, zooming in on loneliness with “Speed of Sound,’’ and addiction with “Gonna See My Friend.’’

Perhaps because it’s so brisk - 11 songs in 37 minutes - the record has an easy charm that extends to Vedder’s vocals and the nimble guitarwork by McCready and Stone Gossard.

Brendan O’Brien, who last worked with the band on 1998’s “Yield,’’ has brought a streamlined sonic palette that keeps the rockers (“The Fixer,’’ “Got Some’’) heavy and taut, the slower songs (“Speed of Sound’’) spare and affecting.

“Just Breathe,’’ an acoustic lament with a simple finger-picked delicacy, sounds like a hybrid of Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind’’ and the Beatles’ “Blackbird,’’ but it’s much better than that description suggests.

Vedder, not known for his nuanced vocals, turns in one of his most intimate performances on the closing “The End,’’ a guitar ballad that ebbs and flows with lush strings. He comes closer than ever to sounding like a bona fide singer-songwriter: “More than friends, I always pledge/ ’Cause friends they come and go/ People change, as does everything/ I wanted to grow old/ I just want to grow old.’’

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.