Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

Pearl Jam – Vs. / Vitalogy Reissues


Pearl Jam – Vs. / Vitalogy Reissues
06 April 2011, 14:09 Written by Erik Thompson

With all the time that has passed (and the diverging directions both the band and the music industry have taken in between), it’s hard to remember just how massive Pearl Jam was back in 1993. With the runaway, multi-platinum success of Ten hounding them, as well as a never-ending world tour that nearly fractured the sanity and camaraderie of the group, the band hunkered down in the spring of ’93 to record their eagerly anticipated follow-up, Vs. And from the onset, there was an antagonistic, embattled approach towards the marketing of the new songs by the group, boldly declaring there wouldn’t be any music videos released from the new album. They indignantly distanced themselves from MTV, which was a definitive slap in the face to a station that certainly helped launch their meteoric rise, but through their overplay of all things grunge also made everyone (the band included) somewhat sick of seeing them constantly on their television sets.

But perhaps the shrewdest move by the band in regards to their sophomore release was the title and how it appeared in the advertising leading up to its release. Originally, the record was to be titled Five Against One, but it was changed at the last minute in favor of Vs. ‘Pearl Jam Vs. The New Album,’ the ads brazenly declared at the time, as if making the album itself was an acrimonious fight for their very career, one that the band wasn’t even sure they would ultimately win. But it was subtle enough that casual fans didn’t see the inherent struggle contained in the double-entendre within the album’s name. Even the two separate album covers were telling, with the vinyl release showing a tranquil but sad looking lamb lurking behind a fence, while the CD (one of the first to be released in the environmentally friendly Ecopak packaging) featured a far more violent image, with the same lamb trying forcefully to stick its face through a small gap in the enclosure. It was as if the fierce and embattled music found within (and, indeed, the band themselves) was struggling against being contained by the tedious constraints of commerce.

And that unbridled ferocity permeates the lead-off tracks on Vs., as the potent combination of ‘Go’ and ‘Animal’ absolutely storm out of the gates, immediately proving that Pearl Jam were going to be fitfully rattling this cage the industry was trying to force them to fit into. It’s a breathless, forceful start to the album, with those two songs bristling with an intensity and determination that was as powerful as anything the band had recorded up to that point. Which makes the placement of ‘Daughter’ next a bit of a startling move. It was as if the band knew they had it dialed up too tightly, and needed to let their listeners catch their breath a bit. Typically, when digging through a band’s back catalog, it’s the ballads that don’t age all that well, as their naked vulnerability just winds up sounding far too saccharine after all the years that have passed. But the stirring ballads on Vs. hold up remarkably well, with the defiant sentimentality of ‘Daughter,’ ‘Elderly Woman,’ and ‘Indifference’ all still resonating as strongly today as they did in 93.

The band, led by the increasing unrest felt by frontman Eddie Vedder, the potent dual-guitar attack of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, and the steady rhythm section of bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Dave Abbruzzese, was also making plenty of bold statements within these volatile new songs, with Vedder’s pointed lyrics tackling topics like gun control (‘Glorified G’), police brutality (‘W.M.A.’), and physical and mental abuse (‘Rearviewmirror’). And for that reason, there aren’t a whole lot of light moments to grasp onto on Vs., probably just the playful soul of ‘Rats,’ but even that turns into a ruthless, amped-up screed against the vile nature of the music industry.

‘Blood’ is as close as Pearl Jam ever got to writing a punk song, while the ferocious early live-staple ‘Leash,’ featured an irresistible “get outta my fuckin’ face” chorus that clearly rang true amongst their angst-filled young audience. But the lasting results of all that volatile energy and emotion clearly was drawn into question by the band, especially Vedder, on the elegant closer ‘Indifference,’ with Ed plaintively wondering how much difference all of their effort has on the world at large. It is just music after all, but you truly got the sense that it meant as much to the band as it did to their countless supporters. For these songs found a home within the hearts and minds of their fans everywhere, and were internalized in such a personal, emotional way that it made Pearl Jam, and Vedder specifically, much more than just a band and a singer. So, based on this intense display of passion and admiration by their fans, it was no real surprise that Vs., despite the band’s best intentions to scale back on promotion and distance themselves considerably from the trappings of the music industry, became the fastest-selling record of all-time, selling just under 1 million copies in its first week of release (a record that would last for 5 years).

Since these are reissues, the songs have been touched up a bit and remastered (though there isn’t the pronounced audible difference that there was on the Ten remaster), and there are the obligatory bonus tracks tacked-on to make longtime fans feel the need to shell out money to buy records that have already been in their collections for nearly 20 years. And while it is great to re-immerse yourself in these songs (or discover their urgent spirit for the first time), there isn’t anything all that interesting or necessary about the bonus material included here: an acoustic version of ‘Hold On’ improves just a bit on the Lost Dogs rarity; while the instrumental guitar wankery of ‘Cready Stop’ proves inessential; and a rendition of ‘Crazy Mary’ doesn’t stray too far from the lovely, previously released version of the track, except that it features songwriter Victoria Williams on backing vocals. Just stick to the original album tracks on Vs., and you won’t go wrong, for the album has never failed to deliver since the day it was released.

After the record-setting success of Vs., things just got weird in a wonderful way for Pearl Jam. They started picking fights with anyone who would take them on, angrily calling out music journalists that they believe wronged them (Rolling Stone, Spin), riskily taking on Ticketmaster in congress when nearly all of the big bands at the time cowered in the corner, and Vedder’s notorious, bar-room brawl alongside White Sox pitcher Jack McDowell in New Orleans that landed him in jail. Not to mention the infighting that existed within the group itself, specifically between Vedder and Abbruzzese, which eventually led to Dave’s unceremonious dismissal from the group towards the end of the recording sessions for Vitalogy (Jack Irons was subsequently brought in as the drummer, and played on the closing track of the album).

The band were all clearly in a feisty, pugnacious mood, especially Vedder, who was taking more and more control of the group’s direction at this point, and that uneasy atmosphere permeates the entirety of Vitalogy. The record was actually released two weeks early on vinyl, and remains the last vinyl-only release to make it on the billboard charts since the advent of the compact disc era. It was another move by the band to scale back a bit on their swelling audience (while rewarding their audiophile fans at the same time), and again, it didn’t work at all, as Vitalogy eventually sold nearly as many copies as Vs. during its first full week of sales.

While Vs. found the band really hitting their stride musically, Vitalogy is the sound of a band trying new things and almost daring themselves to fail spectacularly (‘Pry, To’ ‘Bugs’ ‘Aye Davanita,’ and ‘Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me’ are all the proof you need). But of course, the songs on the rest of the album are too stellar for any type of let down, and the band’s popularity simply increased despite their numerous attempts to curtail it. The album again starts out with the band on fire, as the pounding ‘Last Exit’ gives way to Vedder’s glorious celebration of all-things-vinyl, ‘Spin The Black Circle.’

But it was ‘Not For You’ that disquietingly hit home the hardest, daring casual fans to question if they are on the right side of the line in the sand that Vedder acrimoniously drew around himself and the band, while long-time listeners simply knew there was no way he was singing about them (right?). It was a divisive, contentious song, and it seemed like Vedder was trying desperately not to say ‘fuck’ throughout every rousing chorus, before he finally unleashes the expletive near the end of the track in a primal, profanity-laced howl as if trying to assure that this incendiary, deeply personal song would never get radio play. It remains one of the most riveting and raw moments in their extensive catalog.

The impassioned ballads again soar dramatically, as ‘Nothingman,’ ‘Better Man’ (which Vedder wrote when he was in high school), and the heart-breaking ‘Immortality’ all taking a firm place among the best songs of Pearl Jam’s career. As if to offset these tender, revealing numbers, the straight ahead rock songs found on the record are all raucous and urgent, with the untamed fury of ‘Whipping’ and the infectious, stadium-sized riffs of ‘Satan’s Bed’ burning with a vehemence that surprisingly blends well with the slower numbers (and the bizarro interludes).

But it’s the dauntless self-assurance of ‘Corduroy’ that remains the album’s high water mark. It’s a relentless kiss-off by Vedder to anyone and everyone greedily trying to lay claim to a private part of him, fans and foes included, leaving no question as to how disillusioned he had become to the trappings of fame and all of the invasive, corrosive things that came with it. No matter how many times you have heard this raging number, ‘Corduroy’ still remains just as stirring and sonorous today as it was when it first came out.

As was the case with Vs., the remastering isn’t all that noticeable, and the extras on Vitalogy don’t really add to much to the fractured picture of the band at the time, with alternate versions of ‘Better Man,’ ‘Corduroy,’ and ‘Nothingman’ showing how the group progressed through those songs in order to get to the stellar finished versions, but offering nothing that would cause the listener to prefer the rougher cuts.

Pearl Jam was a band that, right from the onset, proved to be clearly uncomfortable with their immediate and overwhelming fame, which caused them to take some steps back that not only saved their career (they are still making music, for those of you that stopped paying attention years ago), but also cost them some fans along the way. Their records have consistently been met with increasingly diminished levels of both anticipation and satisfaction by their fanbase since 2000 (even though their live show remains a spirited sight to behold). But in the early 90s, Pearl Jam were a massive band that took on some truly intense issues within their enormous anthems, all while shouldering the burden of huge expectations from both their fans and the music industry, who had all but given up on anything that wasn’t covered in flannel. The fact that they were able to see through that blizzard of endless hype and incessant bullshit is a testament not only to the band themselves, who switched things up enough along the way to keep themselves interested throughout (and despite) it all, but also to the superb songs themselves, which stand as strong reminders that the music is what got everyone caught up in their distinctive wave in the first place. All the rest of the story is merely superfluous excess that will eventually get forgotten about and fade away long before Pearl Jam’s stirring songs ever will.

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