JR Breaks Down “The Fixer”

by John Reynolds on July 21, 2009

Pearl Jam’s first single from Backspacer, “The Fixer”, hit the streets this past week. At 2min 57s, it’s a quick catchy tune that should be pretty easy to sum up. Let’s take a shot.

3-minute bliss
3-minute bliss

A lot happens in first fifteen seconds. Complimenting guitars – predictably Stone and Mike, but possibly just one, multi-tracked – start off with booming toms by Matt. Joining in for the next measure is Jeff and within four seconds you’ve got an instantly recognizable millenium-era Pearl Jam single.

Like trying to cram pillows in the trunk of a car destined for a summer vacation, Ed manages to fill the tiny amount of empty musical space with his first appearance of “ye-ay-ay-ay”. Following are some “Uh-huh”s using his trademark one-octave-apart baritone/falsetto voices, similar to recent tracks like “Help Help”.

At this point, Pearl Jam is once again putting their deceptive stamp on “The Fixer” – you can easily (and briskly) tap your feet to it, but over time there are some beats and transitions that throw off your timing. This should have clued you in that Matt Cameron had something to do with this, and Mike just revealed that Matt wrote the song with the whole band arranging it. Remember, Matt is famous for the mesmerizing beats of “In The Moonlight” and “Evacuation”, whose dizzying beats often leave you reaching for the Dramamine.

When it’s time to start the verses proper, the deceivingly simple straight-time beat is actually alternating 6/4 then 4/4 time signatures. But it’s when the verse’s guitars start that the magic happens, and you are teleported VH-1 style back to the early ’80s and you scramble to see if The Police’s Andy Summers is listed with a writing credit. Is that guitar riff from “Spirits in the Material World” or “Synchronicity II”? It’s a coin flip. Assuming this riff is Stone, complimenting him is Mike’s wah-wah-ed coloring that blend the guitar and vocals equally.

Jeff’s beat is pulsing and juicy, a sound that came back in Pearl Jam but hadn’t been heard as prominently since Yield.

Ed’s unique approach to melody is evident immediately, and by the first line already declares his fixing formula of when something’s <insert problem here> that he’s got a fix for it. Our vocal handyman even hits these problems by singing a word starting on one note (“dark” and “cold”) and “fixes” the melody by cleverly sliding up to the next note.

When something’s dark, let me shed a little bit of light on it
When something’s cold, let me put a little fire on it
If something’s old, I wanna put a bit of shine on it
When something’s gone, I wanna fight to get it back again
Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah … Fight to get it back again

From the moment we heard the “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” during the song’s teasers at the MLB All-Star game, the focal point of the song was realized. And the nearly anomatopoeic “Fight” in the chorus gives it that punch of shout-it-out choruses of songs past. Ed’s voice is strong and raspy as he belts out the chorus. But as we know, the recorded-Ed is a tease for the real place to hear our singer – on stage, in front of the masses.

But stop for a fuckin second! As the second verse starts, let’s not overlook what underwater magic Mr. Matt Cameron is doing here. Hear that steady beat during the verses? Yup, cowbell. No joke! And at right about the 0:20 mark, listen for that stutter-step crack right out of the verses of U2′s “I Will Follow”.

When something’s broke, I want to put a little fixing on it
When something’s old, I want to put a little shine on it
If something’s low, I wanna put a little high on it
When something’s lost, I wanna fight to get it back again
Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah … Fight to get it back again

During each verse, the guitars add just a few more riffs here and there to make them distinguishable, again making use of all available dead air in the song. I guess that’s why they pay producers like Brendan O’Brien the big bucks.  The only line in any verse that’s repeated is the “When something’s old, I want to put a little shine on it” line, and I chuckle to think that it could be dry dig at each 4-year term of Dubya.

As a segue into the bridge, we even get a half verse. Starting like the others, this one is complimented by some nice Ed harmonies.

When signals cross, I wanna put a little straight on it.
If there’s no love, I wanna try to love again.

As “love again” fades out, classic harp-like (some say Piano, I just don’t hear it) lead to a lovely bridge. Crisp distorted guitar riffs and cowbell (hehe, still makes me chuckle) yield to strummed minor chords, Matt’s classic ride cymbal and gorgeous harmonies heard recently like the second verse of “World Wide Suicide”.

I’ll say your prayers I’ll take your side
I’ll find us a way to make light
I’ll dig your grave
We’ll dance and sing
What’s saved could be
One last lifetime

Although the object of the first “your”s are unclear, the “I’ll dig your grave / we’ll dance and sing” is reminiscent of the final haunting verse of “Masters of War”, and a reminder of the last eight years.

By the 1:50 mark, we’re back to the theme of the song’s opening, and not much to report in the song’s final minute. The chorus repeats in full orchestration with (assumingly) Mike adding some up-front colorful – and highly flanged – passages. Sometimes it’s better to burn out then fade away, but “The Fixer” fades away, much to the tongue-in-cheek chagrin of fellow fans.

The lesson here is to not be fooled by this 3-minute anthem, and specifically Ed’s simple lyrics. The antonyms in the verses are all first-grade words, but they reinforce the simplicity of the necessary turnaround in mindset that the USA needed during this decade. Not all, but many – specially PJ of course – are conveying their feeling of living in the Obama-era versus the Bush-era. Listen to “The Fixer” vs. “World Wide Suicide”. Listen to “Got Some” vs. “Grievance”. Clear as day y’all, clear as day.

The immediate and obvious conclusion is that “The Fixer” = Obama. That may be, but with Pearl Jam, the obvious is really complex and the complex is mindboggling. I think back two days ago when I first heard the song and I thought – as well as some of the media reviews – that it was “a simple pop song”. Well, I now pause before committing to that, because here I am writing 1,094 words about it.

John Reynolds ( Twitter: @jjjrrr )
A New Jersey based programmer, John handles TFT’s programming and technical aspects. He also conceives and writes his share of TFT’s articles and sections. John’s first Pearl Jam show was at Lollapalooza on August 12, 1992.

Leave a Comment