Vs. by Pearl Jam
One of the biggest, most anticipated albums of my lifetime delivered.
Note: I didn’t start this essay site as a way to promote anything else, but alas, I wrote and recorded a song that I’d love for you to check out. It’s called “Unapologetic.” It’s available on all the streaming sites. If you like it, please share it, add it to a playlist or whatever. Thanks!
I wrote about Ten in September of 2021. It’s almost as hard to believe it’s taken me this long to follow up and talk about Vs. as it is that these albums are getting so old. I also acknowledge that I did five paragraphs on Vs. when I wrote about Ten. However, if you know anything about me, you know that five paragraphs is just a warmup.
I discovered Pearl Jam when I was 12 and very much just a little boy. By the time Vs. arrived I was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. I was still a boy, but very much further along the path to becoming a man. I have a 13-year-old these days and the change over the past year in terms of, well, everything, is unbelievable. I remember it being the same way for me too. And amidst it all, my favorite band released their second record, and it took over the world.
Pearl Jam was already wary of the spotlight and scaled back the promotion for their second record. After what they went through with the “Jeremy” video, they decided not to make any more music videos. And despite that, Pearl Jam was so ubiquitous that they set all the records. They sold over 950,000 copies in the first five days on sale, setting the one-week record at the time. It hit No. 1 on Billboard and stayed in the top spot for five weeks. It’s certified platinum seven times over, meaning it sold over seven million copies.
I already wrote about my experience picking the record up at the local record store that smelled like the oil and vinegar of the Subway with which it shared a wall, but I’ll plagiarize myself for a second. “While looking through racks of CDs, your nose was infiltrated with the smell of oil and vinegar in a way you might imagine after years and years seeping through C-grade construction materials in a hastily built strip mall. The Subway is still there, and I believe the record store is now a vape shop, so turnabout is fair play in the aroma seepage wars.”
I still remember getting that disc home and sitting at my desk in my bedroom after loading it into my RCA combo unit. I loved that thing because it had a sleek remote and the disk drive slid out mechanically. It was a birthday gift from the local electronics store in Chagrin Falls. They specifically told my dad that if I was a big music fan that it was an upgrade in sound over most of the other models. This unit was compact, but it had a rich, full sound including the bass. So many of the shelf units in the day sounded tinny from the plastic bodies of the speakers. Plus, when I was home alone, I could move this bad boy anywhere in the house! Portable music in the 90s!
I can still feel the remote in my hand as I went track-by-track through this monumental rock record. I kind of loved that Pearl Jam led the album with the first single, “Go.” What an entrance. The band is being playful and jammy and all of a sudden the entering riff welcomes you to the record. The band sounds much more present on the recording than they did on the more sheen-like Ten. The bass sounds sort of warm, but crusty and dirty. Dave Abbruzzese, who had joined the band after Ten in 1991, was making his recorded debut with the band, and his frenetic, overactive ghost notes were all over the place.
Abbruzzese is the most controversial band member in band history. He was fired eventually, and without getting deep into it all, let’s just say he wasn’t invited to the Rock Hall induction, even though he’s a phenomenal drummer, and contributed quite a bit to the band thanks to Vs. Jeff Ament once said of Abbruzzese, “Dave was a different egg for sure. There were a lot of things, personality wise, where I didn't see eye to eye with him. He was more comfortable being a rock star than the rest of us. Partying, girls, cars. I don't know if anyone was in the same space.”
I was a drummer as a kid and it was difficult for me in hindsight because his drumming was an unofficial teacher of mine. When I would play my old Tama Swingstar in my basement, I’d play all kinds of ghost notes and offbeat rhythms on the hi-hats with my left hand. I stole so many little moves and hits from listening to those songs on Vs. It hurt my feelings when Jack Irons later joined Pearl Jam with a much different drumming style. For real, I remember the sense of loss I felt as a listener and fan from afar. As much as I loved the band and their work, I mourned the loss of that drumming style. From a pure playing standpoint, Abbruzzese is an incredible and phenomenal player. Better than any other Pearl Jam drummer until the incomparable Matt Cameron showed up. But even Matt Cameron doesn’t play in the same exact frenetic style as Abbruzzese.
“Animal” is under three minutes of blitzing rock. These songs are so straightforward to the more arty and meandering tunes on Ten, but at the time it felt electrifying and energizing. They performed “Animal” and “Rocking in the Free World” at the 1993 VMAs. The guttural screaming sound of Eddie Vedder’s vocals on “Animal” are just incredible. He’s going for it live in ways that equal the live record, at least. (For the record, PJ doesn’t allow videos to be embedded, but you should click through any watch them anyway. So good.)
