Vitalogy Turns 20
Vitalogy was the dividing line between one understanding of Pearl Jam, the version that made them famous, and a different one. There are lots of schisms and permutations within the Pearl Jam fanbase. There are those fans that like everything, of course. There are those who were teens when Ten and Vs. became huge, and still maintain a proclivity for the earlier, epically arena-sized version of the band. There are those who welcomed the band’s return of sorts to the basic, classic-ish rock formula of their last three albums (the self-titled/Avocado, Backspacer, and last year’s Lightning Bolt). And there are those of us who find Pearl Jam’s mid-’90s output to be amongst the more underrated material of their catalog, critically speaking, let alone in the grand scheme of ’90s music. That is, those of us who prefer the experimental, yearning Pearl Jam of No Code and argue for the Pearl Jam who once more reached for the rafters on Yield but with more clarity and maturity than on their earliest works. The paradox of Vitalogy is that it’s at once the album that started the version of Pearl Jam that allowed all these schisms to develop, and also the album on which we can all seemingly agree.
Given the way things have gone in terms of Pearl Jam’s mainstream notoriety since the early ’90s, and given that Vitalogy feels more like an “alternative” album today than Ten or Vs., it’s easy to forget that Pearl Jam was still a massively famous rock band at the time of their third album’s release. That release was initially vinyl-only, and that day came twenty years ago tomorrow. Later, on December 6, 1994, the CD release followed, at which point Vitalogy promptly became the second fastest-selling album ever. The first spot was still occupied by the band’s own Vs., which itself turned twenty just over a year ago. (Both of these records have long since been dethroned by major pop acts.)
In a sense, Vs. and Vitalogy have a kind of symbiotic relationship. With just a year in between them, and with Vitalogy having been written and recorded primarily while the band were on the road in support of Vs., it’s tempting to look at them as sister projects, despite the very obvious and integral differences between them. Still, the violence of Vitalogy stands out precisely in comparison to coming so quickly on the heels of Vs. (and Ten before that), and the stature of Vs. is at least partially judged against Vitalogy and the direction it led Pearl Jam in as the decade proceeded. Ten and Vs. established Pearl Jam as part of a crucial and influential pop moment, a powerful mainstream alt-rock one-two. And then Vitalogy came along and burned it down.
That’s not to say Vitalogy was without its own commercial achievements. Those sales numbers aside, it also boasted “Betterman,” a brilliant single that Vedder wrote as a teenager, but he and the band had shied away from releasing up until that point precisely because of its pop merits. And then there’s also “Corduroy,” another mainstay on whatever radio stations play Pearl Jam these days, whether it’s Alt Nation on SiriusXM, or the classic-rock radio station back in my hometown in Pennsylvania. The weird things were the songs that surrounded these pop moments, whether punk-oriented numbers like “Spin The Black Circle” or the willfully confrontational tracks like “Bugs” or “Aye Davanita” (the latter of which is actually pretty, and a cool transition, if you ask me).
You could call everything about Vitalogy corrosive. There is, naturally, the sound of the thing itself. Though you had beautiful ballads like “Nothingman” and “Immortality,” and the aforementioned pop craftsmanship of “Betterman,” the overall vibe of Vitalogy — or, at least, how it is remembered and how it is often discussed relative to the band’s other work — is of the scathing, distorted music of “Last Exit,” or “Whipping,” or “Satan’s Bed.” The operatic boom of Vedder’s voice — now rather maligned by history for the legions of Creed-esque imitators it begat — was mostly gone. Instead, he primarily sang in a pinched, ragged growl, purposefully driving himself into all the more frenetic and gnarlier corners of his voice. Aside from the more extreme examples of this — like the nasally delivery on “Not For You” — there are moments on Vitalogy that are actually more of what I associate with what I like about Vedder’s voice, more of him coming into his own. There’s no denying the power he brings to the chorus of “Alive,” but by dialing back the melodrama a bit he was able to find an equally powerful voice that didn’t overreach as often, particularly on classics like “Corduroy.” (Their best song, by the way.) Still, at the time, this was a rough about-face from where they’d been.
