Pearl Jam’s third album, Vitalogy — now celebrating its 25th birthday — is a dividing line for the Seattle band, as both the five-piece and general pop culture settled their debts with the early 1990s. It’s one of the most successful growing pains in the history of rock: the long-haired, MTV-adored group behind mega-successful LPs Ten and Vs. was now struggling to rebel against the band they were, while transforming into the band they would become.
For all its acclaim and impressive sales — Vitalogy has moved 4.8 million album units to date, per Nielsen Music — it’s an artistic mixed bag. Vitalogy flaunts several of PJ’s best-ever songs; it also contains some of their most misguided forays into artsy overindulgence.
There are many reasons why: First off, 1994 was a tumultuous year. Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s “Voice of a Generation” frontman (and occasional critic of Pearl Jam), had died by suicide that spring. Cobain was a victim of the Is-There-No-Bottom? exploitation of grunge music, and so was Pearl Jam. They were exhausted from newfound fame, years of non-stop touring, the over-commercialization of their sound and look, and encroaching substance abuse issues (guitarist Mike McCready had developed an alcohol and drug problem for which he would later seek treatment).
So Vedder started fighting back. With his PJ bandmates, he challenged Ticketmaster, the behemoth ticketing company (bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard even testified before a congressional sub-committee). Increasingly, Vedder sought freedom in his music, too. On previous albums, he added vocals to the band’s music (much of the music for PJ’s debut was written before Vedder even joined the group). With Vitalogy, the singer now took up playing guitar and writing songs — an entirely new dynamic, which initially caused internal problems; Gossard, once the artistic captain alongside Ament, considered quitting, according to a 1996 Los Angeles Times piece. Meanwhile, drummer Dave Abbruzzese, who opposed the Ticketmaster boycott, was kicked out (and replaced by Jack Irons, original drummer from Red Hot Chili Peppers). On all fronts, Pearl Jam appeared to be crumbling under the weight of their own success.
But they miraculously held it together, and the document of this trying era is Vitalogy, recorded mostly during breaks on their tour behind Vs. in studios in Seattle, New Orleans and Atlanta with producer Brendan O’Brien (who also helmed Vs. and would become their de-facto producer). The quintet had even performed 10 of the record’s 14 songs live on that tour.
Vitalogy arrived just one year after its predecessor’s massive success, yet it couldn’t be more different. Long gone are the classic rock solos and the yarrrrrrrrrrr-ing of “Daughter”-era Pearl Jam. In an attempt to further eschew traditional music marketing strategies, Vitalogy was initially a vinyl-only release, dropping Nov. 22, 1994. The band did little press, released no music videos and planned no new tour. Two weeks later, on Dec. 6, the CD arrived and sold 877,000 copies in a week, according to Nielsen Music.
Here, we attempt to rank the album’s tracks. Admittedly, it’s easier than most landmark albums: it’s a polarizing mix of fan favorites and what-were-you-thinking? near-throwaways. But it’s an LP that would deliver a critical sea change for one of the era’s biggest bands and lay the foundation for their decades-long (and running) career.
Pearl Jam are not an “artsy” band. They are a rock band. Hard stop. And as much as Vedder wanted to douse their fame in gasoline and light a match, this is his worst attempt at distancing the group from their commercial success. The tune is just Vedder playing an accordion, bought at a thrift shop, and mumbling about, “bugs in my room / bugs in my bed / bugs in my ears / their eggs in my head.” That last bit is convincing.
13. “Aya Davanita”
This is nearly three minutes of circular guitar noodling and Vedder chant-scatting, “Awooh… aye davanita… awooh… awooha…” (or something like that). Yep.
A totally aimless instrumental — just feedback, titter-tatter guitar picking, and off-the-path tribal drumming — overdubbed with indecipherable audio of the voices of patients from a mental health clinic. This audio was reportedly recorded from a news segment by Vedder when he was 17. That tracks.
11. “Pry, To”
It’s a minute of fade-in, fade-out, Red Hot Chili Pepper-lite funk with Vedder just mumbling, “P-R-I-V-A-C-Y is priceless to me.” At least this one has something resembling a message — Vedder’s angst against the rock n’ roll fame machine, a popular target on Vitalogy.
10. “Satan’s Bed”
Finally, a song. This tune opens with the sound of a cracking whip, before a chug-a-lug drum beat and gritty guitar riff enter. “Funny how he always seems to fit in/ Funny how I always want to give in,” Vedder spits, before hitting the chorus: “Already! In love!” Okay, we’re warming up…
It opens with a guitar riff that’s certified Seattle Sound — it’s eerily like Soundgarden or Alice in Chains — and many fans interpreted the song to be about Cobain, due to Vedder’s mention of a cigar box (one was found next to Cobain’s dead body). Vedder refuted the claims, saying it was written before the Nirvana rocker’s death, but it nonetheless touches on the troubles of fame and drug addiction. Vedder even sings about an “auctioned forearm” and “vessel stabbed.” “I cannot stop the thought of running in the dark,” he wails. “Coming up a which way sign.”
It’s the punk-meets-classic rock sound PJ would further develop over many albums and years to come. Hard-charging with bleating riffs and power chord crunch, we find Vedder dynamic, low and tender, then aggressive and growling: “Don’t need a helmet, got a hard, hard head / Don’t need a raincoat, I’m already wet/ Don’t need a bandage, there’s too much blood/ After a while seems to roll right off/ They’re whippingggggggggggggg!!!!”
7. “Spin the Black Circle”
Now we’re at the meat of the what makes Vitalogy so essential, and this one’s a careening backhanded slap across the face. Ramones-esque punk speed meets spiky Buzzcocks guitars, with Vedder paying tribute to vinyl records: “You’re so warm / Oh, the ritual / When I lay down/ Your crooked arm.” Amen, brother.
6. “Last Exit”
The album’s opening salvo is another blueprint for the future PJ. Big, classic rock-indebted guitar slashes collide with punk fury, like a lo-fi version of The Who. Vedder here paints another bleak picture that some have interpreted about drowning amongst the rising tides of fame: “Grasp and hold on / Hold tight and fast / Soon be over / And I will relent / Let the ocean swell dissolve away my past.” The he lets loose the vocal fury: “Let my spirit pass / This is, this is… My last exit.”
5. “Tremor Christ”
Given its title and dark, quasi-religious subject and sinister-moody vibe, this tune sounds like a Soundgarden outtake. Stabbing guitars and chugging rhythms meet Vedder as he opens up his vocals: “Gorgeous was his savior, sees her, drowning in his wake /A daily taste the salt of her tears but, a chance blamed fate / Little secrets, tremors, turned to quake/ The smallest oceans still get big, big waves.”
4. “Not for You”
Now we’re in classics territory. Amid all the chaos on this album, it’s poppy moments like this that shine through. The track, previewed on Saturday Night Live in spring of ’94, pairs an instantly-recognizable, fuzz-toned riff with a straight-ahead drum beat, as Vedder gets increasingly agitated about the commercialization of his music: “All that’s sacred comes from youth / Dedication, naïve and true / With no power, nothing to do / I still remember, why don’t you? / This is not for you!” Watch out, