In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Pearl Jam’s sophomore album, Vs., the one album that still makes them… them.
By Dan Weiss
No grunge band exploded on impact the way Nirvana and Pearl Jam did, so maybe we should remember the grunge boom not for its eternal crunch but for its politics. Its two biggest, most visible bands parroted liberal politics in the Clinton mainstream, shedding the misogynist skin of 80s hair-metal whose excess matched Reagan’s isolationism.
Easily their commercial peak, Pearl Jam’s second album Vs. set records in the week and a half it took to sell 1.3 million copies in October 1993, and coupled with Nirvana’s feminist-minded In Utero a month earlier, it was the moment where those two bands overlapped most in popularity and political-mindedness, a coincidence not lost on the guys who almost named their album Five Against One.
While Vs. sprawled in all directions thematically and musically, it states its business immediately within the wriggling groove of “Go,” which describes an abusive relationship from the villain’s perspective. The music uncoils perfectly to match its unreliable narrator, with Eddie Vedder mumbling the tell “Suppose I abused you” over a dodgy riff and only taking front and center on the pleading chorus, “Please please please/ Don’t go on me,” intentionally louder and more attractive to look sympathetic in the midst of his evil neglect. It’s frightening. Similarly weak characters narrate “Glorified G” (“Got a gun, in fact I got two/ That’s okay man, cause I love god”) and “Dissident” (“When she couldn’t hold, she folded: ‘A dissident is here!’”).
However, just as many songs on the record are sung by the victim: “Daughter,” the album’s biggest hit, concerns another chilling abuse scenario, where the disabled child in question is made to believe they shouldn’t “call me daughter/ Not fit to.” “Rearviewmirror” could well be the partner of “Go”’s narrator getting up the guts to hightail it, and “W.M.A.” casts Vedder as a bystander screaming “Police stopped my brother again” at the “white male American” of the title, an officer whom Vedder sneers “won the lottery by being born.” Those are the “mature” songs, while the epic-chorused “Leash” (“Get out of my f***ing face”), nailbombing “Blood” (“F***ing circus”) and get-over-yourself humanity metaphor “Rats” (“They don’t s*** where they’re not supposed to”) are childish enough to ensure the attention doesn’t wander.
As music, “grunge” didn’t do Vs. justice then or 20 years later, it’s more notable just how American the thing sounds. Soloist Mike McCready curls distinctly Skynyrd-like twang around “Dissident”, and two other hits, “Daughter” with its careening solo, and the leisurely strum of “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” also contain more country ingredients than hard rock radio had probably ever experienced before. Rockers on the other end of the spectrum were given color by the wah-wah pedal though, breaking up the shooting pinball riffs of “Blood” and “Animal” with legitimate funk and Isaac Hayes-style scratchy rhythm. Since funk and country are the two most American genres imaginable, it’s no surprise Pearl Jam dominated the airwaves so much they resorted to reining in their popularity themselves, refusing to make videos and eventually boycotting Ticketmaster. Vedder wasn’t shy politically either, drawing an abortion-symbolizing hanger on his shirt in duct tape for TV appearances and scrawling “PRO-CHOICE” on his arm in Sharpie. The title Vs. perfectly summed up that conflict as well, a band at odds with its own accessibility grappling with the need to cut off its own head before it becomes cancerous. It could’ve been much worse internally than dismissing one drummer, Dave Abbruzzese, a gun owner who inspired “Glorified G” in the first place.
Vs. isn’t Pearl Jam’s best album—those would be one of their crafty and explorative follow-ups Vitalogy, No Code and Yield, none of which endured in the public consciousness like their first two albums. But it’s the album that makes them them. Listening to the just-released Lightning Bolt, as with PJ’s last two back-to-basics records Pearl Jam and Backspacer, there’s not a scratch on the crunchy chords, with every song’s skin pulled tight and no discernible humor. These are misrememberings of a band that opened their biggest album with a jam, made a goofy fable insisting humans should be as principled as rats, and entrusted one of their biggest hits (“Daughter”) with only one verse and a lengthy solo.
Compared to those hapless and conventional new ones, these traits are Sonic Youth or Yoko Ono. But from Vedder’s tear-filled screams selling “Blood” as scarier than silly, to the swampy adult-contemporary dirge “Indifference,” Pearl Jam used to naturally make a whole world of emotions and guitar tones sing, to an audience so big it contained many, many people they could just as easily rail against. It’s a speck compared to the acrid poetry and fully formed Beatlesque song shapes of In Utero, but Vs. held its own.