Happy 25th Anniversary to Pearl Jam’s second studio album Vs., originally released October 19, 1993.
Pearl Jam’s sophomore effort Vs. (1993) was a record born of conflict. The title alone is an obvious indicator that the band was gunning for something or someone. Lyrically, the album is awash with references to trauma and discord. The opening refrain from “Animal,” the album’s second song, recounts “One, two, three, four, five against one” that puts the band at odds with some notion of corporate America.
Some of the conflict came from the relentless touring that went into promoting the band’s debut album Ten (1991), an endeavor that was no doubt rewarding as the band became one of the biggest acts in U.S rock music, but equally exhausting as the toil of press junkets, award ceremonies, interviews, music videos and dealing with obsessive fans were considered the downside to fame. Something was changing in the band’s collective mindset.
Upon the release of Vs., the band were adamant that they would not play the corporate game of making music videos for MTV to broadcast non-stop, nor would they allow as much press access or interviews. So in some respects, Vs. exists at an intriguing point in Pearl Jam’s career; the moment in which their trajectory towards self-determination was truly set upon and the mystique that would surround the band in the years to come was first put in place.
In fact, this would be the era in which Pearl Jam would stand up to what they perceived as injustice. Bleeding from the embers of Vs.’ slogging world tours into Vitalogy (1994) and even into No Code (1996), the band would embark on an epic lawsuit against Ticketmaster on grounds that the astronomical service charges were tantamount to extortion for the band’s fans. Pearl Jam would tour sports halls and stadiums that Ticketmaster had no jurisdiction over and basically try and undercut the monolithic ticker seller. A noble cause for sure, and one they faced alone, yet an undertaking that took them out of the game for a number of years as they tried to find these out-of-the-way venues in all major cities across the U.S.
Not like these activities saw much dent in their popularity. A quick look at the numbers will tell us this. Vs. has to date sold a staggering seven million copies in the United States. In its first week of release alone, it racked up 950,378 units sold, making it the fastest selling album of all time, a record it held on to for five years. Six of the album’s songs generated top forty positions in the U.S. Modern Rock Charts, despite only four actual commercial singles being released. The record also received three Grammy Award nominations.
And this is just the U.S perspective. The album topped the charts in eight other countries around the world.
Listening back to the record twenty-five years on, it is hard to understand how the record was actually so massive. Not, I should clarify, because the record is a bad one. Far from it. But when placed in sonic comparison to its predecessor, it’s almost like two different bands recording under the same moniker. Sure there are similarities, with Eddie Vedder’s vocals a dead giveaway for a start.
There was an obvious attempt to recapture Pearl Jam’s energetic live performances. The record’s production by Brendan O’Brian, a collaborator the band would return to again and again over the subsequent decades, is an edgier and more aggressive affair then their debut and certainly does capture that live element to a tee. It also, dare I say, dates the record to that period of the 1990s.
Only a few remnants of Ten’s soft, warm and fluid production are found on Vs. The one song that might have sat comfortably on that record is “Dissident,” maybe at a push “Daughter.” Instead the record relies on Dave Abbruzzese belting drums, Mike McCready’s face-melting solo riffs, Stone Gossard’s chomping rhythm guitar, Jeff Ament’s steady bass and Vedder’s squalling and screeching vocals. Prime examples of this are “Go,” “Leash” and “Blood,” as these songs teeter on the edge of all-out explosion.
There are moments when the band flips the sonic blast such as the previously mentioned “Dissident” and “Daughter,” and also “W.M.A.,” which is predominantly guided by Abbruzzese’s tribal drums. The breezy acoustic “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” is simple Vedder vocal and guitar, and because of this, it’s somewhat of a black thumb among the racket.
The groove sets in quite wonderfully on the bizarre funk of “Glorified G” and the stomping “Rearviewmirror.”
If Vs. had an unsung hero then it would have to be drummer Abbruzzese, a member that despite only recording this record and the follow-up Vitalogy before being sacked, lingers on in the band’s story. Perhaps his presence is fondly felt because listeners consider Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy, a superb trifecta of recordings and the band’s commercial and critical high point.
This is a truism, but it also should be pointed out that, although excellent drummers in their own right, Jack Irons and Matt Cameron, the drummers that took the stool after Abbruzzese’s departure, are simply not as hard hitting and as brutal as Abbruzzese was. He plays the living hell out of his kit adding flushes and fills but knowing when restraint is required, as on “Indifference” in which a few cymbal crashes and a steady tambourine are all that is needed for the song to fully form.
This is not to discredit any other band member; each one brings a nuanced sound to the overall mix.
All the songs included on Vs. have easily slipped into the classic Pearl Jam anthem category. So it seems a shock that, twenty-five years later, Vs. as a whole does not really feel like a classic Pearl Jam record. There are many elements that reduce its quality. The production aside, Vedder’s lyrics are perhaps his weakest and least coherent set to record. While they work within the context of the heavy clamor, they are nonetheless lost.
There are of course exceptions such as “Daughter,” “W.M.A.,” “Indifference,” “Rearviewmirror” and “Elderly Woman,” but songs such as “Leash,” “Rats” and “Animal” feel more like words to scream at the commotion then actual lyrics that inform or tell a story. Vedder would regain his lyrical confidence in short order, but here he feels defeated to the point of having nothing further to add.
Another aspect that affects Vs., and only becomes apparent in retrospect, is that quite simply there are now enough brilliant and diverse Pearl Jam records that Vs. falls to the wayside. Vitalogy is usually above Vs. in internet polling and Ten seems to reign supreme as the most loved Pearl Jam record. No Code and Yield (1998) often slip comfortably into the top five. But one can now cherry pick through a career of ten records to find the right version of Pearl Jam for them.
Need short sharp bursts of driving punk rock? Go take a look at Backspacer (2009). Need open armed anthems? Look no further than Yield or Ten. Need a fix of the band’s outspoken politics and experimental side? Dip into Riot Act (2002) or Vitalogy. Want a softer gentler vibe? Make No Code your selection or drop the needle on one of Vedder’s solo records. Want a mix of all the above? Check out the band’s rarities and B-side collection Lost Dogs (2003) or their Greatest Hits Collection (2004). Need a live fix? There are countless commercially available quality bootlegs of almost every Pearl Jam show, or go see them live. Their set lists change every night.
And this is perhaps why Vs feels like a letdown in this era. It can’t compete with the seemingly unbeatable subsequent records that have come after it. Unlike some of their peers who either broke up, burned out or fizzled away, Pearl Jam continued to grow and get better as musicians and lyricists and Vs. feels like a barrier to that growth, albeit a temporary one.
It will always have a special place in the Pearl Jam discography. The quality of each song demands this rank. But as Pearl Jam continues and we the listeners grow older and wiser, an album like Vs feels like a youthful and incoherent proclamation from a group of angry young men not quite ready or with the proper resources to take on the world. It would only be a matter of time.