“Daughter” needs no introduction because it’s become one of the biggest songs of Pearl Jam’s career. I can remember liking the song but also kind of turning my nose up at it because that was the song that everyone liked from this record. It’s a softer acoustic singalong, even if the drums can’t help but make it feel driving. Everything I’ve said about “Daughter” goes for “Elderly Woman.” I love it, but oddly I don’t feel the need to say anything about it. You probably love it too. It’s good!
So, let’s talk about “Rearviewmirror.” It’s by far one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs of all time, but it got huge radio airplay even if it was never officially a single, I don’t believe. Even if it felt like one of my songs temporarily, I quickly felt like I lost ownership. That was a pervasive feeling with everything Pearl Jam at the time. You couldn’t own something that everyone loved. Some of my best friends who were equally into music started to turn on them as being too popular. It’s hard to believe this is who we were back in the 90s when the monoculture still existed.
That said, I do remember the tingling of every follicle on my body in anticipation of Pearl Jam being the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. I remember my surprise when I realized that Eddie Vedder could play guitar. Even as the band was looking a bit more understated on the soundstage at SNL, they couldn’t help but leap off the screen with their incredible performance of an equally incredible song, “rearviewmirror.”
For me, the magic of Vs. was in loving songs that didn’t get released as singles. It’s hard to remember songs like “Glorified G” being filler. At this stage of Pearl Jam’s career, every song is considered gold and capable of being played at one of their three hour live shows. I initially didn’t like “Glorified G” either. I thought the playful guitar parts were goofy and almost cartoony. Then the verse kicks in and it sounds great, but the chorus is meh. “Glorified version of a pellet gun…” But when it gets to the bridge at 1:25 the song gets magical. Eddie Vedder screams “Always keep it loaded!” at the top of his lungs and it just makes the whole song.
“Dissident” was also an early favorite that didn’t get a ton of attention at first. It sounded most like the anthemic songs from Ten. In many ways with the lead and the drums connecting the opening to the verse, it sounds almost like it’s cut from the same cloth as “Alive.” I wonder if it was concerning to them when they were recording it that this one sounded like they were repeating themselves from their breakout record.
In many ways I credit Vs. with opening my eyes to heavier music. I’d been an 80s rock fan in elementary school. GNR was huge before Pearl Jam became my favorite band. So hearing PJ blast through 2:49 of heaviness with “Blood” and then scream “Get out of my fuckin face!” in “Leash” just a few tracks later, I feel like it was a gateway drug to heavy metal and hardcore and some of the things I went on to love later.
Much like Pearl Jam broke our hearts with “Release” at the end of Ten, they continued their trend of finishing albums in perfect style with “Indifference.” This is still one of my favorite songs in the world to hear, to sing, to close my eyes and take in. You can hear the moody, smooth fretless bass humming along in a dirge. Eddie Vedder’s voice is buttery smooth with just a hint of echo as the guitars and organ provide oceanic-sounding melodies and harmonies with the vocal lines. It just keeps delivering and then Eddie Vedder steals the spotlight.
I'll swallow poison, until I grow immune
I will scream my lungs out till it fills this room
It was all so perfect for me at age 14. As a freshman in high school I was embracing this new music that felt like my own. The graduating seniors were largely still listening to the bands like Steve Miller Band and Buffett and classic rock. This was the new thing, and I felt like I was in on it, even as it was setting sales records.
If Vs. wasn’t enough, Pearl Jam also contributed a song to the benefit record for Victoria Williams. I didn’t know who she was at the time, and I really don’t know much about her today, except that “Crazy Mary” (PJ’s Version) is one of the greatest Pearl Jam songs. Victoria was diagnosed with MS and the benefit record was populated with PJ, Soul Asylum, Lucinda Williams, Michael Penn, Lou Reed, Matthew Sweet, Evan Dando, and more. In the moment, Pearl Jam was so magical that even their weird b-side benefit projects found their way onto the radio, at least in Cleveland.
It’s difficult to explain to today’s generation how monumental a band Pearl Jam was at the time. My kids and their friends roll their eyes at Pearl Jam today, and I’m fine with it. I won’t be able to convince them that they’re anything more than “dad’s old butt rock.” But for those of us who are old enough to have been there in the moment, we know better.
Vs. was one of the biggest records of all time and for good reason.
Thanks as always for reading. And thanks to all of you who were willing to check out my song. I have one more that I’ll be releasing this year at some point.