Clint Brownlee offers a fresh look at the CD and LP photography of Pearl Jam’s Vs., and with a little help from bassist Jeff Ament, reveals new meaning 30 years after the album’s release.
If I didn’t live through it, I might not believe there were decades when vinyl records were undesirable and hard to find. But like most young music fans between the mid-1980s and the late 2000s, I had no use for 12” albums. Turntables were antiquated. Cover art was overrated. Car stereos had CD slots and iPods displayed thumbnail images, mkay?
Record labels served us Gen X-ers pretty much what we wanted: convenience. So as with scores of releases at the time, when Pearl Jam’s debut, Ten, hit US bins in 1991, it was on compact disc and cassette only.
The band wasn’t thrilled with its label, Epic Records, for eschewing vinyl. “[It] was a bummer, as most of us didn’t have CD players yet. So I had to play my first copy on my cassette player,” bassist Jeff Ament told me early this month. Ten blew up, though, making Pearl Jam a household name across the globe. It also gave the band leverage with Epic, so Ament and his bandmates—Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, and Dave Abbruzzese—made sure their second album was pressed into wax. Not only that, they released the vinyl record a full week ahead of the cassette and CD. Ament called this “fucking with the system,” which Pearl Jam has repeatedly found new ways to do in the three decades since.
My feelings for vinyl in October 1993 were grounded in ambivalent, if not negative, nostalgia. In earlier years, my parents had a slim collection of Beatles and classic rock records which I was too young to appreciate and they never played, anyway. Soft Christian records and kiddie singalongs replaced the guitar albums in the entertainment center’s tall slot when my folks found religion. Those interested me even less. I barely associated their big square sleeves with music.
So when I stepped into a line snaking through a NorCal Tower Records near midnight on October 18, 1993, I was super stoked to be one of the! first! to get my hands on Pearl Jam’s Vs. I’d walk out of that Tower and to my old truck and pop the shiny disc into its slot and listen all the way home. I’d be one of maybe only a hundred or so people in the whole damn county hearing the new songs in that wee hour. And when I got home, I’d keep listening with my Discman!
As I drove, stereo blasting aggressive chords, my eyes kept sliding from the road ahead to the passenger seat where a snarling animal glared back at me from the front of Vs.’s nifty Eco Pak Jewel Box case.
I had no idea the actual cool kids had been spinning the record for days.
I gazed at the photographs and liner notes of that CD for hundreds of hours over the next year, I’m sure. I daydreamed of the conversations and formative jams Pearl Jam’s members had in that presumed cabin. I wondered at the whimsy required to dance barefoot in mud. I thought the woods of the Pacific Northwest were dreary, even spooky, places. I did not care for that mask.
Most of all, I marveled at the sheep—the sole focus of the front cover, minus “Pearl Jam” in understated lowercase—shoving its muzzle through the wire fence. It seemed so angry, which proved a clever sort of invitation to the indignant songs enclosed within. “Get out of my fucking face,” the animal might be warning in a growl as raw as Eddie Vedder’s. (Was it even a sheep? Parts of the internet claim it’s an Angora goat, but Ament confirmed my long-held assumption.)
In the late 2000s, I finally acquired an original vinyl pressing of Vs. In 2011, I splurged on the glorious deluxe reissue of the record, paired with Vitalogy. The cover of these Vs. editions triggered some low-level cognitive dissonance, as the angry sheep I’d known and loved for so long was, on these larger canvases, pictured in profile. Appearing demure. Resolved. Patient, even. I found its expression at odds with many of the album’s themes and predominant energy. Frankly, I thought the image lacked all punch by comparison.
My stance remained unchanged when I chose the CD cover image for my 33 ⅓ entry on Vs. It had to be the aggressive CD sheep, not the diffident LP sheep. That was how I knew the record for many years, and I was certain how a majority of my generation knew it, too. In my mind, that was the true album cover.
Ament challenged that thinking when I noted the vastly different energy in the two Vs. sheep shots. “I took an advertising art course in college where they preached, over and over, the psychology of color and repetition. I hated that. Like people are too dumb to understand mixing logos/font/colors up if the product is good,” he said.
Can’t argue with that. The product was good in 1993 and remains good upon its 30-year anniversary.
So before sitting down to write this reflection, I studied both covers anew. I pondered Ament’s approach in sending out a seemingly calm sheep on the LP and the same sheep snarling on the CD. I spent more hours digesting the visual accompaniment to the fiery, pointed audio. I realized I’d been so fixated on the sheep that I hadn’t registered that the band’s name was absent from the LP cover.
