Pearl Jam's second and third albums document an era when the biggest band in the world could still sell millions of records while challenging expectations of what populist rock music was supposed to be.
From Genesis to Metallica and countless spaces in-between, music history is rife with instances where the bigger a band got, the more polished and accessible its records became, inching ever closer to the middle of the road. It’s occurred so often that it’s almost a rule. For a spell in the 1990s, though, the process didn’t quite work out that way. In the age when grunge ruled the earth, scores of alternative rockers grudgingly found themselves suddenly thrust into the limelight. These artists, reared on the do-it-yourself ethos inherited from punk rock and harboring a nearly pathological suspicion of careerist tendencies, responded to their newfound acceptance by mainstream culture by making follow-ups to their breakthrough records noisier and less palatable.
And no band fought harder against fame in those heady days than Pearl Jam. The Seattle, Washington, grunge quintet couldn’t have cared less that the staggering multi-platinum sales and radio airplay domination generated by its 1991 debut album Ten had made it the decade’s most successful new rock band. Following the phenomenal success of Ten, the group responded to its superstar status with a series of willfully contrary actions, including refusing to make music videos, launching a hard-fought losing battle against Ticketmaster in the hopes of keeping concert prices reasonable for young fans, and issuing increasingly challenging albums (on vinyl a week before the wider CD release, no less). While pundits have commented that Pearl Jam’s obstinate approach did long-term damage to the group’s drawing power, the band certainly didn’t object to trying to scale back the madness it found itself overwhelmed by. Furthermore, the numbers show that there was little the group could do to diminish its stature: its 1993 sophomore album Vs. sold a record-setting 950,378 copies in the United States in its first week, and the band’s radio un-friendly lead single to Vitalogy (1994), “Spin the Black Circle”, became its first domestic Top 40 pop hit.
Eternally emblematic of those years when Pearl Jam’s cultural visibility was at its apex (no matter how much the band hated it), Vs. and Vitalogy are now receiving remastered Expanded Editions as part of the year-long festivities celebrating the 20th anniversary of Ten. Although it’s debatable whether or not these albums required any sprucing up production-wise, it’s nevertheless fortunate that the group is bringing them to the forefront of the public consciousness again. For better or for worse, Ten continues to define Pearl Jam for both fans and detractors, while Vs. and Vitalogy are largely overlooked save for a few radio staples. What these two records demonstrate is that the band is far more nuanced and worthy of reappraisal by early skeptics than its legacy of baritone-voiced Neanderthal post-grungers Nickelback and Creed would have people believe.
Harder and less accessible than its predecessor, Vs. was Pearl Jam’s equivalent to Nirvana’s consciously abrasive In Utero, also released the same year. Shaken by its bullet-fast career ascent and smarting from critical knocks from peers who condemned the band as stadium rockers in alternative clothing, the group was dead-set on cutting through the bullshit by letting the music speak for itself -- loudly. Brimming with focus and purpose, what remains compelling about Vs. even now is its undiluted righteous anger. Bellowing out in front of a shit-hot band as fearsome as he is passionate, singer Eddie Vedder rails unrelentingly against macho misogynists and gun-toting religious freaks on the behalf of oppressed people of all stripes (battered wives, children with learning disabilities, victims of police brutality, the suicidal, and so on). Essential to this assault is drummer Dave Abbruzzese, considered by many fans to be the finest stickman Pearl Jam ever drafted into its lineup (unfortunately, his more relaxed attitude towards fame would be scrutinized by the increasingly pious Vedder and bassist Jeff Ament, which led to his dismissal at the end of the Vitalogy sessions). Despite the admonishing fire of his words, Vedder is more empathetic than didactic -- he simply can’t help but hurt for those in need. What could have easily been nothing more than preachy lecturing instead connects deeply due to an undercurrent of life-affirming triumphalism, summed up by the lines “She holds the hand that holds her down / She will rise above” from “Daughter”.
For the first five tracks -- spanning the intense riffing and bloodcurdling screams of the unlikely first single “Go” (one of the finest moments Pearl Jam ever committed to tape) through to the oceanic surges of the majestic “Dissident” -- Vs. is the undeniable equal of Ten. By the middle stretch, however, the songs begin to meld into an undistinguished morass of interchangeable rockers, the propulsive standout “Rearviewmirror” excepted. Nevertheless, Vs. as a whole is a laudable refinement of Pearl Jam’s sound as it dialed down Ten’s classicist tendencies and solidified the group’s stance that musical purity and social causes outweighed marketing considerations.
