Pearl Jam - Vs.

In October 1993, Eddie Vedder’s contorted face howled from the cover of Time magazine. These were the waning days of the monoculture, but mass culture still existed then, and the cover of Time was as much a window into it as anything. For many thousands of young teenagers, this cover story — a trend-piece about the rise of alt-rock — was the exact moment when their parents finally asked them what the deal was with this whole alternative thing. Despite his appearance on the cover, the magazine featured no interview with Vedder. (Supposedly, Epic Records had promised the writer an interview, but Vedder had never called.) That says a lot about this particular cultural moment: Vedder was, in a lot of ways, the single most important person in music, but he didn’t much want to be there. And the three words beneath that howling face say just as much: “All the rage.” That’s a telling pun, roping in both the anger that grown-ups heard in Vedder’s theatrical sadness and public conflictedness and the idea that all this stuff was just a fad and the next thing would be coming along soon enough. The magazine also considered Kurt Cobain for the cover, going with Vedder when they learned that Cobain absolutely wouldn’t give an interview, and that there’d be no way they’d get Vedder and Cobain to pose together. And at the time, Vedder was just as saddled with that toxic “voice of a generation” tag as Cobain was — maybe more. And if In Utero, Nirvana’s big follow-up album, showed Cobain’s attempt to negate and reject the stardom he’d stumbled into, Vs., the Pearl Jam album that followed a month later, represented an honest attempt to step into that stardom and reshape what, exactly, it meant. Vs. isn’t a better album than In Utero, but maybe that’s just because it set a more difficult task for itself.

It’s near-impossible to conceive the level of pressure Pearl Jam must’ve been under when they made Vs. The fall of 1993 was the big follow-up period, the moment when the world decided whether this whole alt-rock thing was going to stick around or not. And given that Nirvana basically said “fuck all that” and made a great pigfuck album, it was up to Pearl Jam to be the stars of the anti-star movement. In the years since Vs., I can only think of one follow-up album that came with the same level of excitement and expectation, that seemed to represent the convergence of so many cultural forces: Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP in 2000. Eminem, just as uncomfortable in the spotlight as Vedder (if not Cobain), at least had the advantage of a serious star-making campaign that had been in place for a couple of years. With Ten, Pearl Jam had made a really good classic-rocky debut that got swept up into a wave of unexpected Seattlemania and blew up almost a year after its release. A few of the decisions that Pearl Jam made at the time seemed like conscious attempts to step back from fame: Not making videos anymore, challenging Ticketmaster, trumpeting their pro-choice stance and Neil Young deification. But with a couple of decades of perspective, those seem more like attempts to change the context of that stardom: To become a bit more elusive and ethical, to look out for fans who they thought (rightly) were being ripped off, to put that fame to some good uses.

And on Vs., you can hear that same change-the-world impulse at work. On songs like “Daughter,” Vedder sang about child abuse with the same frothy fervor as he did on Ten. But he also had other things that he wanted to address now that he had the world’s attention. “Glorified G” and “W.M.A.” and maybe even “Dissident” are attempts to take apart the idea of white male privilege, to pull off the honest self-criticism that Pearl Jam’s immediate rock-stardom predecessors (like, I don’t know, Def Leppard) weren’t going to bother with. In the process, they could come off like clumsy, ridiculous college-sophomore types (“Rats,” eesh), but they almost certainly succeeded in convincing more than a few young fans to think a little harder about matters of identity. And unlike Nirvana, they managed to do this without pushing the world away.

Vs. was a warm, inviting rock album in all the ways that In Utero wasn’t, even though it was still a cathartic piece of work. Ten, for the most part, had better songs, but Vs. had a way better sound: An extremely well-miked and well-mixed five-dudes-in-a-room thing, first-time producer Brendan O’Brien figuring out the exact right combination of chaos and heft. Mike McCready didn’t let up on the triumphant squeedly-dee guitar solos; in fact, their might be more of them on Vs. The rhythm section was supple and locked-in, way funkier than most of the stuff that was being called funk-metal at the time. (There’s a reason you didn’t see a Pork Soda Turns 20 piece on Stereogum a few months ago.) The harder rock songs didn’t exactly flow as songs — they came out of jam-sessions, and they sounded like it — but they do rock convincingly, attesting to the idea that these guys enjoyed playing with each other. And it’s a remarkably well-sequenced album, moving from peak to valley with a confidence that wasn’t there on Ten. Vedder reportedly slept in his car while recording just to keep himself from getting too comfortable, which is admirable and sort of adorable, and it seems like it might’ve actually worked; he seems right on edge throughout the album. And he also projects a ton of empathy; “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town” is great, happy little short-story, in song form, about people who don’t often find themselves the subjects of rock songs.

