21 Years Ago: Pearl Jam Take a Left Turn With ‘Vitalogy’
In a lot of ways, Vitalogy feels like it's the real first Pearl Jam album. Released on vinyl on Nov. 22, 1994 (and on CD a few weeks later), it was the band's third album in four years, written largely during the tour for Vs. and recorded immediately afterward. But the band's trajectory, including their birth, had been a weird one — they were like a lab creation, pulled together by guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, two musicians with lots of momentum in the Seattle scene who were likely to have a major label deal no matter what band they put together. When Eddie Vedder came aboard in 1990, most of the songs on Ten were already written. That album's seismic success followed, then a tour, then the recording of Vs, then that album's tour.
So it was only now that the band was really finding out how to draw out each other’s creativity, and finally deciding what kind of band they wanted to be together. The center of power shifted away from Gossard and Ament and more toward Vedder — naturally, since he was the band’s de facto spokesman, the one who got the questions when reporters wanted to know about their crusade against Ticketmaster or their feelings about Kurt Cobain’s death -- which meant changes the vibe, too. Gossard and Ament were the purveyors of riff, born arena rockers and Hendrix worshippers who had molded themselves to Vedder’s style. But that sound wasn’t really theirs anymore — it had been adopted by bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Bush and Silverchair and scores of other bands with singles on the radio. With their influence tempered a bit, their sound expanded, became more natural and reflective of a sense of exploration, and a desire to be a band more nuanced and forward looking than the wave of imitators they’d sparked.
They took that attitude seriously, made it their raison d’être. They made it clear that chart success wasn’t important to them (despite the fact that it kept coming). They fired drummer Dave Abbruzzese, who still appears on most tracks here, mostly because he seemed to enjoy the success too much. Pearl Jam were reconfiguring themselves as a band whose ambitions transcended traditional measures of success, and that meant making a record on their own shifting terms, a record they could each pour their hearts into.
The sound of Vitalogy is more lived-in and more natural. The band are groovier, more limber and shift easily between styles. The first surprising moment is the second track, a Bad Brains-ian punk burner about the aesthetic joy of listening to records, the paper sleeves, the crooked turntable arms. Vedder’s voice is an ecstatic growl, not so operatic as on Ten.
As a young listener the tracks I was most fascinated by were the weird interstitials — tracks like "Aye Davinita" and “Bugs” that broke up the flow of the record, admittedly packed with structurally-straightforward rock songs. But these are full-length tracks, not skits. And they’re so blatantly weird, particularly “Bugs,” and genuinely unsettling. It's easy to imagine Vedder alone with an accordion in a crumbling house, stomping on bugs, being overrun. “I’ll become naked, and with them, I’ll become one,” he shouts. The album’s last track – the sound collage “Stupid Mop” – consists of a recording of a mental patient talking about an overwhelming desire to be spanked, to connect on a different level; an interrogator keeps insisting its not normal.
Both "Nothing Man" and “Betterman” are uncomplicated ballads, and easily two of the more moving and deeply felt songs in the band’s catalog. And though the songs are distinct in significant ways — “Nothing Man” is flowy and willowy and was reportedly written in an hour; “Betterman" was a song Vedder had been working on since he was a teenager — they serve as the album's melodic anchors. Vedder is back in operatic mode, but with a different, gentler accompaniment. On an album that largely shuns the band’s devoted audience, the two “Man songs” give fans (and radio program directors) something relatively simple to cling onto.
Vedder’s voice has always been a tool for tapping great emotional wells, but on Vitalogy he sounds like he’s screaming right at you and right in your face. "Not for You" is a f— you to those who want to over-interpret and possess him (not just label managers and marketing stooges but his actual fans). He sings: “Oh where did they come from / Stormed my room / And you dare say / It belongs to you.” Vedder wrote “Corduroy" after he saw an expensive version of his old corduroy jacket for sale at a department store. "They can buy, but can’t put on my clothes,” he sings. If the powerhouses on Ten and Vs. had a kind of bluesy flow, “Not For You” and “Corduroy” stomp impatiently. “Alive” was a ferocious wave of sound, but it carried you; these songs aim right for you and slam into you at full speed. And Vedder isn't singing to paint a picture; he doesn't care whether you can relate to what he's saying -- he just needs you to understand him.
Vedder has said that nothing on Vitalogy is about Kurt Cobain directly, but it was written and recorded directly in the wake of his suicide, and Vedder contemplates the consequences of sharing so much, about becoming something different than what you want to be. On the album’s lead-off track, "Last Exit,” he sings about letting the sun burn away his mask, about letting his spirit pass, about trying in vain to take over control of his own identity. In the margins of the song's lyrics, Vedder wrote, “If one cannot control his life, will he be driven to control his death?”
The album’s apogee is its last song, “Immortality,” a shuddering acoustic number, a song that doesn’t try to shore up Vedder’s vulnerability with surging distortion. It’s pure emotional desolation – a fantasy about escaping fame at all costs. It may not be about Cobain directly, but it’s clearly about how Vedder sees himself in him. It's about how frightened he is at the prospect of fame overwhelming his ability to define himself and the temptations of running off into the hands of immortality. The rest of the band meet the demands of Vedder’s song – Gossard with a delicate slide solo and then everyone else rising up around Vedder and Gossard into a measured climax with all its weight behind Vedder’s turmoil. It’s a band moving away from the sound of popular rock, a sound they created; a band that, with its most popular work behind it, was finding its voice for the first time.