This review article covers the restored and expanded editions of Pearl Jam’s Vs. and Vitalogy albums, originally released in 1993 and 1994, respectively. Epic Records and Legacy Recordings recently co-released each album separately in expanded “Definitive Legacy Editions,” featuring three bonus tracks on each, as well as together in both a three-CD “Deluxe Edition,” featuring a 1994 concert recording on the third disc, and a “Limited Edition Collector’s Box Set.” This review article refers to the three-CD Vs./Vitalogy Deluxe Edition.
Let me begin with an anecdote: A couple years ago, a friend sent me a clip of The Gaslight Anthem covering “State of Love and Trust” while on tour in Italy during early 2009. They introduced it by saying, “This is an old Pearl Jam song.” It’s a joyously lean and ragged performance, even if it lacks some of the finer points of the original (guitarist Mike McCready’s palm-muted arpeggio up into the verse lick, the scaldingly high vibrato bend slashing into the tail end of the last refrain). But more than appreciating The Gaslight Anthem’s take, I found myself thinking back to Pearl Jam themselves covering The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” (1971) at the release concert for Cameron Crowe’s Singles, aired on MTV back in 1992.
Back then, singer Eddie Vedder introduced the song by dedicating it to Crowe “because he’s got good taste in music.” Their version was heavy on energy, low on technique. McCready did his best to emulate the burbling synth-line of the original and it became clear towards the end that they had no way to end the song as it does on The Who’s original recording, when violins churn the tempo faster and faster until the song obliterates itself in a wanton Irish jig. So instead, Pearl Jam just thrummed up a lot of noise until Vedder counted them back in on one last chorus. It was instantly my favorite thing Pearl Jam had ever done, which wasn’t surprising, since I was completely besotted with Pearl Jam at the time and nearly everything they did became my new favorite thing. That performance sent me back to listen to Who’s Next (Decca, 1971), just as their cover of “Suggestion” had led me to Fugazi and interviews about their influences had sent me back to Cream, Hendrix, and other classic rock bands. I found myself wondering if there were any impressionable 14 or 15 year olds hearing The Gaslight Anthem covering Pearl Jam who would then go back to check them out, and that’s when it hit me: in 2009 it had been 18 years since the release of the soundtrack to Singles. When Pearl Jam covered “Baba O’Riley,” it had been 20 since the release of Who’s Next.
I was shocked. Realizing that the present day was now as far removed from the beginning of Pearl Jam’s career as the classic rock of the 1960s and 1970s had been in the early 1990s was disquieting, to say the least. Before bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Smashing Pumpkins began fusing elements of 1960 psychedelia and blues rock with 1970s arena rock, I’d viewed my father’s affection for Cream and other classic rock bands with the mild disdain we reserve for music that seems hopelessly outdated. Was it possible that Pearl Jam themselves had now been placed at that arm’s length distance from relevance?
With that question in mind, I’d like to look at the music on the Vs./Vitalogy Deluxe Edition as music, as artifact, and as legacy apart from all the personal drama that surrounded the initial releases of Pearl Jam’s second and third albums. Other reviewers have done a fine job dealing with such things. Let’s just note that over the course of these two records, Pearl Jam were still very much a band trying to figure out who they were – a band attempting to musically reconcile their charming, radio-ready, deeply sentimental side with their convoluted aspirations to be more than just a band. They were also a phenomenally popular band who didn’t seem to enjoy popularity very much, the notion of which today seems rather quaint. When Arcade Fire won a Grammy, they didn’t bat an eyelash but just accepted the award with genuine joy, it seemed.
Pearl Jam’s hand-wringing over ticket prices or making videos seems like a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing now, but there are also strictly musical elements present on both 1993’s Vs. and 1994’s Vitalogy suggesting a certain unbridgeable gap to our modern age. There’s Dave Abbruzzese’s aggressively ADD approach to drumming, filled with splashes (on “Daughter”), single-stroke high hat rolls (on the live version of “Even Flow” from an April 12, 1994 show in Boston included with the Deluxe Edition), and muscularly un-punk double-stroke kick drum fetish (on Pearl Jam’s cover of The Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” from the same live set). There’s Jeff Ament’s stunningly broad bass palette from fretless to 12-string and points in between. I mean, has anyone heard a fretless bass on a rock song in the last 10 years? There are, for Chrissake, guitar solos (although not so much on Vitalogy). Not to mention the vocal histrionics that have Vedder humming and growling nonsense between every other line. Even Vedder’s casual profanity seems of another time. What leads a man to mutter “fuck” under his breath while recording the vocals for “Go”? Can you even imagine such a thing on a Band of Horses or TV On the Radio song?
