by: Michael Shields
Twenty years after Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy dropped, we look back at this eclectic album’s mixed bag of sound….
In 1994, Pearl Jam had blown the fuck up. As of a result of their swollen regard, the pressures of success and of fame were beginning to wear on the band. The loss of privacy and the shackles of celebrity were becoming a burden in ways that they hadn’t foreseen. A frustrated Eddie Vedder was quoted as saying he was “way too fucking soft for this whole business, this whole trip,” and there was a measure of fallout. Pearl Jam’s original drummer, Dave Abbruzzese, was fired due to “personal conflicts” while lead guitarist Mike McCready checked into rehab for alcohol and cocaine abuse. Stone Goddard, up to that point one of the band’s most vocal forerunners, relinquished his role as peacemaker for the group, and turned the reigns over entirely to Eddie Vedder, for better or for worse. Communication amongst the band was at an all time low. In essence, the band was falling apart at the seams. And yet, somehow, the artists within them continued to create. From the ashes of that turmoil was birthed Vitalogy, an album that remains a unique animal, and one of Pearl Jam’s most interesting offerings to date.
Vitalogy was Pearl Jam’s third studio album, released on November 22, 1994 ((Vitalogy was first released on vinyl on this date, and then released two weeks later on CD and cassette. The record sold 34,000 copies in its first week, and until this year when Jack White released the Lazaretto “Ultra” LP, it held the record for most vinyl sales in one week.)). Upon its release, Vitalogy flew off the shelves, quickly becoming the second-fastest selling album in history, eclipsed only by Pearl Jam’s second album, Vs. It sold 877,000 copies in its first week. Vitalogy was the album where Pearl Jam stepped out of their comfort zone, and this was because, fittingly enough, they were indeed uncomfortable.
Although the angst, insecurities, and dramatics could have easily torn the band apart, the deep-seeded aggression that the album builds its foundation upon is the exact reason Vitalogy is so magnanimous and distinct. Many of the finer songs on the album, including “Corduroy,” “Not for You,” “Pry, To,” “Satan’s Bed,” and “Immortality,” are brimming with contempt and references to the pressures of fame and the loss of individual privacy. Throughout Vitalogy, Vedder vents his frustrations with his fans, heroin’s unrelenting grasp, and with the music industry in general. Pearl Jam sounds the most vibrant when it’s them against the world. Whether fighting Ticketmaster, fame, their own personal demons, or their fanbase, they thrive within a state of complete indignation, and the anguish fueled intensity of Vitalogy remains the apex of their asperity.
Vitalogy was many things, and can be described in countless ways. But I like to look at it as Pearl Jam’s mid-life crisis. Yet instead of the porsche, the divorce papers and the curvy, model girlfriend, Pearl Jam found a way to vent their myriad resentments and explore their newfound slant on life in musical form. Through branching out, experimenting with new sounds and embracing a lean, stripped down production, they created their most original album, an uncompromised piece of art so unique that it confounds critics and fans alike to this day.
Vitalogy commences with furied aggression, as a clanging snare drum welcomes us to “Last Exit.” The song, while hurried, sets an urgent tone, preparing one for an album that is definitively in-your-face. The final fifteen seconds are especially heightened, finding Veder shrieking “THIS IS MY, THIS IS MY, THIS IS MY, last exit,” as the song comes to an abrupt close. “Spin the Black Circle,” Pearl Jam’s attempt to replicate aggressive New York City punk rock is a song about the band’s love of vinyl records, and although not classically radio-friendly it was Vitalogy’s lead single and the band’s first to enter the Billboard Hot 100, reaching a high of eighteen on the charts.
The impassioned “Not For You” makes things crystal-fucking-clear about what Eddie Vedder thinks of his critics. Bluntly roaring “this is not for you….oh never was for you….fuck you,” Vedder minces not a word on this gritty and bold anthem. “Tremor Christ’s” slow funk builds as the grinding, dizzying riffs invoke a feeling of free-falling, desperately tumbling while trying in vain to find something to latch onto. Luckily, a breath of fresh air arrives in “Nothingman,” one of two stunning ballads on the album. “Nothingman,” and “Better Man” later in the album, are two of the most beautiful tracks Pearl Jam has ever written, introducing us to the reflective, heart-wrenching ballads that Vedder will forever be celebrated for. Both songs act as a perfect duo of sonic intermissions to the madness surrounding. “Whipping,” like “Not For You,” is straight up rock-n-roll, charging forward with a full head of steam, running downhill until we find ourselves in the funky and all too short “Pry To,” with its repeated lyric of “p-r-i-v-a-c-y spells privacy, man,” further highlighting the relentless burdens of fame Pearl Jam was feeling at the time.
