Pearl Jam’s ‘Vitalogy’ at 20: Classic Track-By-Track Album Review
It was an undeniably tumultuous year for Pearl Jam in 1994. A time of great flux during which the spotlight of fame glared ever more strongly on the Seattle band as it faced the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, opted to battle Ticketmaster and changed drummers. It was into this maelstrom that Pearl Jam chose not to relent, but rather to release a masterpiece, its third album Vitalogy, barely a year after the massive success of its sophomore effort Vs.
Vs. had debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in October 1993 with an amazing 950,000 copies sold its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It quickly earned multi-platinum status, despite the band’s then-unheard-of decision to eschew music videos and give very few interviews in an act of self-preservation.
Instead, Pearl Jam turned to the road and found inspiration. By the time the second half of the Vs. tour had finished raging across the U.S. in the spring of 1994, delivering kinetic live sets night after night, the quintet had performed 10 of the eventual 14 songs that would come to comprise Vitalogy.
“Better Man” had become an instant favorite when the band performed it at an April ’94 show broadcast on the radio nationwide. Days later, the band also gave the whole country a preview of “Not For You” when they performed it on Saturday Night Live. “Corduroy,” which like “Not For You” and other eventual Vitalogy songs addressed the rigors of fame, was also road tested. Many of the Vitalogy songs remain staples of the band’s epic live performances to this day.
Already during the tour, Pearl Jam had been recording the new album in Seattle, New Orleans and Atlanta with producer Brendan O’Brien, who had also produced Vs. The trek came to a close with an especially intense New York show that came just days after the body of Cobain had been discovered in Seattle. The New York show would prove to be Pearl Jam drummer Dave Abbruzzese’s last gig as a member of the band.
That summer, the group opted to let him go and replace him with former Red Hot Chili Pepper’s skinsman Jack Irons, who had been instrumental in the formation of Pearl Jam: Irons had connected frontman Eddie Vedder with bassist Jeff Ament and guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready in the first place. While Abbruzzese appears on most of Vitalogy, Irons is behind the kit for the album’s last track.
Meanwhile, Pearl Jam also took on the ticketing practices of Ticketmaster that summer as well, with Ament and Gossard even testifying before a congressional sub-committee in a bold move that would make headlines for years.
It was during this time that the band completed work on its third album, which encompassed punk influences (“Spin The Black Circle,” “Whipping”), straight-ahead rock’n’roll (“Not For You,” “Corduroy”), poignant ballads (“Nothingman,” “Immortality”) and more aural experimentation than they’d ever before allowed themselves (“Bugs,” “Aye Davanita”). Vedder had even come up with a loose concept for the packaging based on a nearly century-old health manual he’d unearthed titled, Vitalogy, which proffered curiously out-of-date advice.
Already well established as a band that chose it’s own path rather than follow the herd, Pearl Jam insisted on releasing Vitalogy on vinyl on Nov. 22, 1994, two weeks ahead of it’s regular CD and cassette release. When it reached CD, the album rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard 200. With few interviews, no music videos and no new tour, the power of the music itself was apparent: Vitalogy was certified five-times platinum within three months of its release.
“We're still just being brutally honest and giving it our best,” Vedder told Spin of Vitalogy in December of 1994.
“Last Exit”: The album opens with a jumbled blurt of notes from various instruments that sounds like Pearl Jam in the process of limbering up for a long performance. The urgent thwack of Dave Abbruzzese’s drums soon slices through, and the first words Eddie Vedder utters are, “lives opened and trashed” as riffs seesaw behind him. But Vedder’s typewritten liner notes for the song offer a grim addenda that isn’t in the music. He writes, “If one cannot control his life, will he be driven to control his death?”
“Spin the Black Circle”: Some thought it an unlikely choice for the first single from Vitalogy, but this punked-up paean to vinyl -- which debuted live at at March ’94 show in Denver -- couldn’t have been a more apt first salvo from an album defiantly released on that very format two weeks before it became available on the then-standard CD and cassette at a time when major bands had long ignored vinyl. With dizzying chords whipsawing behind him, Vedder howls about “the ritual when I lay down your crooked arm,” referring to the joy of setting the tonearm on the record. In the book Pearl Jam Twenty, Vedder recalled the song took shape after he accidentally listened to guitarist Stone Gossard’s demo at the wrong speed. “I pulled Stone off to the side and said, ‘I think I’ve stumbled onto something. There’s a killer song here if you’d play it this fast.’ and I played it to him,” Vedder says in the book. “He thought I was totally insane. But without putting up a fight, they tried it and that’s what it became.”
“Not For You”: The album’s second single, there’s an almost Neil Young-esque stomp to this unabashed “f--- you” to anyone looking to co-opt this rock'n'roll as some crass marketing object. “You dare say it belongs to you/This not for you!” Vedder howls. In a theme addressed several times on Vitalogy, he also touches on the disorienting invasion fame had brought with it: “Small my table, seats just two/got so crowded I can’t make room/where did they come from? stormed my room!” Interestingly, in the liner notes, he handwrites “call me sisyphus” below the song’s actual lyrics, invoking the myth of the man doomed to endlessly roll the, er, rock, up a hill, only for it to constantly roll back down.