There are also plainly some ill-advised songs that time has not bettered. The vaguely world-y noodling of “W.M.A.” from Vs. and “Aye Davanita” from Vitalogy sound forced and very nearly colonial nowadays. There’s a vagueness to Pearl Jam’s idea of world music (percussive, bubbling) that seems like a half-formed thought. Couple that with the social justice theme of “W.M.A.” and you have something very strange indeed: a bunch of rich white guys from more or less middle-class upbringings bemoaning police brutality over some djembe like it was going to make a difference. But then, sometimes, their weird mishmash makes a giddy kind of sense, as when the stomping, funky coda of “Rats” injects something strangely New Orleans-esque into Vedder’s rodent ode. Vedder crooning the hook from Michael Jackson’s 1972 hit “Ben” over this outro simply has no right to work as well as it does, but the band’s earnestness has always overshadowed some of their simpler, more fun-loving moments, as on the caustic, biting “Satan’s Bed” from Vitalogy or the Ten (1991) outtake “Dirty Frank.”
“Aye Davanita” commits the double sin of also belonging to the clutch of tossed off, pseudo-experimental tracks that pepper Vitalogy: “Bugs,” “Pry, To,” and the album’s closer, originally called “hey foxymophandlemama, that’s me” but now shortened to “Stupidmop” for this reissue. If only the music – a messy, seven-plus-minute pastiche of guitar noise and aimless drumming set against documentary recordings about spanking – had been similarly edited or even removed.
Of the non-experimental songs, “Glorified G” from Vs. is perhaps the worst offender, a silly anti-gun screed written as a more or less direct fuck-you from Vedder to drummer Abbruzzese, a Texan with a gun collection. Petty bickering songs are sometimes great (viz. Fleetwood Mac and post-Beatles Lennon and McCartney), but when the smart guy with the mic is beating up on the youngest guy in the band who just wants to rattle off paradiddles and ratamacues and make bank for doing it, it just feels mean. And much as it was with Lennon, increasing fame led Vedder to a directly proportional increase in interest in himself on songs like “Blood,” “Not for You,” and “Corduroy.” Heck, he even mentions himself by name in “Blood”: “Paint Ed big / Turn Ed into / one of his enemies.” When these songs work, they’re genuinely impressive; “Corduroy” is Pearl Jam’s finest melodic moment, the constrained range of the verse giving way beautifully to the lilting rise and fall of the chorus. It also transmutes an almost unrelatable experience of fame into universal ambivalence towards generosity – no mean feat. But the lyrical content of “Not For You” and “Blood” is wearying, with Vedder railing against soft targets like the press and fair-weather fans. On the live set included here, he even goes so far as to introduce “Not For You” by saying, “This song is about, uh, people who don’t have taste, but they like us anyways.” Looking back at Pearl Jam now, it’s easy to wonder if Fugazi or The Dead Boys might have had some of the same feelings about Pearl Jam themselves.
Furthermore, what distance has made clear is that Pearl Jam are at their best when Vedder is working in persona. At the time, he was lauded for the personal, confessional nature of his lyrics, but now it’s evident that the band’s greatest triumphs – from “Jeremy” to “Why Go” to “Daughter” to “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” to “Nothingman” (with lyrics by Ament, actually) to “Better Man” – are grounded in Vedder’s ability to tell a story, to make a character breathe. To take just one example, “Elderly Woman” is a model of restraint and sympathy, with Vedder taking on the role of a woman who’s never made it anywhere beyond the bounds of her small town encountering a ghost from her past. The verses are laced with powerful, multi-sensory lines that make the reality of the song felt (“I swear I recognize your breath / Memories like fingerprints are slowly raising”). The emotion of the song rises as the narrator becomes more and more convinced that this “haunting, familiar” face really is who she thinks it is. By the time Vedder peaks with, “By God, it’s been so long / never dreamed you’d return,” we’re ready for them to meet, to talk, to have their moment of reunion. But so smartly, Vedder leaves us before this happens, singing the refrain (“Hearts and thoughts they fade / fade away”) ever softer out of the song. The lingering note of doubt in the chorus leaves us hanging, unsure if this is even the person she thinks it is, or if she actually found the courage to speak. It’s beautifully ambiguous, a real triumph for a songwriter so often associated with heart-on-sleeve moaning and crooning.
