Pearl Jam’s Vs. Turns 25
Pearl Jam’s second album, Vs., opens with 28 seconds of muted, jumbled noodling before the band pounces onto an angry, taut, loud riff. That opening track, “Go,” is like a Jack-in-the-box jumping into your ears: a sudden burst of pent-up, mechanized energy. It shocked me the first time I heard it, the sound of a band writhing against the laurels of its mammoth debut, Ten.
Released 25 years ago today, Vs. broke the Billboard record for an album’s best-selling first week. With no singles or videos to its name, the album moved just under a million units in seven days — more than the next nine highest-charting records combined. That same week, lead singer Eddie Vedder found himself on the cover of Time, which wasn’t the only legacy press outfit to stoke the hype. In its review of Vs., Rolling Stone likened Vedder to Jim Morrison and Pete Townshend, and the New York Times linked the band to, well, everyone. Its review cited, “for starters,” Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, “R.E.M., the Police, the Allman Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles” as audible influences on the record’s sound. Commercially stratospheric, culturally ubiquitous, and critically feted, Pearl Jam in October 1993 may have been the last rock band to truly hold the world in its thrall. Ten is far more iconic today, but Vs. documents what this band sounded like when it mattered most.
It sounded, of course, fucking pissed. Sonically, Vs. is a much harsher, more immediate record than Ten, thanks in no small part to new drummer Dave Abbruzzese and new producer Brendan O’Brien. Abbruzzese — fired a year later — doesn’t so much play his drums as smack them, his snare popping throughout Vs. as clear and bright as a quasar. O’Brien, meanwhile, slices the guitars spare and sinewy — helping the band land its pivot from the arena-wide flamboyance of “Alive” to the garage hostility of “Animal,” from the dreamy drift of “Garden” to the manic frustration of “Go.” Where Ten is dense, Vs. is lean; one ruminates, the other declares.
And that’s to say nothing of Vs.’s lyrics, which in most songs detail abuse of one kind or another. The thrashing “Animal” pits “one-two-three-four-five against one” in a gang rape, as the deceptively gentle “Daughter” calls out to a young girl beaten by her parents behind drawn shades. The abuse can be political — as “W.M.A.” (read: White Male American) holds a white cop accountable for his unchecked brutality — and it can be metaphorical, as Vedder howls in “Blood” at the industry for packaging him as a commercial product. “It’s my blooooood,” he screams, the hardest he’s ever screamed on record, as the band convulses behind him. “Drains and spills, soaks the pages, fills their sponges.” The outrage culminates on the wry “Rats,” which submits that the rodents treat each other better than humans do. “They don’t scam, don’t fight,” Vedder muses. “Don’t oppress an equal’s given rights.”
For all his fixation, Vedder doesn’t always express his rage eloquently. It’s admirable that Pearl Jam were so early to gun control advocacy, but “Glorified G” sports the dumbest lyrics in the band’s songbook. “Got a gun,” Vedder mocks, “fact I got two / That’s OK man ’cause I love God!” On paper, this is not good. But on record, Vedder sells it as only he can, breathing fire into his disgust. His conviction, in other words, accounts for his clumsiness. Looking back, he was always a bit of an unlikely candidate for biggest rock star of the early 90s — a fumbling paragon of sincerity in an age of tactful ironists.
Since then, however, it’s that very sincerity that has enabled Pearl Jam to endure and thrive, as each of its peers has succumbed to tragedy. Vs.’s climax, “Rearviewmirror,” illustrates this band’s unique capacity for connection and explains its ongoing symbiosis with legions of diehard fans. Over a restrained, staccato riff, the song builds from weary reflections on past abuse to a cathartic, thunderous coda about putting the past behind you, and using it as fuel. “I gather speed,” Vedder sings towards the end, “from you fucking with me.” Thematically, it’s the quintessential Pearl Jam song: a declaration of stubborn aspiration in the face of trauma. And as Vs.’s centerpiece, “Rearviewmirror” clarifies that Vedder’s rage always comes from humanism rather than cynicism, from a livid desire to help. A lot of us still sense it today.
Given that enduring sentiment, not to mention the epic heraldry that greeted Vs. 25 years ago, it’s odd to see how this record has drifted somewhat from considerations of the 90s’ major albums. It has, of course, the colossal misfortune of living in the shadow of Ten, which has since become one of the highest-selling records in rock history. At the same time, Vs.’s successor, Vitalogy, seems to have retained more critical currency — thanks largely to its alluring, experimental aloofness, which signaled the start of a sea change for the band.
Or perhaps it’s because Vs. so defined its moment that it struggles to register in ours. In 2018, a record for physical media sales (since broken) is a quaint Luddite artifact, and the classic rock canon is no longer accepting new members. It wouldn’t be long after Vs., of course, until rock music more generally was sidelined from pop culture’s center, and the world wouldn’t turn its gaze onto a rock band’s next move unless U2 were embarrassing themselves. So while Ten has the privilege of being a classic, Vs. bears, in a way, the burden of being a hit, forever frozen in time. But today, when rage is back in fashion and Pearl Jam are, against all odds, still going, the record deserves your attention. If nothing else, snare tones this tight never go out of style.