Reevaluating PEARL JAM Part 4: Vitalogy

PEARL JAM‘s third album, Vitalogy came out in late 1994. Vitalogy was certified 5-times platinum within three months of release. For more information about my PEARL JAM project, please go ahead and click this

An argument could be made that 1994 signalled the beginning of the end for the grunge explosion. While the “alternative” scene was still riding high as the most significant music of the time, the proliferation of copy-cat acts and the dissolution/destruction of some of the groups that had laid the bedrock for the whole fiasco pointed to the whole thing going artistically tits-up at any moment. You could practically smell Lifehouse baking in the oven. This is not to say that great music wasn’t still being made. Some of my favourite records of the 1990s were released in 1994. I wasn’t a Pearl Jam fan, though. What were they up to?

I remember seeing Vitalogy in the CD collections of many, many people when I was growing up. It actually seemed like more people had this record than either of the previous Pearl Jam records. Typical of the way I approach things, though, I maintained my opposition to Pearl Jam and didn’t bother listening to it. But I’m an adult now. So I’ll listen to it, alright?

Last Exit – This song opens in typical Pearl Jam fashion. They absolutely love to include audio of themselves dicking around on their records. When the actual song begins – with a promisingly driving drum pattern – I’m pleasantly surprised. The song that follows is a pretty great little chunk of jagged punk-tinged rock ‘n roll with a chorus that feels unconventional but manages to hook me. The guitar solo section doesn’t devolve into a lame twiddly-twiddly Joe Perry guitar wank, but plays something much more restrained and well-suited to the material. Even the bass guitar is sitting in a nice pocket. This song sounds great. An auspicious opening.

Spin The Black Circle – Maybe being on constant tour for four years knocked something loose in these guys that I had been missing. That, or they just stumbled upon a crate of actual punk records and decided to stop being a lousy cock-rock band dressed in plaid. “Spin the Black Circle” is great. Completely unhinged. Totally surprising from these guys and even more surprising that it was released as the album’s first single. It becomes clear that they weren’t setting out to burn up the pop charts with this record, which is a really good look for them. The song devolves into chaos and dicking around that sounds appropriate and really good. I will listen to this again.

Not For You – The energy comes down here, but after the last two tracks, this is understandable and totally okay. This song has a dirty swagger that works pretty well, and Vedder’s delivery rides the line between tuneful and grating in a way that is unexpectedly compelling. The guitar lines that mark the bridge are super interesting and weird, and the way that it leads into the song’s lowest simmer and then launches into a platform for the vocals to soar into the song’s climax… well, it’s great work. The track overstays its welcome, at nearly six minutes, but I still like it very much. This is already my favourite Pearl Jam record.

Tremor Christ – Another interesting track. Great vocal melody in the verses, although maybe the most EddieVedder that the vox have been up to this point. The chorus is a tad inconsequential, but the song features some nicely wonky guitar work. The end of the song sees the reemergence of wah wah guitar… which has me feeling trepidatious. Don’t ruin this for me, Pearl Jam.

Nothingman – Nothingman isn’t entirely unpleasant. But the song’s title is fairly apt. This isn’t much more than a pretty boring ballad. Not the end of the world, but not to the level of the rest of this album so far. The vocal performance is strangely shaky, like Eddie stayed up late playing video games the night before (probably playing Streets of Rage 3 for Sega Genesis – he seems like a Sega Genesis guy to me). Who knows?!

Whipping – In vibe, “Whipping” feels like a shittier, lower-energy version of the kind of thing that they had just pulled off really well with “Spin the Black Circle”. Not awful, but just sort of an album-track. There’s a pretty unfortunate grunt at the end of the delivery of each “whipping” in the chorus that makes it sound like Eddie is trying to do James Hetfield. Shrug.

Pry, To – As I said earlier, these guys love to dick around in the studio and then put the results onto their records. This is terrible. Why would you do this, Pearl Jam? I guarantee you that the number of times that this “song” has been skipped by people listening to this album – were that number compiled somewhere – would be absolutely staggering. Bad.

Corduroy – Now, that’s more like it. “Corduroy” steadies the ship! Building on this album’s already pretty decent track record of pulling out hooks that are unexpected and unconventional, this song manages to please me in each and every one of its sections. This record sounds great, too. The production is appropriately raw, letting this stuff rock and stay tuneful at the same time. I really, really like this song.

Bugs – If “Corduroy” steadied the ship, “Bugs” shits holes in the ship and it’ll never sail again. This is some of the worst dicking around I’ve ever heard. What a bad idea. This is a real shame.

Satan’s Bed – Like “Whipping”, this sounds derivative of the album’s great opening tracks. It’s not bad in its own right, and I prefer it to the material on much of the first two Pearl Jam albums, but it’s a bit of a let-down. The whipping sounds (strangely missing from “Whipping” – what were they thinking?!) are a little over the top, as is Vedder’s bad acting/moaning.

Better Man – The one track on this album that I was truly familiar with before this writing, I’ll go on record as being a big fan of this song. I’ve always loved it. “Better Man” is Pearl Jam’s best, most interesting ballad. The production is perfect, perhaps at its best before the band enters the song. The organ swelling and dancing around the guitar pattern while Vedder does some of his best work is really good stuff. I’ll probably argue with Jay about this one, because he likes the crappier first two records better than this one, but I’ll repeat: This is Pearl Jam’s best ballad.

Aya Davanita – This is the kind of pointless and silly instrumental track that exactly zero albums need to have.

Immortality – Oh, wait. I know this one too. This song sounds like Pearl Jam got mad at Stone Temple Pilots for ripping them off and decided to get back at them by ripping off “Creep“. Snooze-fest.

Stupidmop (alternately titled “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me”) – This is like the “Stairway to Heaven” of Pearl Jam’s dicking around in the studio songs. An utter waste of time and tape. Wow. So bad.

Stone Gossard, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Dave Abruzzese and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam

The Verdict:
I didn’t predict this happening, but here we are – Vitalogy is a good record and I would listen to it again. There are some truly baffling weak spots, but most of the songs that are actual songs are at least passable, and some of them are downright terrific. It’s as if they said “Okay, we’ll put out one bad record and then one mostly-bad record so that the record company trusts us… then we’ll stuff a sock in our bass player’s mouth and lock him in a steamer trunk somewhere and make the best record of our lives.”

I suppose that Vitalogy is Pearl Jam’s In Utero, if we want to put it in terms of a band that was much, much, much better than they are. It is possible, that I like Pearl Jam. Surely every album after this one just gets better and better. Right? I suppose we’ll find out. When I get the gumption to sit down and listen to No Code, sometime next week.


Author: markmeeks

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