Eventually, it hit me: the sheep made me look. And look. And look. But the back cover, identical in all editions of the record, had more to say.
That message is clearer on the larger LP square.
I always thought the muddy legs and bare feet, caught in mid-dance by the camera’s near-ground-level lens, were only that. Just evidence of dudes having fun during what was, knowing Pearl Jam at the time, nothing at all like a formal photoshoot. A slight blur, and the angles of several feet, lend the image momentum and, maybe, a sense of ritual.
There are three pairs of legs clearly visible and a fourth guy’s single leg sneaking into the left edge. The fifth guy, taking the picture and thus not in the frame, is Ament. All told, that’s the band. And below their feet, the song titles are neatly stacked in lowercase typeface.
The image handily reflects Pearl Jam’s approach to media coverage and publicity in the early-to-mid 1990s—which is to say, they shunned it. “We fought to keep everything off the cover. Lowercase, low key. Let the art and music represent. The lights were shining pretty bright at that point, and we were still navigating our way,” Ament said.
So issuing Vs. on vinyl a week early, without even including their band’s name on the front—an issue solved by Epic with a clear “Pearl Jam” hype sticker—was part of that navigation. It was a way to bite their thumbs at the consumerist machine while being inevitably intertwined with it. (They’d separate themselves, to varying extents, in later years.)
But there’s more communicated in Ament’s back cover image that I didn’t pick up until looking beyond the band members’ legs.
Maybe a few feet behind them, arranged in a slight arc on the moist soil, is a loose line of football-sized rocks. The rocks continue beyond the frame on both sides, leading your mind’s eye to pull back from the tightly framed photograph and see the entire band and the clearing around them.
Pearl Jam’s members are surely standing inside a ring of such rocks, therefore unified and concentrated within. The five guys are set apart from everything outside the circle. “One, two, three, four, five against one” go the opening lyrics of “Animal,” echoing this formation just a few minutes into Vs. The song and photo, then, form thematic bookends underscoring the band’s philosophy at the time.
While Ament fell short of confirming or denying my rock-ring theory, he did say the framing of the shot was intentional and conveyed a “primitive” vision he’d sketched before picking up the camera. “I was idealistic in that way, maybe naively. I really hoped we could be a unified force, and more importantly, stay grounded,” he said.
There’s yet another layer to this, I think, even if only connoted through the eye of the obsessive beholder. Framed and oriented the way it is, Ament’s image also includes the viewer inside the rock circle. The band members may have been aligning themselves against the outer world, but the photo symbolically includes us fans with them.
It’s a little embarrassing to have picked up on these powerful creative nuances a mere 30 years later. If you intuited Ament and his band’s aims here earlier on, I applaud you.
Vinyl is decidedly cool again, thanks to Pearl Jam and Record Store Day and Jack White and many other artists and record store owners who continue to adore the format. It’s so cool, pressing plants are perhaps busier than ever. The CD, even if still convenient, is now a bore. Cassette tapes have more cultural buzz than compact discs these days.
Timeless records transcend format, though. What was profound years or decades ago, and remains that way now, impacts listeners regardless of its technological mechanisms. Those records speak both aurally and visually, and together the art resonates without end. Think of the Beatles crossing the road. Pink Floyd’s dark triangle. Jimi Hendrix as a Hindu deity. Nirvana’s underwater infant. Dolly Parton inside a thick yellow border. Run-D.M.C. looking effortlessly cool. Your mind fills in the rest.
When my mind goes to Pearl Jam’s Vs. from here on, I think I’ll first recall the band members’ muddy legs instead of that aggressive sheep. Because they’re on the viewer’s side of a border of hand-placed rocks, separated from the rest of the world. Because that border underscores everything about the album, from lyrical themes to title. Because it includes us in its confines. Because, like great art has always done, the photo invites closer study and new awareness.
If I’d been one of those hip-to-vinyl cats in October 1993, maybe I’d have seen that line of rocks for what it was long ago. Maybe I’d have noticed before I even left Tower Records. Maybe I’d have made the connection before I wrote a whole book about the record.
But some synapses are worth the wait. Live and listen and learn.
Clint Brownlee is a copywriter, sometime music journalist, and would-be novelist. He has lived in the Seattle area for over two decades and written for Seattle Weekly, Sound Magazine, Northwest Music Scene, Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber, and other outlets. His ’90s hair is history, but he still wears flannel every day.
Pearl Jam’s Vs. is available in bookshops and online (including at Bloomsbury.com).