Of course, judging Vs. on its musical merits two decades later is almost like reviewing Dark Side Of The Moon right now. Rightly or wrongly, it’s part of the firmament, and no music critic can or should change that. Reviews were almost beside the point even when it was coming out. Some bigger publications shrugged at the album, but that didn’t stop it from becoming a high-school parking-lot staple. In its first week, the album sold 950,000 copies, way more than In Utero and more than any other album ever at that point. (Its record stood until Garth Brooks’s Double Live, of all things, five years later.) That runaway success obscures but also underscores what Pearl Jam were able to do here: They made a huge-sounding rock album that made ethical sense to them, and they helped create a world where, for a time at least, the term “rock star” meant something new and exciting. They weren’t particularly comfortable back then, but now, because they stuck to their guns then, they can keep putting out albums and touring arenas two decades later.

With its 20th anniversary coming tomorrow, how has Vs. held up for you? Did it soundtrack any big memories? Did it stand up to In Utero? How has your perception of it changed? Talk about it in the comments section.

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Comments (39)
  1. Damn. Now I want to read a Pork Soda turns 20 piece. What could have been…

  2. Marc Carusiello  |   Posted on Oct 18th, 2013 0

    Great article, but think you meant “trumpeting their pro-choice stance..”

  3. i know many would disagree and pick vitology, but this is the album that defines pearl jam to me. vitology is great, but it’s too experimental, messy and confident. vs. is the compromise between those that prefer ten and those that prefer everything after vs. it’s abbreviated in the places that are short (animal) and unabridged in the places that need to be long (wma). it runs the appropriate length for an album, it never overstays its welcome, and it’s the one i go to everytime i want to hear peak pearl jam. and it’s the early-pearl jam record that holds up best to me.

  4. is this about In Utero or Vs.?

  5. As someone who was not part of the original alternative nation, Nirvana’s records (In Utero) are a lot more interesting and feel more contemporary than what Pearl Jam did. I also feel like Nirvana remains a really important entry point into indie rock while Pearl Jam never really offered that. That’s not to say Pearl Jam didn’t make some great music, it just feels more of its time and place.

    • stick to burritos Chipotle

    • Interesting points. As a longtime fan, I can fess up and say that from 91-94 Nirvana was the better band, although PJ was awesome too. It’s too bad they didn’t stay around and make strong album after album or tour after tour like PJ, so I always end up putting PJ at a higher level, plus the way Nirvana ended makes it hard to revisit with much joy. But, if you weren’t part of the alternative nation, you should know that PJ never was, is, or will be “indie” rock. That’s probably why I gravitated to them. I didn’t gravitate to Sonic Youth cause it struck me as “preach to the choir” music while PJ sought to go out and change minds. Which they did, they went out, grabbed me from my suburban pop doldrums and exposed me to all sorts of cool music.

      • That’s very fair. I’ve started listening to some of their lesser known albums, and there’s some great stuff there. I think I just connected with Nirvana on a visceral level initially in a way that was powerful, and if Pearl Jam was that gateway band for you, that’s fantastic.

  6. What was it, this album, In Utero and Siamese Dream in the same year? Wow.

    • ’93 had it going on. Houdini, Bubble & Scrape, Rid of Me, In On The Kill Taker, Enter the 36 Chambers (ya’ll better be writing that shit right now Stereogum) just to name a few. So many classics.

    • Yeah, in terms of heavy hitters, atlerative peaked for me in ’93, regardless of whether it was “in its death throes” already or whatever.

      GbV’s Propeller was that year, too, and I believe we can add Midnight Marauders to the list, too.

    • Am I rare in thinking Siamese Dream is the better of all of them? Cuz I think thusly.

    • yeah, if you were old enough 93 was like an open candy store to a diabetic. vs., in utero, Siamese, pork soda, where you been, rid of me…..I remember my head spinning because it was just smash album after smash album.

