Pearl Jam's 'Vs.' at 20: Classic Track-By-Track Review
Just days after the release of Pearl Jam's brand new 10th studio album, "Lightning Bolt," comes the 20th anniversary of its key sophomore set, "Vs," which hit record stores 20 years ago on Oct. 19, 1993.
Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder once told Spin he had hoped the band's 1991 debut "Ten," would sell 40,000 copies. Instead, that now-classic album went platinum less than a year after its release, hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 after a months-long climb, and easily made Pearl Jam into one of the biggest bands of the era. Pearl Jam and Nirvana, who were falsely portrayed as rivals, seemed to blast from every radio and turn up every time you turned on MTV. The ever brighter spotlight, however, turned out to be a maelstrom that Pearl Jam found increasingly difficult.
In the first half of 1993, it was in this environment that the quintet made the follow-up to "Ten." Pearl Jam convened at Potatohead in Seattle and The Site studio in Nicasio, Calif. with producer Brendan O'Brien, who would come to work with the band on many of its albums over the next 20 years.
After an initial period that produced several tunes including "Rats" and "Go," work ground to a temporary halt. Vedder supposedly took to occasionally sleeping in his truck out in the San Francisco area near the Site to get his mind in the right place for the process. Soon, they were finishing the batch of 12 explosive, emotional, vivid songs wherein Vedder sang stories of family turmoil, abuse, violence and the perils of fame in his muscular baritone against the interlocking twin riffage of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament's hard groove and then-drummer Dave Abbruzzese's rapid-fire barrage.
PJ was initially going to call it "Five Against One," and for a moment it was self-titled, but ultimately, they chose the simple, powerful title "Vs.," apt for a band in a lot of ways in opposition to the usual machinery of fame. They'd made the then-unfathomable decision to not make any videos, and only gave a few interviews. Still, "Vs." connected immediately upon its October 1993 release, selling an astounding 950,000 copies in its first week according to Nielsen SoundScan and debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. To date, the sophomore set that proved the band could do things its own way -- a tactic that directly helped make its longevity possible -- has sold six million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The album blasts out of the gate with a driving beat and pounding guitars that lay the way for Vedder's searing holler, "don't go on me!," as he sings about a pleading abuser. "Go," the album's first official single, has turned up as frenzy-inducing part of a number of PJ setlists ever since.
No less pounding, "Animal" completes the one-two punch that kick starts Vs., this time with Vedder singing as the abused: the exact opposite point of view from the opener. The song's first line begat the album's provisional title, "Five Against One."
The album's second single became arguably its most familiar hit. The song truly came together in mid-92 when Stone Gossard got out his acoustic on the tour bus to play alongside an un-mic'd Eddie Vedder (it's a scene you can see in Cameron Crowe's 2011 "Pearl Jam Twenty" documentary). The narrative finds Vedder painting the picture of, yes, an abusive relationship -- this time between parent and child, and this time alternating between the daughter's perspective ("don't call me daughter / not fit to") and the the third person ("She holds the hand that holds her down.") "Daughter" is one of the strongest examples of Vedder's uncommon prowess in writing songs from a female perspective.
With a peal of notes sounding off as it begins, the fourth track of "Vs." takes a very dim view of gun ownership and had been inspired when Vedder overheard drummer Abbruzzese had bought one. At the time, Abbruzzese, who has been out of the band since 1994, told U.K. publication Melody Maker that a horrified Eddie Vedder had said, "'What!? You bought a GUN?." To which Abbruzzese replied, "'In fact I bought two.' Which became the first line of the song," the drummer said to Melody Maker, "It's fair to say Eddie was pretty outraged, but where I come from in Texas, people have a very different attitude towards guns," Abbruzzese added.
Pearl Jam had the bare bones of the music for this song in '92, but the full mid-tempo story-song emerged for "Vs." Now a setlist rarity, it speaks, at heart, about betrayal and the guilt of it. "There was meaning / but she sold him to the state."
A hypnotic Ament bass groove lays down the basis for Vedder's examination of racism, especially in terms of police brutality. Subtitled "policeman" in the cd booklet, the "W.M.A." of the title is a "white male American / do no wrong, so clean cut / dirties his hands it comes right off," before Vedder's exclaims "police stopped my brother again!" repeatedly. The liner notes give even more insight, juxtaposing the words "black" and "white" cut from a newspaper, the handwritten words "to unnerve and convict," and a photograph of Malice Green, a Detroit man who died while in police custody in 1992.
Vedder seems to rip open his throat open in his unrelenting diatribe about the burning glare of the media spotlight that likens blood to ink; "drains and spills, fills the pages." Amid McCready and Gossard's pummeling chords, the quietest moment holds the most direct lyric, "paint Ed big turn Ed into one of his enemies."
A circular series of guitar notes and a seesawing bassline sonically propel Vedder's protagonist away from his tormentor, who leaves the "fist on my plate / swallowed it down" and soon feels he "saw things so much clearer / once you were in my rearviewmirror." It's one of many future Pearl Jam songs to come in which someone is speeding away from something ("Gone," "MFC"). Notably, EV picks up a lyrical thread from "Daughter" wherein "the shades go down"; here, "finally the shades are raised."
The funk-touched "Rats" is centered on a deep Ament bass lick as Vedder reaches down into his considerable register to suggest that ironically, in many ways, rats can be less rodent-like than people are sometimes: "they don't fight / don't oppress an equal's given right / starve the poor so they can be well fed." Careful listeners will pick up the reference to Michael Jackson's "Ben" (a song about a pet rat, no less) toward the end.
"Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town"
As Vedder joked on Pearl Jam's 1998 live album, this is the longest song title in the Pearl Jam catalog. This acoustic-inflected tune, which often incites a singalong live, talks of someone that never got out of her small life in a small town who encounters an old friend that did. "I changed by not changing at all / small town predicts my fate / perhaps that's what no one wants to see."
Debuted live in '92, it sounded like a rallying cry, "troubled souls unite!" But in reality this sharp-edged rocker was more complex, tying in inclusive lines like "I'm lost, I'm no guide, but I'm by your side," and hopeful moments like "we will find our way" with the utter snarl of the chorus, "drop the leash / get out of my f*cking face!"
The album that opened hard and fast ends with this haunting, spare downbeat closer. Vedder is almost whispering at first, singing of loneliness and flirting with hopeless while Ament's bass sounds out four notes and a simple guitar rings out higher on the scale behind him. But ultimately, he's just not not giving up. The band still electrifies with this song as a once-in-while show-closer, with tens of thousands of people singing along at top volume along with Eddie, "I'll swallow poison until I grow immune / I will scream my lungs out 'til it fills this room."