These reviews originally appeared at Exclaim. ca
Given the ubiquity of the songs on Vs., one has question the need for Pearl Jam‘s current reissue campaign. It’s not as if these tunes ever went away. Vs. isn’t that far removed from the classic rock tropes of the band’s debut, infusing Ten‘s riffing and soloing with a degree of punk fury most young teenagers at the time had never heard. It was Eddie Vedder and co.’s giant middle finger to a world that was trying to cage them in. And it was also where the band decided to quit playing music industry games, refusing to make music videos, a move whose only modern equivalent would be shirking the internet entirely. Yet Vs. still set the record for most albums sold in a single week and netted the band a slew of now classic modern rock hits.
Listening 18 years later, the album holds together better than its predecessor, where massive anthems like “Alive” tend to stop the record’s flow dead in its tracks. “Leash” has lost much of its anti-establishment bite and now sounds more like a relic of youth than an anthem for it. But opener “Go” and subsequent rockers like “Animal” and “Rearviewmirror” set the tone. Then there’s the issue of “Daughter” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”; the record’s two acoustic ballads have somehow survived nearly two decades of dorm room butchering and provide much needed respites from Mike McCready and Stone Gossard’s screeching guitars.
Bonus cuts “Hold On” and instrumental “Cready Stomp” are proof positive that Pearl Jam could write toss-off B-sides better than most ’90s rockers’ best material. But “Crazy Mary,” the band’s cover from the Victoria Williams tribute, Sweet Relief, is perfect choice; it’s a character exploration similar to “Elderly Woman…” And while it lacks that song’s snappy brevity, it showcases Pearl Jam’s ability to create ambience and mood just as well as they write memorable guitar licks. Vs. laid the groundwork for rock radio as we know it today, but its pure, visceral energy and lack of self-important pretensions elevate it above the rote field it created.
This is where things started to get interesting.
Many fans long for a return to the “old” Pearl Jam, but the version of the band they so desure ― the one that soloed hard and riffed even harder ― only existed for two records. Vitalogy, though certainly a mainstream rock record in comparison to other albums that dropped in 1994, marked a turning point for the band. Vs. showed a rock band trying desperately to not look and act like a rock band, even if they still sounded like one. WithVitalogy, that ethos started to bleed into Pearl Jam’s music. The homogeneity of much of their earlier material was stripped away ― most of Vitalogy‘s best songs stand in stark contrast to each other. Few could mistake the opening salvo of “Last Exit,” “Spin the Black Circle” or “Not For You” for anything the band had done before. But there were enough vestiges of the “old” Pearl Jam on tracks like “Nothingman,” “Better Man” and the mighty “Corduroy” to endear the record to fans and rock radio alike.
The record’s weakest material is also its most experimental. “Pry to,” which is barely a song, and “Bugs” point to the direction the band would take on the subsequent and underrated No Code, but here come off as half-baked and self-indulgent. The bonus tracks ― alternate versions of three of the album’s best-known songs ― suggest the creative well might have dried up by this point.
Vitalogy is chock full of highlights, and finds the version of Pearl Jam we know today ― a hard touring rock band with garage rock leanings and a conscience ― emerging from the empty shell of rock stardom.