Pearl Jam: Driven into a niche

Pearl Jam: Driven into a niche

The reissues of Vs. and Vitalogy show how one of the world’s most popular bands became its biggest cult act

He steps to the microphone and hears the sound of 2,700 adoring fans come to attention. He could be standing in front of 10 times more if he wanted to, but he most definitely does not want to. He’s not sure he even wants to be here. You can hear it in the way Eddie Vedder counts off the first song— a weary-sounding “one, two, three”—before Pearl Jam leans into “Oceans,” one of a small handful of songs from the band’s blockbuster 1991 debut Ten not to become a hit on radio and MTV. It’s a characteristically perverse choice for a set opener, but the audience responds enthusiastically anyway. Vedder knows he no longer has to seek their approval; fans now want to impress him, so they cheer for the deep cuts as loudly as the singles. It’s a testament to Pearl Jam’s status at this moment—the date is April 12, 1994, just six months after the band’s second album, Vs., sold nearly a million records in its first week of release, and four days after Kurt Cobain’s dead body was found—that the singer can’t seem to shake the adulation that descends on him like the curly brown locks that fall on his face. 

Later, after Pearl Jam finishes an extended jam on one of it newest hits, “Daughter,” Vedder quizzes the audience. “You ever heard of band called Zeke? Ever heard of a band called The Frogs?” Hundreds reply in the affirmative. “Aw, you’ve got taste,” he says. “Never would’ve known that meeting you at a Pearl Jam show.”

These scenes, taken from a live album recorded in Boston and packaged in a new three-disc box set that also contains deluxe reissues of Vs. and its 1994 follow-up, Vitalogy, came in the midst of the most ascendant period of Pearl Jam’s career. By the end of ’94, when Vitalogy became the second fastest-selling album ever behind Vs., Pearl Jam would be the uncontested most popular rock band in the U.S. But, unlike practically every other group that’s ever held that distinction, Pearl Jam (or rather Vedder, who was in the process of becoming Pearl Jam) didn’t want it. 

Vedder still hadn’t figured out how to get Pearl Jam out of this predicament that night in April, but he was on his way. The band would play just one more show that year. When Pearl Jam returned to the road, drummer and Vedder rival Dave Abbruzzese was gone and replaced by Jack Irons, a change that solidified Vedder’s control of the band. While Vitalogy ended up being one of Pearl Jam’s biggest sellers, the record’s weirdness-for-weirdness’-sake affectations and overall sourness took much of the wind out of the band’s stadium-rock sails. In case anyone thought this wasn’t intentional, Vedder made his intentions crystal-clear on “Not For You,” which openly wished for Pearl Jam to have the same discerning followings that bands like Zeke and The Frogs had. (On the live record, Vedder’s introduction for “Not For You” is appropriately brusque: “This song is about people who don’t have taste but they like us anyway.”)

I already wrote a lot of words in my Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation? series about how Pearl Jam navigated the potentially treacherous career path carved out by its sudden stardom, when Ten made the band the No. 1 name in grunge not even two years after it formed. It makes sense that Vs. and Vitalogy are now packaged together, since these are the albums where Pearl Jam worked out what kind of band it wanted to be. Ten was the result of near-magical serendipity, constructed on a foundation of songs built by Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament and turned into anthems by Vedder’s golden pipes and reluctant rock-star charisma. Ten wasn’t made by a band; it was the product of individuals who had fallen together in the right place at the right time, working quickly and intuitively. It was only after Pearl Jam became massively successful that it had the chance to spend years on the road and gel into a unit. Then it figured out what it was: A band with a Fugazi mind trapped in an Aerosmith body.  

Pearl Jam’s tireless tour schedule in the wake of Ten’s release paid big dividends on Vs., a harder-hitting and more fluid-sounding record. (Also credit the full-bodied production by the Glyn Johns of grunge, Brendan O’Brien.) The songs don’t quite approach the tried-and-true classic-rock chops of the debut, but the energy and controlled aggression of tracks like “Animal” and “Rearviewmirror” make Vs. Pearl Jam’s most visceral album, the one you want to blast in the car with the windows rolled down. 