But then there are also those aforementioned guitar solos, and Vs. opens with three exceedingly brilliant ones. McCready’s breathless, sprinting lead on “Go” is nonstop fury, his solo on “Animal” a slinkier, guitar-wide tour through bends and double-stops, and his work on “Daughter” is melodic and lovely, sliding in under Vedder’s keening high note and blending toughness with gentleness in much the manner of his heroes, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. His work on those three songs alone vaults him into the conversation of great 1990s guitarists, if not to the very forefront of that list. And then, just like that, on Vitalogy the guitar solos all but disappear. “Immortality” is the only track to feature a true improvised solo (as opposed to the melodic break of “Not For You”), perhaps due to the band’s admitted hijacking by Vedder in the wake of the exhausting tours that followed Vs. At the time, I bemoaned McCready’s diminishing importance as a soloist, so it’s surprising to find that whatever Vitalogy lacks in solos, it more than makes up for with songwriting in “Tremor Christ,” “Nothingman,” “Corduroy,” and “Immortality.”
And yet, the 18-year-old me who liked the noodly guitar bits wasn’t wrong either, because Pearl Jam were most interesting when they embodied difficult contradictions, when they were still in the act of becoming and not yet fully formed. The live CD included here finds Abbruzzese rushing nearly every song, but he’s doing it because he’s just so damned excited, and isn’t there something kind of great about that? The band was born, after all, out of the unholy marriage of Gossard and Ament’s leftover Mother Love Bone anthems and Vedder’s passionate, political, and personal words. The late Andrew Wood would have gotten the demo for what would later become “Alive” and written a song about cartoon character superheroes or sultry vixens. Vedder made the main character a hurt, lost young man dealing with his own conflicted sexuality and the fact that he never knew his real father. The creative tension that was so instrumental in the first several Pearl Jam albums was ultimately unsustainable, as any system must seek equilibrium. When the band found itself sometime in 1998, after taking on ex-Soundgardener Matt Cameron as their “forever” drummer, they settled into a comfortable groove of touring a lot and putting out middling albums every couple years. The ensemble achieved a kind of inner peace about being a band, put aside the drama that had Abbruzzese’s drum tech playing on “Satan’s Bed” without Abbruzzese’s knowledge, and stepped gracefully out of relevance to modern music. Few would argue that they’re not happier for it.
But if Pearl Jam were at their best when they were confused, when they were railing outwardly against Ticketmaster and MTV and inwardly against their popularity, trying to reconcile their penchant for the big gesture with their hardhearted desire for integrity and respect (which somehow seem to conflict with each other in rock), then Vs. and Vitalogy must stand as their peak approach and initial descent, respectively. Somewhere between these two records stands their apex as a technically proficient band whose singer wanted to wallow in the gritty simplicity of punk even while writing affecting, lyrical ballads. On these two records, they’re by turns silly, serious, tender, overly earnest, beguilingly catchy, miserably unfunny, furiously raw, frustratingly calculating, young, stupid, smart, lovable, and lamentable. As a teenager, I used to wonder if Pearl Jam would stand the test of time like The Who, Hendrix, Cream, Neil Young, like all those bands that influenced them. I guess The Gaslight Anthem gave me some of the answer, but the Vs./Vitalogy Deluxe Edition shows that sometimes timelessness is overrated and that there’s a lot to be said for being distinctly of one’s time – fretless bass, splashes, guitar solos and all.
Photos: Lance Mercer (courtesy Legacy/Sony Music Entertainment).