At the end of 1993, there was no bigger band in the world than Pearl Jam, except maybe Nirvana. If you were a young person in the early 90’s, you probably sang along to songs like Nirvana’s Polly and PJ’s Even Flow.
Pearl Jam, who arguably owed Nirvana, a great deal for their early success, I believe soon surpassed Nirvana in popularity. Kurt Cobain, for his part, maybe sensed this happening and was quite vocal in the very beginning starting what seemed like an one-sided war of words, bashing and comparing, even belittling PJ as Nirvana’s poor relation. Worse yet I believe he even compared PJ to glam metal band Poison! Thankfully, none of that was true.
The momentum of success for both bands reached fever pitch in those early days. But with both Nirvana and PJ struggling with the attention of fame, the question on everyone’s lips was who was going to crash and burn first? That answer unfortunately came way too soon for Nirvana, when frontman Kurt Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on April 8th 1994. Pearl Jam was, of course, stunned and it had a profound effect on them in particular Eddie Vedder.
The struggle to remain together in the face of adversity was probably felt quite strongly during those dark days and months in and around the death of Cobain. His suicide brought many issues to a head, which also included PJ’s bitter conflict with Ticketmaster (in terms of keeping ticket prices and service fees to a minimum) and what to do with drummer Dave Abbruzzese, who was increasingly butting heads with his band members. It’s a wonder that PJ managed to keep it all together.
Coincidentally, during that period while still on the road promoting their second album VS, PJ worked hard on putting together enough new material for a new album. Over the years I’ve heard stories how it could have quite easily have been their last record, given the immense pressure and scrutiny they were under at the time. The added pressure of taking over the mantle that Nirvana held, as the first truly commercially successful band out of Seattle (excluding Soundgarden), probably played on their minds too?
“See this needle/Oh see my hand /Drop, drop, dropping it down/oh so gently /here it comes/touch the flame/Turn me up/won’t turn you away….” – Spin The Black Circle (Pearl jam)
Nonetheless, imagine being a fly on the wall in the inner sanctum of the band during that pending period before the release of their third album Vitalogy. It must have been a nerve-wracking time. With the world’s attention firmly fixated on PJ, would they also succumb to some sort of cataclysm? Pearl Jam critics must have surely taken bets on the band’s demise or break up, or even the failure of their next release. Fortunately, none of those gloomy scenarios happened and PJ rode out the storm. Their first single of the album Spin The Black Circle would peak at number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 and by the beginning of December in 1994, their new album Vitalogy would sit pretty at number one on the Billboard 200.
Interestingly, it’s easy to say that now in hindsight and anyone who still gives a damn about PJ will tell you that Vitalogy is one of their most important albums. In fact it was one of the most powerful, weirdest, wonderful albums of 1994, except maybe for Hole’s Live Through This. Vitalogy was a beast of an album that probably only loyal PJ fans liked and in time learned to love. It was also in a sense a big “up yours!” to the traditional music establishment and corporate world that wanted their share of PJ. Vitalogy is also for many of us the beginning of our reeducation of who PJ were becoming as artists. They were truly now making music for themselves, but we would have to wait a little longer, until their fourth album No Code, to see how far away from mainstream consciousness they had really moved.
I bought Vitalogy the day it was released here back in 1994. I remember thumbing my fingers around the record sleeve, gently sliding the vinyl out of its place and gingerly placing it on the record player. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. (I had heard the single Not For You months earlier when PJ played it live on Saturday Night Live, but that was about it.) As the record needle approached the opening track Last Exit, I heard what sounded like a practice jam session fade in and then stop. Suddenly the sound of a thumping drum opens the song and then it burst into a screeching sound of a distorted electric guitar. If that was the hook to reel me in, it worked.
“Lives opened and trashed…Look ma, watch me crash…/ No time to question…why’d nothing last…/ Grasp and hold on…hold tight and fast…/ Soon be over…and I will relent…’ – Last Exit (Pearl Jam)
Bleaker or grimmer than its two predecessors, Vitalogy was the album that some fans had a hard time listening to. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great record that takes a few listens to appreciate its aggressive nature and experimentation. Though, somewhere in between those extremes, a stunning ballad and one or two other slow numbers rescue the album from indulging in an unrestrained attack against the establishment and the downside to fame, blatantly obvious in songs like Not For You, Pry To, Corduroy, Bugs, Satan’s Bed and Immortality.
So much of the record also has a frantic punk feel to it. The opening two tracks Last Exit and Spin The Black Circle stand out. Interestingly, Spin The black Circle, the first single of the album, was originally a slow guitar piece that was demoed to Eddie Vedder by Stone Gossard on Vedder’s trusty AWIA tape player. With the speed of the tape set on the wrong speed, it played at a furious pace. It didn’t take Vedder too long to convince Gossard that they had hit on something brilliant. But Whipping is by far one of my favourite tracks. It is arguably the angriest of the guitar driven tracks with some of the wildest lyrics to match.
“Don’t need a helmet got a hard, hard head/Don’t need a raincoat I’m already wet /Don’t need a bandage there’s too much blood /After a while seems to roll right off…” – Whipping (Pearl Jam)
Not everything is fast and furious on the album and its a nice interlude after Spin The Black Circle to find the mid tempo Not For You. Lyrically it is somewhat vague but what makes Not For You an important song is its bitter criticism or malice against commercialism. Vedder’s vocals seem to get angrier and angrier, until he explodes with fury and shouts “This is not for you!” repeatedly throughout the song. At almost six minutes it is an epic track that still holds me captivated some twenty years later. Interestingly, when I first heard it on SNL, it was about a week after they found Cobain dead in his house in Seattle, I thought (like many others did too) that it was a song about Cobain. In truth nothing on the album was directly about Cobain. It was just a huge coincidence. All the songs were written before Cobain’s demise.
I can’t believe I have not yet talked about the amazing ballads Nothingman and Betterman, the later in particular being one of PJ’s most beloved songs that is sung by concert audiences the world over. Firstly though, Nothingman is a pleasant and relaxing sounding song in which Jeff Ament carelessly strums his guitar to great effect. It is a song essentially about love and how its protagonist manages to throw away the best thing he ever had, the love of his life. Betterman is arguably the standout of the two about a women trapped in an abusive relationship. It arrives late on the album, quietly building with Vedder on his guitar and the sounds of an organ before it breaks out into a livelier rock ballad. For a song that Vedder was reluctant to release and had shelved many times before, and only at the insistence of their record producer Brendan Obrien, did Vedder eventually change his mind.
“Waitin’, watchin’ the clock, it’s four o’clock, it’s got to stop/ Tell him, take no more, she practices her speech/ As he opens the door, she rolls over/ Pretends to sleep as he looks her over…” – Betterman (Pearl Jam)
Besides the interlude fragments of Pry To and Aye Davanita, things get really weird on Vitalogy when we hear Vedder squeeze the life out of a thrift shop accordion on Bugs. It is almost three minutes of torture, as Vedder wrestles with his own demons about being famous. In the years since I first played it, I have come to laugh at it more often, as Vedder throws up a variety of questions: “Do I kill them? Become their friend?/ Do I eat them? Raw or well done?/ Do I trick them? I don’t think they’re that dumb/ Do I join them? Looks like that’s the one.” It is bold and brave and something I think The Beatles would have got away with too.
Funny that I mention The Beatles, the last track on Vitalogy is something that John Lennon would have loved if he were still alive. It is called Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me aka ‘Stupid Mop’. Like John Lennon’s Revolution 9 on the White Album, ‘Stupid mop’ is a creepy collage of sample recordings. It is the only track on the album that I really dislike and often lift the needle of my record player before its introduction. That said, I quite like the idea of ending the album with Immortality the next to last track. In short, Immortality, a haunting cynical song, would have fit perfectly as the albums last song if it wasn’t for ‘Stupid Mop’, partly I think due to the brilliance of Mike McCready guitar solo, that starts of slowly and builds to a soaring finale.
“The waiting drove me mad/ You’re finally here and I’m a mess/ I take your entrance back/ Can’t let you roam inside my head/ I don’t want to take what you can give/ I would rather starve than eat your bread/ I would rather run but I can’t walk/ Guess I’ll lay alone just like before…” – Corduroy (Pearl Jam)
I deliberately left my thoughts on what I believe is the best song on the album until now. That song I allude to is called Corduroy. To me, it truly manages to capture the essence of the whole album in four and a half minutes of brilliance. Right from the beginning of the song it builds and boils over with a brilliant guitar riff. The distorted chords, which are a feature throughout the album, really work well here again, as it helps to elevate the urgency of Vedder’s voice. The song is inspired in part by Eddie Vedder seeing a replica of his favourite thrift shop jacket, selling for hundreds of dollars in a store, wishing to take advantage of his popularity and dress sense.
My journey through almost the whole album cannot come to an end without me briefly talking about the final packaging or album artwork for Vitalogy. It was at the insistence of Vedder, that Pearl Jam would use loose concepts (of life) from an amazing home medical encyclopedia first published in 1899. I don’t know if the album sold so well in its first month (almost a million copies) because fans were hanging out to hear PJ’s latest record or because they were aroused by the interest in its concept. I say, aroused, tongue-in-cheek because within the pages of the album booklet, we will find some of the most amusingly outdated excerpts from the actual 1899 book.
Well, there it is, one of my favourite Pearl Jam albums warts and all. In short, the last band still standing from their era really deserves your ear and I hope more people will come back to it in the future. Overall, it really is rewarding with some of the most important songs of the last twenty years on it.