"Just plain fun."
"Catchy as hell."
These are not adjectives often used to describe Pearl Jam, the 30 million-selling purveyor of angst-ridden guitar rock now approaching its 19th year of existence. And yet these are the words being used on blogs to describe "The Fixer," the first song from the Seattle rock band's ninth album, "Backspacer." A surging, '80s-style rocker written by drummer Matt Cameron, "The Fixer" debuts this week at No. 2 on Billboard's Rock Songs chart, an audience-based tally of all rock stations.
You can't blame Cameron, singer Eddie Vedder, bassist Jeff Ament or guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready for smiling wider than usual. President George W. Bush, who the band vilified in song and onstage for eight years, is gone. The group remains a huge touring draw and A-list festival headliner, having grossed nearly $42 million from 51 shows reported to Billboard Boxscore from 2006 to 2008. Vedder won a Golden Globe for his soundtrack to the 2007 movie "Into the Wild." Life is quieter on the homefront, too: Four out of the five band members now have children.
But Pearl Jam is also celebrating because it finally made good on a longstanding desire to release its music on its own, without the aid of a major label. "Backspacer" will come out Sept. 20 in the United States through a creative patchwork of deals with physical and digital retailers, the most prominent of which is a one-off, big-box exclusive with Target. Internationally, Universal Music is the label for the release.
The Target partnership threw fans for a loop when the news leaked in June. At first glance the move seems at odds with a band whose DIY, fan-first business ethic has set it against corporate behemoths like Ticketmaster and AT&T. But as details began to emerge, it became clear that Pearl Jam managed to make a deal that rewards the band and its fans as much as it does the stores that sell its music.
Target agreed to let independent music retailers carry "Backspacer," a first for one of its exclusives. (The album will be distributed to indie stores by the Coalition of Independent Music Stores' Junketboy division.) "Backspacer" will also be sold on Pearl Jam's Web site and at Apple's iTunes Music Store.
"We've put a tremendous amount of thought into this, and we've done it in a way that we think will be good for everybody," Vedder says. He understands why some fans may be confused about the deal, but he says, "I can't think of anything we've ever done without putting it through our own personal moral barometer. Target has passed for us. The fans just have to trust us."