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Pearl Jam’s ‘Vitalogy,’ 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago, Rolling Stone critic Al Wiesel led off his review of Pearl Jam’s third album with this nugget:

“While ‘Vitalogy’ is not the calculatedly anti-commercial album that ‘In Utero was rumored to be (but really wasn’t) before it was released, the one designed to alienate all the fans Vedder doesn’t like, it is a wildly uneven and difficult record, sometimes maddening, sometimes ridiculous, often powerful.”

That’s where we were when ‘Vitalogy’ was released on Nov. 22, 1994. Commercialism was bad, fans were worse, and everything was viewed through the filter of Kurt Cobain, who was only six months gone. No wonder Eddie Vedder was having trouble dealing with fame.

Pearl Jam were huge on the back-to-back success of ‘Ten’ and ‘Vs.’ — the kind of huge that just doesn’t happen anymore. “Sell 50,000 tickets to a Golden Gate Park show”-huge. “Take on Ticketmaster“-huge.

In fact, they seemed to be taking on everyone. With vinyl a virtually dead format by the mid-’90s, the band released ‘Vitalogy’ only on LP for the first two weeks, the CD and cassette versions following on Dec. 6. Single ‘Spin the Black Circle’ was an homage to an even more defunct format, the 45.

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If you watch the above clip to the end, you’ll hear Vedder leading the crowd in a “We love Jack Irons” singalong. The former Red Hot Chili Pepper had just taken over the PJ drum throne from Dave Abbruzzese, who was fired just three months before the release of ‘Vitalogy’ due to personality differences with his band mates.

That was far from the only interpersonal issue that the band was dealing with at the time. Lead guitarist Mike McCready checked into rehab during the making of the album, which coincidentally lacks guitar solos. Vedder apparently took the reins of the record, and creative tensions ran high. Rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard allegedly came close to quitting the band he’d founded.

The resulting album was a beautiful mess, vacillating wildly between the extremes of the experimental Beatles pastiche ‘Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me’ and the very accessible ‘Better Man':

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By the end of ’94, grunge had blown the door wide open for punk rock in the U.S. Green Day’s ‘Dookie’ was released that year, for example, as was the Offspring‘s 20 million selling ‘Smash.’ Cuts like ‘Spin the Black Circle’ hearkened back to PJ’s own punk roots (both Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were members of Green River through the mid-’80s), but ‘Vitalogy’ was much more diverse than its competitors. Tracks like ‘Bugs’ and ‘Aye Davanita’ age better than a lot of songs from the period, specifically because they don’t sound like anything else from that era.

Perhaps the most significant song on the album, though, at least in terms of shifting the chains toward the Pearl Jam that we’ve known for the last 20 years, is ‘Not For You.’ This is the moment when Vedder’s Neil Young obsession first gels with the band’s blend of punk and arena rock:

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‘Vitalogy’ went on to sell 4 million copies — pretty impressive for a “wildly uneven and difficult album.” The record earned the deluxe treatment a couple of years ago, remixed and re-released with a few bonus tracks. You can also pick up a nice three-disc set that includes a copy of ‘Vs.’ and a live show from 1994.

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