  7. I’ve actually never heard this album. I love Ten and Yield though. I think I’ll check out Vs.

  8. It blows my mind how someone could love Ten and Yield and not have heard Vs. Glad you like Yield though. :)

  9. This album was so huge at the time(I believe it had the Soundscan first week sales record with Snoop Dogg, 900,000 in a week). The local record store I worked at the time sold out by 3 pm the day it came out. I remember at the time kind of being disappointed in it. The band really had a hard rock following(especially Stone & Jeff from the MLB days), and this album is not really very heavy except maybe “Go” & “Animal”. Personally I wish they would have stayed in that genre. “Daughter” still makes me cringe to this day. If we’re going to compare, every Soundgarden and Nirvana release is a lot more interesting than this album. Just my opinion.

  10. To me, Vs has a few of the best single songs they ever did (RVM, Daughter, Elderly Woman, Indifference, Leash) some pretty decent stuff that would end up getting improved upon later (Go, Blood, Animal) and then some weaker stuff that are just nice curiosities (WMA, Dissident, Glorified G, Rats) that prevent it from being great top tp bottom.

  11. At 14 years old when it came out, Vs. was the first record I eagerly anticipated, buying it the first day of it’s release. I’m sure I listened to it regularly until Vitalogy took its place the following year. It certainly spoke to my barely teenage heart.

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  13. Vs still sounds as fresh now as it did 20 years ago. I must have bought several tapes then cause I played the album so much. I’m still riveted by the first 30 seconds of Go. Songs like Animal, Rearviewmirror, Elderly Woman and Leash will all remain timeless classics.

  14. rearviemirror remains that one song on their cannon that truly encapsulates the very best of Pearl Jam.

    also, i have to thank the band for introducing me to more experimental stuff, via Eddie’s stint in Hovercraft!

  15. It was the first time that I went, “oh… bands can CHANGE their sound” and still be themselves. Elderly Woman opened up a completely new world for me.

  16. I’ve always liked this one best. Ten staled on me because the guys in the dorm hall upstairs played it non-stop. I’d always wondered why PJ blew up but I had a what I thought was a secret crush on Gish instead. I really did not predict Pumpkins were going to blow through the roof with Siamese Dream shortly thereafter.

    Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town. Phenomenal.

  17. I never compared Nirvana to PJ, they’re (IMO) two different animals. Musically, Vs. was hand over fist better than In Utero. I could listen to every song on Vs. and appreciate the musicianship and how well they fed off each other while Nirvana still were just pounding out 3 chord rock with different lyrics. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Nirvana, but PJ, to me, was easier to swallow.

  18. Whenever I listen to this album I think back to High School in Wyoming. I’d get up early and drive into school about 30 minutes away. It’s cold in the mornings and my tape of Vs. would play slow on the first side of the tape, until my truck warmed up. It was a great album to wake up to as I drove and I honestly miss the funky slow version of the first side of the tape.

  19. While these days I prefer the more Art-Rock Pearl Jam of No Code, Vitalogy & Binaural, Vs. still gets a regular spin from me, the original mix still sounds fresh & sharp, Vedder is ferocious and the band is ridiculously tight. Go, Animal & Rearviewmirror are monsters, to this day, and WMA reminds me that pearl jam really used to groove! But the best moment on the album may actually be held back right to the last, with Indifference. Smokey, dark and hypnotic. The opposite end of the spectrum after the climaxes of Go & RVM, but equally as powerful.

    It may not be a better record than In Utero or even Siamese Dream, but holy shit, go see Pearl Jam live 20 years later, witness what those songs have become. With the power to turn a field of 30,000 strangers into an intimate family reunion, Pearl Jams music has become almost celebratory. The church of Pearl Jam is alive and strong and totally unique from that of their 90′s peers.

  20. Probably their definitive album and my favorite (one may influence the other). I used to go back and forth with this & Vitalogy, but this has no songs I skip or don’t like, and it’s just the band at their most full-on. The writing is sharper and more varied than on Ten, which is mostly a collection of half badass rock songs and then some more forgettable ones.

    Here, you can just hear that the boys are PISSED – their career, at least in the 90s, followed a really visible narrative – big, swinging for the fences arena debut -> angry reaction to time in the spotlight -> shambling reaction to struggles & fame that find the music recoiling from public expectations -> renewed, less angsty step towards better head space and career sustainability -> peace with earlier sound.

    This has two of their greatest character pieces/ballads, and some cool minor experiments (all of which I like), but when I think of Vs., I really think of furious hard rock and that sheep on the cover. Dissident, Leash, RVM, the opening 1-2, Blood – hot damn. Even the experimental stuff was on edge. That righteous indignation really hit home with me and influenced me in the back end of high school, even though my back end of high school was about 8 years after this dropped.

  21. still have the ‘five against one’ cassette from my youth. collector’s item!

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