I have no memory of a time before Pearl Jam. I was four years old when Vs. came out. I was five for Vitalogy.
Growing up in Seattle, the quintet was always around. Their old songs were on the classic rock station, their new songs on the alternative; guitarist Mike McCready even played the National Anthem at a Mariners game one year.
But their music always existed for me as an entire catalog—one where the chronology was not as important as the musical result. It was as if all their recorded songs were part of a personal never-ending live set. In my mind, “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town” belonged with the rest of Eddie Vedder’s emotive ballads, not as the change-of-pace tenth track on Vs. “Spin The Black Circle” belonged with all those guitar-driven tracks soaked with desperation, not as the part of the opening sequence to Vitalogy, an album that confuses as much as it satisfies.
This is not the review to read if you want a healthy dose of nostalgia. I cannot tell you what it was like to hear these songs when they first came out. I cannot tell you how Pearl Jam reshaped the musical landscape, because that landscape is all I have ever known. When I listen to the box set bonus disc Live at the Orpheum Theatre, I am not taken back to April of 1994. Instead I am struck by the logic, or lack thereof, hidden in the set list—“Rearviewmirror” should lead into “Elderly Woman”, but “Immortality” into “Glorified G”? Why open with “Oceans” instead of “Evenflow”?
If I cannot capture 1994, what I can do is tell you about the experience of listening to these songs for the first time in the roles they were originally intended for, instead of as some tiny piece of an entire career. Before, “Go”, the first song on Vs., always felt inevitable. The drumming seems to run downhill. The blasting chords head towards the only suitable conclusion for a Pearl Jam song like this: a soaring chorus, staying in your head for days, leaving you to eventually realize you’ve been singing along to a song that may be about child abuse. “Please,” sing the background vocals as Eddie Vedder pleads, “Don’t go on me.” But as part of an album, “Go” sets the tone for all of Vs. These songs are a collection of characters. If “Go” is the girl locked away and left alone, then “Daughter” is the girl with a learning disability. If “Elderly Woman” is the effect of the passage of time, then “Rearviewmirror” is a boy running away, destined one day to be the singer who will share all these stories, time and time again.
If the question of Vs. is “Why? Why does all of this have to happen?”, then the question of Vitalogy is “Why not?” Why shouldn’t Pearl Jam record dissonant accordion-driven “Bugs”? Why shouldn’t they release the trippy, chanting “Aya Davanita”? Why shouldn’t they remind you from time to time of why they can afford to do all of this? “Last Exit” begins the album with the same sort of musical muttering that began “Go” on Vs. And, in some ways, it feels just as inevitable, again with that runaway drumming. But Vitalogy, if nothing else, is an album that holds the power to surprise. “Nothingman” is stripped and vulnerable—Vedder’s voice lets go of all its gruff. It is a soft delivery, perhaps his softest yet, and it is much like how he begins “Better Man,” a song made even more haunting on the box set’s bonus track, which has only guitar and organ for instrumentation.
There had never been a Pearl Jam song quite like “Better Man.” The verbal cadence of the opening verse sounds like a nursery rhyme with its short bursts of information—“Waitin’/Watching the clock/It’s four o’clock/It’s got to stop.” The guitar sounds so hesitant to even play; the organ brews right under the surface. And then the song releases all that tension: the drums enter; Vedder sings chorus, “She lies and says she still loves him/Can’t find a better man.” And you believe him. How could you not? If there is any thread that runs throughout Pearl Jam’s career, from Vs. to Vitalogy, from Ten all the way to Backspacer, it is the ability to be sincere. Listen to their work as a single song; listen to it as part of an album. Listen to it as part of a greatest hits package. It doesn’t matter. The power to move you will always remain.