The band wasn’t exactly working in unison at this point: Pearl Jam was still, at its core, a crowd-pleasing boogie-rock band, guided by the populist principles that Ament and Gossard brought from their glam-rock backgrounds. Old habits die hard on Vs., which occasionally apes the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“Rats”) and even the Black Crowes (“Dissident”). When Vedder tries to push Pearl Jam in a different direction, as on the over-reaching funk protest song “W.M.A.,” the band falters badly. At its most successful, Vs. soars on the sound of Vedder’s voice rather than on what he actually says; on the strident anti-gun screed “Glorified G,” the surging guitars and Abbruzzese’s powerful drumming cancel out the facile lyrics that Vedder delivers with thunderous conviction. Vs. reaches for big statements, and grasps big sounds instead.   

Recorded in fits and starts in a number of different studios and cities over the course of nearly a year, Vitalogy was, by all accounts, the album where Pearl Jam 1.0 was torn apart and reassembled as Vedder’s band, once and for all. At this point, Pearl Jam had succumbed to all the old rock-star clichés: lack of communication stemming from bruised egos, jamming endlessly in the studio instead of songwriting, and, for at least one member, going off to rehab for alcoholism and drug addiction. Vedder saw the void in his band—he helped create it—and filled it with as much off-putting strangeness as an otherwise staid Pearl Jam album would allow. When it finally appeared in November 1994, Vitalogy was presented like a mid-’70s Neil Young record. (On actual vinyl even, a highly unorthodox move at the time.) It’s made up of dead ends and frayed edges, with moments of inspiration mixed haphazardly with cloudy-headed throwaways. 

As with the original release of Vitalogy, I listened to the accordion-driven oddity “Bugs” once on the reissue, so I don’t have to ever again. (I didn’t even bother with the sound collage “Stupid Mop.”) There’s also “Better Man,” the poppiest (and soppiest) thing Pearl Jam ever put on record, not counting that cover of “Last Kiss.” Much better is “Nothingman,” the prettiest of Vedder’s sensitive male ballads. The best song of Pearl Jam’s career, “Corduroy,” is also on Vitalogy; it was inspired, as Vedder told our own Josh Modell in 2002, by replicas of his signature brown corduroy jacket being sold on the open market for $650. It was Vedder’s nature to freak out about stuff like that, but on “Corduroy” he finally found a way to fight the pitfalls of rock stardom with actual rock ’n’ roll, instead of railing against it in interviews.  

In my Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation? essay, I expressed disappointment over how Pearl Jam chose to retreat from mainstream rock stardom after Vs. and Vitalogy. People forget just how huge this band was in the early ’90s, and how quickly rock radio changed for the worse once Pearl Jam moved away from its center. But Pearl Jam was just ahead of the curve. By the end of the ’90s, the fissures in the pop-music audience had become full-blown craters, swallowing up many artists in the process, and the divisions would keep growing in the ’00s until the concept of “mass popularity” became impossible to define in any kind of tangible way.

Maybe Pearl Jam realized this during its torturous battle with Ticketmaster over excessive ticket charges. Pearl Jam attempted to take a stand on behalf of its fans and ended up frustrating them when the fight kept the band off the road. Nobody cared if Pearl Jam did something positive with its stardom; the public just wanted entertainment. It was an uneasy, difficult lesson, but one that’s doubtlessly true: Acting on a macro level doesn’t seem to matter nearly as much to people as affecting them inside their own niche. 

The only achievement that can be credibly measured these days is mileage, and Pearl Jam has more of it than any band in its peer group. The re-release of Vs. and Vitalogy marks the unofficial kick-off of Pearl Jam’s yearlong 20th-anniversary celebration, which finds the band looking backward and forward in equal measure. Pearl Jam is celebrating its legacy with a documentary directed by Cameron Crowe and the Twenty music festival slated for the end of the summer. As for the future, a new album is in the works, as are solo records from Vedder and Ament. 

It’s all part of a universe that Pearl Jam began creating in earnest with Vs. and Vitalogy. Years before culture became a never-ending series of concentric circles bumping into one another without ever fully crossing over, Pearl Jam decided to create a place where it didn’t have to live up to the burden of being the “biggest band in the world.” In Pearl Jam land, there’s no such thing. Eventually, the rest of us caught up with them. 

Filed Under: Music

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