Little, Big
Pearl Jam Goes Small, Muse Goes Huge

So Tori Amos is putting out a Christmas album this year. Really. If you needed any more proof that her career as an important and influential artist is over, well, there you are.

I’m a little distracted this week, so bear with me. It’s becoming more and more likely that the Chicago Sun-Times (and all its subsidiary papers) will be going away for good very soon, and that means I’ll be out of a job. It’s complicated, but it’s down to a potential buyer wanting the unions to strip away most of their hard-fought protections, and the unions not being willing to do so. We’ll know in a week whether one side or the other blinks, but I’m not counting on it.

So finances might be a little tight in the coming weeks and months, and this column may be affected by that. I know I promised a whole slew of reviews this time out, but I’m going to try to spread out my backlog a little. Two reviews this week, one next, probably a Dear Dave Mustaine letter after that, and then we’ll see where we are.

This week, I have two bands who have taken exact opposite paths with their new album – one’s gone little, one’s gone big.

* * * * *

Pearl Jam started their career as one of the biggest bands in the world. Since then, they’ve been moving heaven and earth to get smaller.

Their 1991 debut album, Ten, remains their biggest seller. “Alive.” “Even Flow.” “Jeremy.” For a lot of people, these songs are Pearl Jam, and they were written and recorded like stadium anthems, Eddie Vedder and company shooting for the rafters. The band seemed to recoil from its lightning-fast success almost immediately – while 1993’s Vs. followed a similar, if rawer pattern, they quickly started making oblique and difficult records like Vitalogy and No Code.

It’s been a strange thing to witness. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone with the star quality of Vedder work so hard to fade into the background. Since their first two albums, the band has all but refused to write songs with hooks, keeping the “Even Flow” fans at arm’s length. I can barely remember any of Binaural, or Riot Act. They also released 15 million live albums, and worked with Neil Young in an attempt to brand themselves as just another rootsy rock band.

It’s all started to get a bit boring, honestly. Three years ago, Pearl Jam put out a self-titled album with an avocado on the cover, and while it was easily the most energetic, vivacious, alive thing they’d done since the early days, I just wasn’t feeling it. I took the opportunity to write a break-up letter to a band I once loved, and figured I’d put Pearl Jam behind me.

So what brought me back, and convinced me to give them another shot? “The Fixer,” the jubilant not-quite-three-minute first single from album nine, Backspacer. For a band that broke big with songs about bloody teen vengeance and virgin suicides, “The Fixer” is pure joy. It’s got actual hooks, at least relatively speaking – Vedder’s “Yeah yeah yeah” is the closest this band has come to writing a big chorus in a long time, and the cheesy-cool keyboards here and there only add to the dance-dance-revolution that this song represents.

Okay, fine, I’m back in, I said. I’ll give Backspacer a shot. And you know what? I like it. This record, at just under 37 minutes long, feels like the destination point, like Pearl Jam has finally made themselves small enough to be comfortable. Backspacer is out on the band’s own label, Monkeywrench, and available in independent record stores (and one big box, Target). For once, the sales-limiting effects of these exclusive deals seem purposeful – Pearl Jam wants their independent-minded fans to have this one, so they’ve created special packaging just for the mom-and-pop stores.

The record itself is one of the most tightly arranged and focused albums this band has ever made, and at the same time, it’s their most relaxed. Freed from the weight of the world, Pearl Jam sounds content to be just a kickass little rock band. The first four tunes on Backspacer make the case – they’re the most rollicking, good-time songs I’ve heard from them, even with all the drug imagery in “Gonna See My Friend” and “Got Some.” Believe it or not, the boot-stomping “Johnny Guitar” is actually quite funny – it’s about bluesman Johnny “Guitar” Watson and his many girlfriends.

Yes, the band does get serious now and then. “Just Breathe” is an acoustic love lament, augmented by Brendan O’Brien’s strings, and “Unthought Known,” the album’s epic at 4:08, brings in those minor keys and an insistent piano. Vedder once again reaches for the stars with his repeated “nothing left,” but oddly, it doesn’t sound as self-conscious or as reined-in as other recent attempts to go vast. And the blistering “Supersonic,” 2:40 of punky propulsion right after it, takes the hot air right out of the balloon. “Speed of Sound” and “Force of Nature” are both complex mid-tempo pieces, but they work.

The only weird moment is the closer, “The End.” It’s a sad ballad of pleading and resignation, an oddly downbeat conclusion to this bright, life-affirming little record. But Vedder sings the hell out of it, and the subtle strings and horns actually add depth.

I won’t go so far as to say Backspacer is a great record, because it isn’t. But it is the most enjoyable Pearl Jam album in a long time, the one on which our Fabled Five finally grow comfortable in their own skins. For years they’ve insisted that they’re just a little rock band after all, and now that they’ve attained that goal, they sound like free men. That’s a sound worth hearing.

* * * * *

By contrast, Muse started off as an insignificant Radiohead wannabe outfit, but have since done everything in their power to become one of the biggest bands on Earth.

