Pearl Jam: 'Back' To The Future
Pearl Jam: 'Back' To The Future

At 11 songs and less than 37 minutes, "Backspacer" is the leanest and meanest Pearl Jam album yet. "At one of our gigs, without flashpots and electricity, there's only so much room for those more difficult listening songs," Vedder says with a laugh. "That was one reason why we kept the arrangements lean. The songs come off more like sparkling water than pea soup, and I think that's good for our group right now."

"The Fixer" became the foundation for the album after Vedder came up with an edit of an arrangement the band bashed through without him. "My personal interpretation is that it's about how [Vedder] makes our songs work," Gossard says. "When someone inspires him, he's an incredible collaborator."

Other musical highlights on "Backspacer" include the opening one-two combo of "Gonna See My Friend," a furious Stooges-style garage blast, and the propulsive, Police-y "Got Some," which Pearl Jam premiered June 1 on the first episode of "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien."

On the softer side, "Just Breathe" is a gorgeous ballad based on an instrumental from Vedder's "Into the Wild" soundtrack, while "The End" is an aching love song that closes the album on a startling lyric: "My dear/I'm here/But not much longer."

"You know, I'll admit that even I felt some impact myself listening to it back the first time, and not even really knowing where it came from," Vedder says of the song, which he debuted this summer during a solo tour. "A lot of the songs on this record were ones I just tried to get out of the way of, without self-editing."

Vedder titled the album as an homage to an oddly named typewriter key that fell out of fashion 50 years ago. The frontman, who still uses typewriters for lyric writing and personal correspondence, says he got upset when he saw vintage typewriter keys being used as jewelry. "For me it was like shark fin soup: 'You're killing typewriters for a bracelet!' " he says.

Always known for elaborate album packaging, Pearl Jam turned to political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, whom Vedder met at a 2000 Ralph Nader rally, to create the album's visuals. Nine pieces of Tomorrow's artwork are scattered across various Internet sites, and fans can drag-and-drop them onto a grid on Pearl Jam's site to receive a free download of a demo of album track "Speed of Sound."

Pearl Jam will play its first live show in more than a year Aug. 8 at the Virgin Festival in Calgary, Alberta. After a quick four-show run in Europe, the band will then visit Toronto (Aug. 21) and Chicago (Aug. 23-24) before headlining the Outside Lands festival Aug. 28 in San Francisco. Multiple shows in Seattle, Los Angeles and Philadelphia follow in September and October, with the Philly gigs set to be the final ones at the Spectrum.

Also on tap is a headlining slot Oct. 4 at the Austin City Limits festival, plus a run of shows in Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii in November and December. Curtis says the plan for 2010 touring is still coming together and that the band is deciding whether to play outdoor amphitheaters or arenas, which it prefers.

And while they're satisfied now, Vedder and his bandmates insist they're as driven as ever to keep challenging themselves, both as a band and a business. "You'd like to be able to go to work and have everything be smooth, but there's some weird artistic gene in some of us," he says, expanding on the theme of "The Fixer." "It can feel like a curse, because it makes you push yourself to make things better and not allow them to be easy. That's how you get the good stuff."

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