More diverse and ambitious than either Ten or Vs., hindsight shows that Vitalogy is a strong contender to be crowned as Pearl Jam’s masterpiece. It’s admittedly a messy, sometimes inconsistent affair compared to the previous records, but it’s that freewheeling “anything goes” attitude that makes it so fascinating. Here, the crowd-ready anthems and aching ballads rub shoulders with pummeling hardcore punk (“Spin the Black Circle”), quirky Beatles marches (“Tremor Christ”), and lengthy experimental sound collages (“Stupid Mop”). The production gleefully lacks polish, as errant notes are retained as sonic color with no regard to whether or not the loose ends will unnerve radio listeners -- even the record’s signature hit “Better Man” opens with several seconds of ominous guitar ambiance. It’s understandable that listeners might want to skip oddities like “Pry, To” and the mad accordion-based ravings of “Bugs” to get to “Better Man” or “Immortality”, but to do so would be to miss out on the intricacies of the tapestry woven here. Sometimes disconcerting, frequently quixotic, and even a little scary in spots, Vitalogy is a record that must be absorbed as a complete whole.
Vitalogy marked the point where guitarist and founding member Stone Gossard ceded control fully to Vedder. As such, the record has an unmistakably individual character. The album’s lovingly crafted packaging (drawn from a 1920 medical self-help book) is apt iconography as the record plumbs into the band’s collective psyche to prod its neuroses and insecurities. The anger of Vs. has turned into a festering illness on Vitalogy, as if the group has transformed into an extension of Vedder’s tortured soul. Naturally, Vedder ruminates frequently on the pitfalls of fame -- namely the loss of privacy and the weight of expectation -- that have tormented him. Here, the man held up as a spokesman for the youth of the land responds to efforts to turn his soul-bearing into generational gospel with the pointed lyrics “Fuck you / This is not for you”. Vedder’s haunted words attain their greatest poignancy on “Corduroy”, which might be the most affecting “it’s lonely at the top” song ever written. Confused and alienated by a world where knockoffs of his old jacket were selling for hundreds of dollars, Vedder achingly pleads “I don’t want to hear from those who know / They can buy, but they can’t put on my clothes / I don’t want to limp for them to walk / Never would have known of me before”. Due to Vedder’s charisma and the band’s talent, Vitalogy is never self-indulgent or whiny; instead, it’s the Pearl Jam full-length that most rewards repeat listens.
Longtime collaborator Brendan O’Brien’s production for both records has stood the test of time with no real need to muck around with it. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to appreciate Adam Ayan’s remastering job: the individual instruments are more discernable (of interest to aspiring guitarists learning by ear), and the bone-rattling weight given to Jeff Ament’s bass permeates the body. The bonus tracks (three per each album) are ostensibly the main draws, but none can be considered essential. Vs. dredges up three outtakes from the 1993 recording sessions: an acoustic rendition of “Hold On”, the partly-cooked instrumental idea “Cready Stomp”, and the much-lusted-after yet underwhelming Victoria Williams cover “Crazy Mary”. Vitalogy has less to offer, being padded out with demos and alternate takes of album tracks.
Forget the separate Expanded Editions, though: the real prize is the three-disc deluxe combo set, which features both bonus-augmented albums plus a full-length concert at Boston’s Orpheum Theater from April 1994. Never a slouch in the gigging department, this performance is a mesmerizing document of Pearl Jam at the height of its powers. Here the group is concentrated on one overwhelming concern: to give the crowd one hell of a rock concert. “Even Flow” rips in a manner not heard in eons, Mudhoney’s Mark Arm hops onstage for a bracing rendition of the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer”, and a hostile Vedder threatens to kick audience members out of the venue if they don’t stand up to rock out to the Neil Young cover “Fuckin’ Up”.
True, no matter what detours the band undertook, those choruses would never stop sounding bigger than Mt. Everest, and Eddie Vedder’s pained lyrics would always touch a nerve with anyone feeling depressed or alone. Still, Pearl Jam’s valiant fight to maintain its integrity as forces beyond its control threatened to conform it to the expectations of pop stardom was commendable, no matter how much observers wondered why they didn’t just enjoy the ride. Vs. and Vitalogy are creative triumphs that dispel the old charges of the group being some sort of music industry alterna-rock facsimile while simultaneously managing to charm the ears of those weaned on corporate rock. As Pearl Jam proved on these two records, populist rock music and sonic adventurousness aren’t antithetical concepts -- selling four million copies of an album with “Stupid Mop” and “Spin the Black Circle” on it doesn’t make the contents any less artistically valid. For that, these records will continue to deserve a second chance from the remaining skeptics.