Their 1999 debut, Showbiz, is best forgotten. An amalgam of searing ‘90s alt-guitar and Thom Yorke-isms, the album is neither superb nor dreadful. It just kind of lies there and does nothing. But Muse would soon evolve, finally setting their own template with 2003’s still-amazing Absolution, and breaking it open three years ago with the wildly diverse Black Holes and Revelations. Part Rush, part Queen, part alt-metal, part discoteque, and all completely over the top.

But the past is prologue, and all that is nothing – nothing – compared to the dizzying ambition of The Resistance, the band’s fifth album. You think you’ve heard big from this band before, but this album makes the other four seem simple-minded and earthbound. You think you’ve heard Muse do bombast, but compared to The Resistance, everything else has been restrained and tasteful. This is the kind of album that would make Freddie Mercury say, “You know, guys, maybe you should dial this back a little.”

Mercury is actually a good touchstone for this record, since Muse takes liberally from both ‘70s operatic Queen, and ‘80s cheeseball disco Queen. But they also run the gamut from Chopin to Timbaland here, from Debussy to Dream Theater. Consider some highlights: “United States of Eurasia” is like Trans-Siberian Orchestra meets A Night at the Opera, and it concludes with a rendering of Chopin’s “Nocturne in E Flat Major” (here called “Collateral Damage”), played over sound effects of jet planes strafing playgrounds. “Unnatural Selection” is seven minutes of high-intensity riffing, but includes an incredibly strange dirty-blues breakdown in the middle.

Then there is “I Belong to You,” which starts like a bit of Supertramp piano-pop, with a spongy synth bass beneath, but quickly gets more epic, with a wordless operatic hook. But wait, because the opera’s just starting – the song morphs into an incredible take on a number from Samson and Delilah, sung entirely in French. Matt Bellamy’s inhuman pipes have rarely sounded better, and when the band kicks in, it’s like something off of a Therion album. The opera continues for another two minutes or so, and then the Supertramp groove kicks back in, and there’s a bass clarinet solo. Really. A bass clarinet solo.

Oh, and did I mention that this record ends with a three-part, 12-minute suite, all about mankind leaving Earth to populate the universe? And that it’s performed with a full orchestra? If not for Patrick Wolf’s The Bachelor, this would easily be the most bugfuck insane album of 2009.

But does it rock? Yes, yes it does. Opener “Uprising” is one giant fist-pumping anthem (“They will not control us, we will be victorious…”), with minimal guitars – the synthesizer rules the day here, sounding like something Geddy Lee might have used on Signals. The song’s full of “COME ON!” and “HEY!” exclamations, and while it doesn’t sound much like revolution, it’s pretty great stuff. The title track is even better, evolving from a moody beats-and-piano motif to a stunning, full-blooded rocker. “Love is our resistance,” Bellamy cries, and the song matches his grandeur note for note. And listen to bassist Chris Wolstenholme here. He’s amazing.

None of that will prepare you for “Undisclosed Desires,” a club-ready sex romp with a pizzicato backbeat. Or for “Guiding Light,” a huge (HUGE) victory march that occasionally reminds me of U2 meeting up with Queen’s score for Flash Gordon. Just dig the pure Brian May-ness of that unabashed guitar solo. Things get a little more Muse-like on “Unnatural Selection” and “MK Ultra,” but even here, the band throws in some surprises – that blues break in the former, and the awe-inspiring keyboard runs in the latter.

And of course, there is “Exogenesis,” the three-part symphony. I know what you’re thinking. How pretentious could this get? But believe it or not, it is (relatively speaking) subdued. The entire piece is held together by Bellamy’s lovely classical piano, and the strings are there for atmosphere, not saccharine or pomp. Each part builds up slowly around a motif, and while the band is present, they’re generally in the background. There are virtually no big moments, no fiery explosions – it is as subtle as a 12-minute piece about space travel can be. And there is no grand finale, either. The piece drifts out, as it drifted in, which makes for an off-kilter conclusion.

If I have any complaint about The Resistance, it’s the same one I had about Black Holes – these songs don’t seem to cohabit the same universe, never mind the same record. Song by song, Muse is more confident and assured than ever, but taken as a 54-minute whole, The Resistance feels confused and scattered. Next time out, I think Muse should concentrate on thematic unity, which should be easy, because “double-disc concept album” is the next logical cliché on their list.

The scattershot nature of this record is the only thing wrong with it, however. The three guys in Muse have widened their reach to an amazing degree, but they’ve proven they can handle anything they envision. There are head-scratching moments on The Resistance, especially the one sung in French, but there are no bad ones, and Bellamy and company never fall on their faces.

The album is a massive, batshit-crazy piece of work, and it stands alone, grand champion in a field of one. I don’t know any other band trying the same things on the same scale as Muse right now, and there’s a level of commitment to their insane craft here that’s simply breathtaking. The Resistance is a genuine triumph of vision and determination, and though its creators must be nuts, the sweep and scope of this thing leaves you with no choice but to surrender to it. It is, in the original sense of the word, awesome.

* * * * *

Next week, David Bazan. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent Twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.