Vs. versus Vitalogy

Clint Brownlee on the significance behind Pearl Jam’s Vs.

If you’re with me here, there’s a good chance you’ve been with Pearl Jam since the beginning—and you may have already asked yourself, “If this guy was interested in a tough period for the band, did he forget about Vitalogy?” 

It’s a fair question. The general consensus is that PJ’s third record represents equal parts soaring creative victory and spectacular implosion. The band members themselves tend to agree when they reflect on Vitalogy, as does producer Brendan O’Brien. In 2001, he said, the album was “a little strained.” Then he elaborated: “I’m being polite—there was some imploding going on.”

The dysfunction, though, had been seeded in 1993. The course was cleared toward a weird retro-medical visual concept and weird peppering of non-songs and weird “Foxymophandlemama” afterthought when the band wrapped its push-pull recording of Vs. with drummer Dave Abbruzzese throwing part of his kit off a hillside outside the studio. The dynamics within the young band had already begun changing—if they’d ever been solid. The circumstances around them had been sped along by a brisk wind, then a tornado, then a maelstrom. 

Yet Pearl Jam survived the Vs. era—its recording, its supporting tour—and thus were steeled for the stranger, tougher times ahead. In Vs., the band made its first moves toward independence, creative diversity, activism, and intentionality. That odd fodder on Vitalogy (“Pry, To,” “Aye Davanita,” “Bugs,” “Foxy”) was there for very specific reasons. Those liner notes looked and read like an old, out-of-touch medical text on purpose, even if there was no “concept album” correlation in the songs themselves. 

The third album is very public evidence of much that had slipped sideways in PJ’s collective world over the previous year or so. (Vitalogy was released in December 1994, not even 14 months following Vs.) Abbruzzese was dismissed; Jack Irons was hand-picked by Eddie Vedder to take his seat. Guitarist Stone Gossard, one of the band’s figureheads before it was a band (with bassist Jeff Ament), began deferring more to Vedder (whether he liked it or not). Mike McCready thrashed guitars on stage and alcohol off, growing sloppier by the day. 

Of that period, Gossard said, “It was the most stressful and unnerving time. I was going out of my mind. The band has never been more successful, but we can’t all be in a room together. Everything’s dramatic and big.”

Cue “Not For You.” “Never was for you,” Vedder sang. “Fuck you.” 

So yeah, Vitalogy marked a time when Pearl Jam seemed to be out of control, barely keeping it together, destined to split up, insert your favorite doomsday phrase here.

But by this point, success and fame’s crushing element of surprise was in the past. The band knew what was at stake. Its members had discovered their voices—literal, metaphorical, separate, unified—by 1993. And they would not allow themselves to be silenced. 

In Vs.’s “Leash,” Vedder warned, “Get outta my fucking face.” He and his bandmates could already see what was coming.

I submit that if Pearl Jam’s members hadn’t spent 1992–93 bolstering their personal and collective defenses against fame, hadn’t deliberately attempted to control their public persona, hadn’t made a host of straight-arm statements throughout Vs., the next record really would have been the last. “This is not for you” would have been a halfhearted shout over a shoulder.

Vs. is a statement of intent. It’s a visual and aural line in the sand. It’s both a symbolic and tangible turning point in Pearl Jam’s young career that presaged all that has come since. The ideals and efforts the band’s members (and management) pursued then have only crystallized and expanded in the succeeding decades. Look at the evolving record deals that morphed into Monkeywrench Records. Look at the efforts to support independent record stores, to bolster the vinyl format. Look at the philanthropy—including, yes, the nonprofit Vitalogy Foundation. Look at the legal stand against Ticketmaster in 1994 and how PJ has more recently partnered with the company to craft more fan-friendly ticketing programs. (If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em and alter their course.) Look at the statements and actions taken around homelessness, politics, and social justice.

It all started with Vs.—how Pearl Jam wrote and recorded it, how they supported it, how they reacted to its success. That sheep behind a fence on its cover? Like escaping fame, the only way out was through. 

Once I saw that, there was no writing about any other Pearl Jam record. 

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