The Follow-Up: Pearl Jam’s ‘Vs.’ Was at Least a Nine out of ‘Ten’
In ‘The Follow-Up,’ we take a look back at the album that came right after a band’s most iconic record. In this inaugural installment, we spotlight Pearl Jam‘s 1993 sophomore release, ‘Vs.,’ which followed up their gargantuan 1991 debut, ‘Ten.’
For a significant portion of 1992, you could’ve scribbled the words “pearl” and “jam” on a crumpled napkin and easily sold it to any number of suburban mallrats layered in fashionable flannel for at least $16.99.
While Nirvana embodied the ethos of grunge in its purest commercial form during the first wave of mainstream grunge following 1991’s ‘Nevermind,’ it was Pearl Jam that spoke directly to disenfranchised teenagers who enjoyed all the angst but still yearned for lyrics they could actually make out (except maybe on ‘Even Flow’). On the strength of their slow-burning debut, ‘Ten,’ (which actually came out a month before ‘Nevermind’ but took almost a year to break into the Top 10 on the Billboard 200), Pearl Jam became a less threatening and more melodic alternative to the alternative.
The fervor for Eddie Vedder‘s yarling and anything related to the band led to massive sales of anything loosely related to Seattle. That meant any Pearl Jam fan worth their salt owned not only ‘Ten,’ but also Temple of the Dog‘s self-titled album (a collaboration between the other members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden‘s Chris Cornell), the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s ‘Singles‘ (which featured two previously unreleased songs from the band) and maybe even CDs by Mother Love Bone (the glammy pre-Vedder version of Pearl Jam).
By early 1993, sales of ‘Ten’ had surpassed those of ‘Nevermind,’ and fans who had long since memorized every grunt and guitar lick on the album had already built up their own expectations of what the next Pearl Jam album should sound like. But ‘Vs.’ was almost definitely not it.
"Pearl Jam were cultivating exactly the type of perpetually misunderstood sentiment their teenage listeners craved most."It’s no secret that the band felt the pressure following up ‘Ten,’ and Vedder has since admitted that recording the album was likely one of his least favorite sessions in the band’s two-decade history. Already feeling pigeonholed by the media and turned into a commodity by the corporate record industry, Pearl Jam — still predominantly under the musical vision of guitarist Stone Gossard (Vedder would forever take over with 1994’s ‘Vitalogy’) — were cultivating exactly the type of perpetually misunderstood sentiment their teenage listeners craved most.
At the time — a time when fans still had to record new songs from the radio on their severely overworked cassette decks if they wanted the ability to listen to them when they wanted to before their official release — the first taste came in the form of album opener and lead single, ‘Go.’ A song that starts out sounding like producer Brendan O’Brien had pressed record before the band were ready, ‘Go’ was instantly harder hitting and more menacing than anything anyone could’ve expected. If Pearl Jam were trying to work their fans into a frenzy, that song — still one of their best — was assuredly the right choice.
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While the album’s second song, ‘Animal,’ was nearly as abrasive but in a funkier way, the next song most casual listeners became aware of was the second single, ‘Daughter’ — a jangly acoustic ballad that managed to expand the band’s sonic palette while maintaining just enough electric elements not to alienate O.G. fans. ‘Animal’ was released as the third single about five months later, followed by ‘Dissident’ — perceived by many to be one of the more middling tracks on the album but one that still managed to peak at No. 3 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. That in and of itself is a true testament to just how infallible Pearl Jam were believed to be at the time.
But ‘Vs.’ was just the beginning of what would be Pearl Jam’s career-long preoccupation with destroying everyone else’s notion of what they actually are. After ‘Jeremy’ from ‘Ten’ took home ‘Best Video of the Year‘ honors at the 1993 VMAs and Vedder’s likeness was slapped on the cover of Time magazine even after refusing to be a part of their story on the burgeoning grunge scene, the band took an overtly anti-everything stance. They stopped making videos, stopped doing traditional album promotion and essentially stopped being the Pearl Jam fans expected.
That tension led ‘Vs.’ down an incredibly diverse sonic path. Instead of rehashing ‘Alive’ and ‘Even Flow,’ the band indulged their more experimental impulses: ‘W.M.A.’ (which stands for ‘White Male American’) is a driving and exotic lashing out at police brutality complete with tribal chanting; ‘Rats’ is a quirky, bass-driven commentary on rodents’ moral superiority to men; ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In a Small Town’ is a straight-ahead ballad with what was seemingly the longest title until Fiona Apple came along; and ‘Blood’ vacillates between pure funk and ferocious near-metal with Vedder’s blistering vocals providing the most bang for angrier fans’ 15 bucks.
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On just about every quantifiable level, ‘Vs.’ was a categorical success. Not only did it debut at the top of the Billboard 200, the 950,000 units moved in its first five days set a record for the most copies of an album sold in its first week and outperformed all of the other entries in the Top 10 that week combined. It went on to be nominated for three Grammy Awards, including ‘Best Rock Album,’ and has since been certified seven times platinum.
"‘Vs.’ is far more adventurous and – in a lot of ways – exponentially more representative of the band’s future output."But perhaps the most significant successful aspect of ‘Vs.’ is that it blew open the door of creative possibilities for Pearl Jam. While it could be argued that there has never actually been anything truly “alternative” about them in the Sonic Youth sense of the genre (Pearl Jam have consistently been more the definition of mainstream and modern rock), the band was obviously encouraged by its critical and commercial achievements. While it isn’t quite as consistently satisfying as ‘Ten,’ it’s far more adventurous and — in a lot of ways — exponentially more representative of the band’s future output. It allowed them to get even weirder with ‘Vitalogy’ and began their distancing from the grunge designation they never wanted in the first place.