When was the last time the name “Pearl Jam” sounded weird to you? Can you even remember when it didn’t sound like a band?
Vitalogy, Pearl Jam’s experimental third album, was finally released in November of 1994. By that time, the record store I had assistant-managed was consumed by Blockbuster. Originally, I worked at “Tracks”, which was where I experienced Pearl Jam’s debut disc Ten, around ten times a day for several months. This resulted in a loathing of that album that burns to the present day.
Maybe it’s due to Pearl Jam’s success, but I recall the release of their second and third albums very clearly. Against all odds, I made off with the coveted promo of Vs. in 1993; only recently did I give it away to a friend. Back then I had a strong urge to belong, and I was grateful that I could stand music from a chart-topping group, “grunge” or otherwise. In 1994, I discovered Frank Zappa, and got my shit straight.
However, I was still reasonably excited about Pearl Jam’s third effort, when it finally bowed. Eddie Vedder had found a Victorian-era book at a garage sale, and the whole band got gooey about using it for album packaging. This is one of the most enlightening aspects of the “band experience”, when everyone is on the same fruitful creative wavelength. “Vitalogy” was found to be under copyright, despite its ancient age, which required extra time, design work and legal fees to sidestep. Pearl Jam stuck with it, and the result was their finest album, easily.
We didn’t know this in 1994. In fact, we were a bit grumpy about how these fancy-shmancy book-CDs would fit in the anti-theft shells. For endcap displays, we had to stick an rectangular anti-theft sensor onto the shrink wrap (Blockbuster had “necessitated” six-foot scanners at the front of the store). This made it easy for shoplifters to peel the plastic off and pocket the CD. It fit loosely enough in the anti-theft shells to make thieves think they could wiggle it free, resulting in dozens of copies of Vitalogy with mashed corners.
The thing is, intentionally or not, Pearl Jam created an album that looks better the more it’s damaged.
Anyway, the Tuesday morning we checked Vitalogy (about 100 worth) into inventory, I popped one open for in-store play. The best thing about working in a record store is, when the doors are locked, you are free to blast music at your own discretion. Before rap took over, it was a lot of fun. Now it’s just a fucking migraine.
At the time, I barely cared about Pearl Jam. I just hoped the album wouldn’t drive me to suicide if I had to hear it a million times, like Ten. I dug a handful of tunes on Vs., even though it seriously depressed me. (The inside-cover photo of the band hanging out is achingly bittersweet.)
This is what I heard, louder than God.
That’s the finest thing Pearl Jam has ever done. It’s perfect. As of now I’ve been listening to that for over 20 years, and this very morning it raised gooseflesh on my arms. The tone of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready’s guitars, Jeff Ament’s unimpeachable bass. Vedder’s vocals are counterpointal; he’s not in the same key, he’s juxtaposing, a poetic protest outside the chaos. Original drummer Dave Abbruzzese drops a driving beat like intermittent highway lines passing under speeding tires. That is “nirvana”.
In 1994, I could not believe it. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Vitalogy, and yet, I don’t consider myself a Pearl Jam fan. I typically bring up Mad Season instead. “Last Exit” isn’t the only winner on the disc, either, there are many; “Not For You”, “Whipping”, “Nothingman”, “Corduroy”, “Satan’s Bed”, “Immortality”, and “Aye Davanita” all hail from here.
(True story: At a friend’s wedding in the late 1990s, the goofball DJ played “Better Man”, very possibly going by the title alone. Oh, how I wish a photograph of the face I made at the DJ upon recognizing it existed. My friend’s marriage continues to the present day.)
It’s important to remember that in 1994, Pearl Jam was seen as a trend, a part of the “grunge” fad that seeped out of Seattle. Vitalogy sundered that image properly, beginning an era where the band would be known for bending forms, if not topping charts like they had been.
It’s a worthy trade-off. Vitalogy is a thousand times the album Ten was, and unlike that smash, it doesn’t sound the slightest bit dated.
(Side note: Around 1994, there was a series of promo spots for Comedy Central, featuring Janeane Garofalo. She was surrounded by a group of bored-looking children, doing short monologues. One was about her idea for a device to turn jerky back into meat, and another was a diatribe about how terrible Eddie Vedder was. She held up his picture and went “Ehhhhhdie Vedder.” The kids looked on, tired and confused. God knows whose idea it was, but Janeane had all the ebullience and natural funniness of Hillary Clinton. If you consider Garofalo humorless and want ammunition, I’d suggest you dig up those clips.)