“Corduroy,” inarguably one of Pearl Jam’s crowning achievements in songwriting, contains a message to their fans. “I don’t wanna be held in your debt,” Vedder wails within the vivacious and uplifting confines of the track. It is remarkable that a song that reads as a Fuck you! to its fans became a fan favorite, and a communal moment live in concert ((The title of the song comes from Eddie Vedder’s astonishment that a brown corduroy jacket he bought for $12 was being sold for 50 times that price, all because it was suddenly “hip.”)). “Bugs” features Eddie Vedder playing an accordion that he purchased at a thrift shop. Invoking Tom Waits’ minimalist meditations, “Bugs” tells the story of a man lamenting his misfortune at being surrounded by bugs everywhere he goes, a thinly-veiled reference to his unmitigated distrust of people and an opportunistic music industry. Revolving back to a more familiar Pearl Jam sound following the enigmatic “Bugs,” “Satan’s Bed” dramatically reanimates the albums intensity. “Immortality,” often rumored to be about the loss of Kurt Cobain, patiently and purposefully builds to a calming and poignant plateau, and is rife with the anger that is a trademark of the album. “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” unceremoniously closes the album out, a tedious sonic collage and a true freakshow amongst a sea of oddities.
Vitalogy, while often uneven, messy and even maddening, is a classic Pearl Jam album. And although not perfect, it is somehow better for it, with its rough edges and perplexing moments helping to define the album’s distinctiveness. Vitalogy’s uniqueness is its primary asset, the album only improving with each successive listen as you come to appreciate that you will never fully understand it. Far darker than its two predecessors, and cloaked thoroughly in metaphor, Vitalogy is an astounding manifestation of the infuriated shriek Pearl Jam emitted when they felt they just couldn’t take it anymore.
It is hard to discuss this album, and the cultural impact of its release, without harking back to my personal experiences. I remember standing in line outside my local record store with a group of about ten other music junkies, all pacing with anxiety, awaiting our musical fix. Once allowed entrance, and after we jockeyed for position to obtain our pre-ordered copies, I spent a minute to soak in the moment. The album’s cover art resembled an early 20th century medical book ((Vitalogy literally means “the study of life.”)), and I held it for some time before I purchased it, caressing my fingers calmly over the bevel embossed, gold V-I-T-A-L-O-G-Y, speculating about the wonders within this unassuming packett. Little did I know.
I was at a unique point in my musical journey at the time of Vitalogy’s release. I was beginning to become more open and adventurous. But no matter what the case, and regardless of any sort of euphonious evolution occurring within my very being, I was always vigilantly cognizant of the release of a new Pearl Jam album. Although Pearl Jam easily slides into the classification of rock and grunge, Vitalogy was different. And instead of separating the fact that my musical tastes were changing in 1994, around the time of Vitalogy’s release, away from rock towards the more eclectic, I have accepted the fact that my musical tastes were growing not despite, but because of multifarious and extraordinary albums such as Vitalogy. Vitalogy was a rebellious weird beast. It was eye-opening and disorderly, and remains a fascinating and influential work of art.
It is astonishing that thirty years after their first release, and ten albums later, Pearl Jam is still doing it. Anyone who has taken them in live recently can attest to the fact that they are as impassioned and powerful as ever. Following a period of time where Pearl Jam was nowhere to be found, hermetical in a self-imposed exile, they now find refuge in their live shows, existing on the fringes of popularity, while remaining as relevant and entertaining as they have ever been. It isn’t going too far to presume that this might not be the case without Vitalogy, the album where Pearl Jam proved they were so much more than a typical grunge band from Seattle. That their influences and capabilities lie far outside the boundaries of any box you try to squeeze them into. Birthed under the shadow of an ominous black cloud, Vitalogy acquainted us with some of the greatest songs the band has ever written. Songs that haven’t lost a lick of their edge and appeal, even twenty years after Vitalogy’s release.