After exploding onto the scene at the height of the grunge era, Eddie Vedder and his band Pearl Jam seemed to have lost the plot at the start of this decade with albums like “Binaural” and “Riot Act”-two sets that found their way into my collection…and very quickly found their way out. There was just too much noise and not enough melody for me.

2006’s self-titled offering showed a ray of hope, even if I haven’t been enticed to listen to it lately, and Vedder’s solo “Into the Wild” soundtrack was quite good-but it was an Eddie Vedder album, not a Pearl Jam album. With the arrival of “Backspacer”, the band’s ninth studio album, the million dollar question in my eyes was: does Pearl Jam still have it?

Well, folks-the answer appears to be “yes”. “Backspacer” is a concise (11 songs in 36 1/2 minutes), tight, well-written and well-played album. Musically speaking, the band has never sounded as eclectic while operating within a mainstream pop framework. The songs here aren’t deliberately obtuse like some of the band’s more experimental work. The hooks are strong as hell, and for the first time in a while (ever?), the band sounds joyful. I mean, let’s face it: PJ’s last two albums were very political and downcast as far as lyrical content. It’s nice to hear them lighten up and sound loose and relaxed.

“Backspacer” gets off to a running start with the uptempo 1-2-3 combination of “Gonna See My Friend”, “Got Some” and first single “The Fixer”. Particularly on the second of those three songs, Vedder sounds as intense as he did on PJ classics like “Go”, speed-singing the lyrics atop caffeinated guitar licks from Stone Gossard and Mike McCready. “Supersonic” is another speedy, punk-inspired rave-up (well, except for the tempo-shifting instrumental midsection). These songs aren’t totally dissimilar from the work PJ has done on their last few albums-just…tighter and more polished. You can credit the band for sharper songwriting and playing, but you’ve also gotta give props to producer Brendan O’Brien, who is back in the fold for the first time since ’98’s “Yield”.

For my money, though, the album’s best tracks are the mellower ones. “Just Breathe” is a slowly unwinding semi-acoustic ditty that would have been right at home on “Into the Wild”. The anthemic “Amongst the Waves” has one of those triumphant, fist-waving choruses that have become a Pearl Jam trademark, even though it doesn’t rock *quite* as hard as the album’s more uptempo offerings. “The End” is another pretty piece featuring Eddie’s soulful wail backed by a delicate acoustic guitar and a string section.

“Backspacer” is pretty much the encapsulation of everything good about Pearl Jam. There are hard rockin’ anthems, as well as songs like the thoughtful “Speed of Sound”, which is sure to follow in the footsteps of mellower smashes like “Better Man” and “Daughter”. Vedder is in fine voice throughout, the songs are immediate and not ponderous, and the end result is quite possibly the most consistently enjoyable album from the ’90s rock titans since their initial heyday.