The other corrosive element, obviously, was of matters personal and celebrity. Pearl Jam didn’t want to be famous pop stars; you know this, because they, like other Alt Nation luminaries, let everyone know at every opportunity they received. That whole aspect of the early-’90s scene can come off as quaint or, on the other hand, infuriating. It was a different world then, but most working rock musicians today — most famous working rock musicians — would kill to have a modicum of the success and spotlight Pearl Jam garnered in 1994, and it kind of comes off as straight-up petulant to have the desire to throw that away, and to weaponize that desire with Vitalogy. (This is not to mention the fact that the idea of “selling out” is either a great deal murkier or entirely irrelevant in 2014, which is why you could also look at all this as “quaint.”) But, hey, fame isn’t for everyone, and being saddled with terminology like “voice of a generation” can mess with your head. Vedder vented about this stuff throughout Vitalogy, letting the bile overflow on “Not For You,” or on the defiant but still more universally relatable “Corduroy.”
Aside from Vedder being the band’s frontman, fame took a toll on the whole enterprise of Pearl Jam. Burnt out and frazzled from the experience of the preceding few years, the band nearly collapsed entirely during the making of Vitalogy. Interpersonal conflicts led to drummer Dave Abbruzesse getting fired. Mike McCready went to rehab. Another major way in which Vitalogy was a transition point for the band was the shift in control that occurred during its recording. Pearl Jam was a project founded and, ultimately, controlled and steered by Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament; Vedder might’ve been the icon, but he was also the guy they found to sing after they had already written some of Ten’s most pivotal songs. Vitalogy is the moment where Vedder, for better or worse, asserted more power, and by and large it seems he’s remained the captain ever since. At the time, it almost drove Gossard to quit.
When you know those details, it’s easier to view Vitalogy less as a petulant biting-the-hand-that-feeds moment, and more as an extremely violent growing pain. There’s an urgency here that wasn’t quite present on Ten or Vs., and certainly hasn’t been present on much of what’s followed, even the albums I like most. Some of that could be attributed to them writing/recording this on the road, of course, but mostly it’s the sound of a band fracturing that still sounds volatile two decades later, long into the band’s healthy and happy current phase. Those kinds of fraught records so often age best, whether it’s because the band did indeed flare out or because you know they got it together and still did great things in the future — there’s something about hearing people with their backs against the wall, about realizing this album needs to sound this way, that still makes it a heavy emotional hitter years later. In hindsight, you can recast the enraged moments of Vitalogy as sheer desperation, the straining moments in Vedder’s voice or the cascading distortion of the outro to “Corduroy” representative of a band trying to outrun everything. Of a band trying to keep it together when everything was, in some sense, already shattered around them.
In essence, Pearl Jam got what they wanted. If they wanted to burn down their pop credibility, Vitalogy was a solid opening salvo. It might’ve debuted to great sales, but its abrupt change in sound turned off a lot of the more casual mainstream alt-rock listeners of the day. In 1996, its successor, No Code, still did insane numbers relative to almost anything that occurs in the music industry today, but it was a massive drop-off from Pearl Jam’s preceding three albums, and marked the era of Pearl Jam’s commercial decline. From there on out, Pearl Jam were still there doing worthwhile things if you were a fan, but chances are you know a lot of people who don’t realize the band continued on much past the mid-’90s.
This is kind of a shame, actually. If there’s any era of Pearl Jam’s career that a more indie-oriented listener can get behind today, it’s the era that begins with Vitalogy. The rawness here feels less dated than the muscularly slick rock of Vs. or Ten, and it’s easier to get behind something that sounds this lived-in. For whatever reason, even in indie culture, or even in our current internet culture where everything is more or less accepted, the band is primarily remembered for its mainstream offerings, and usually dismissed for them. And an album like No Code still goes under-recognized. In the meantime, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Pearl Jam fan who calls Vitalogy their least favorite album by the band, or a critic who wouldn’t give this one a bit more respect than many of the others. There were other factors at play, like the band’s protracted losing battle against Ticketmaster, but the watershed moment has always been Vitalogy. Which makes it a particularly strange installment in the band’s catalog, or in the history of music in general. It’s hard to think many other albums this revered, this strong, but simultaneously so destructive to an artist’s legacy.