“Tremor Christ”: The devil makes his first Vitalogy appearance in this churning, well-wrought allegory of a sailor imperiled by diabolical storms at sea, also filled with the ocean imagery that Vedder has suffused into Pearl Jam’s entire catalog. But while the devil “whispers pleasing words,” hope endures. The lyrical heart of he song, with survival at stake, provides its most powerful moments: “Take my time, not my life/wait for signs/believe in lies/to get by/it’s divine.”
"Nothingman”: Bassist Jeff Ament composed the music for this gorgeous ballad, which came together in the space of an hour and was recorded in February 1994 in Seattle. The lilting sway is anchored by Ament’s resonant stand-up bass and Vedder’s tenor is a clarion as he sings of a man’s emptiness and regret after a relationship goes sour: “some words when spoken can’t be taken back.” “The idea is about if you love someone and they love you, don't f--- up... 'cause you are left with less than nothing,” Vedder told the L.A. Times in 1994. One of two “man” songs on the album (the other being “Better Man,” also notably about a broken relationship), Pearl Jam would later go on to occasionally treat fans to a “man” trilogy in concert, playing “Nothingman,” “Better Man” and 1998 b-side “Leatherman” as a unit.
“Whipping”: Written long before even second album Vs. was released and sonically revved just as much as “Spin the Black Circle,” “Whipping” finds Vedder fed up with unnamed powers-that-be. “I can’t believe a thing they want us to/we all got scars, they should have them too,” he growls.
“Pry, To”: The album’s second half (Side B for those listening on vinyl) fades in with a brief, 1:03 interlude featuring a warped disco-y beat and an unambiguous message: Vedder repeating “P-r-i-v-a-c-y is priceless to me” and then just “P-r-i-v-a-c-y” until the track fades out again.
“Corduroy”: Throughout 1992, as Pearl Jam first encountered the frenzy of massive fame, Vedder was often photographed wearing a simple corduroy jacket. By 1994, even fashion labels were trying to cash in on a perceived “grunge look” and Vedder wrote “Corduroy,” a full-on rock-out, after spotting a high-priced version of his thrift store coat for sale. As McCready, Gossard and Vedder’s chords chug and chime, the frontman expresses his frustration with the spotlight and the commodification of music. “They can buy, but can’t put on my clothes,” he sings at one point. Later, he asks, “take my hand, not my picture.”
“Bugs”: Vedder wrestles dissonant shards of melody from an accordion he found in a thrift shop as he examines the theme of intrusion by way of the metaphor of “bugs in my room/bugs in my bed/bugs in my ears” which “surround me I see/see them deciding my fate.” “Bugs” stands as the only actual Vitalogy song (interludes “Pry,To” “Aye Davanita” and “Hey Foxymophandlemama" aside) that the band didn’t perform live before the album’s release; in fact Pearl Jam didn’t play the song in concert until 2009.
“Satan’s Bed”: Announced by the sound of whips, the devil reappears to dangle the temptations of celebrity and fortune in this hard-charging track with music by guitarist Stone Gossard, but Vedder is having none of it. “Never shook Satan’s hand, look see for yourself” he seethes. “You’d know it if I had, that shit don’t come off.”
“Better Man”: The mid-tempo rocker focused on a woman in a bad relationship instantly became one of Pearl Jam’s most-loved songs and a rock radio favorite when it was released on Vitalogy and it remains a setlist staple that elicits a hearty sing-along every time it’s played live. With lines like “she lies and says she still loves him/can’t find a better man,” it also stands as one of the best example’s of Vedder’s ability to write from a female perspective (earlier showcased on 1991’s “Why Go” and 1993’s “Daughter”). But the tune had a long road before its official Pearl Jam debut. Vedder had written it years and years earlier (“before I could drink -- legally,” he told Spin in 1994), and had performed it live with his late '80s band Bad Radio. Pearl Jam first took a stab a recording it for 1993’s Vs., but it was on Vitalogy that everything came together for the song, at the urging of producer Brendan O’Brien who’d long been a strong proponent for releasing the song. “It’s such an undeniable melody, undeniable lyric, undeniable arrangement,” Gossard later said in the book Pearl Jam Twenty.
“Aye Davanita”: The liner notes call this “the song without words,” and it stands as the album’s second main interlude: a chugging nearly three-minute wash of bright, ephemeral jamming, with some low vocalizations repeating for the majority of the track, the only decipherable “words” seeming to be the song’s title.
“Immortality”: This haunting ballad led by a spare suite of strumming guitars examines dire emotions as Vedder sings of “running in the dark” and “victims in demand for public show.” “Some die just to live,” he intones softly as the music rides to a close. Though the band premiered the song live (albeit with significantly different lyrics) just days after Kurt Cobain’s death, “It's not about Kurt. Nothing on the album was written directly about Kurt,” Vedder explained to the Los Angeles Times shortly before the album’s release. “But I think there might be some things in the lyrics that you could read into and maybe will answer some questions or help you understand the pressures on someone who is on a parallel train...”
“Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me”: The final track on Vitalogy is less a song and more an eerie sound experiment that marks new drummer Jack Irons’ first recorded output as a member of the band. Where Pearl Jam’s first foray into including an atmospheric coda to an album was the far more ethereal quasi hidden track “Master/Slave” on Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut Ten, “Foxymophandlemama” announces itself directly after the closing notes of “Immortality” with a much more harrowing cacophony replete with disturbing distorted audio of mental patients discussing spankings.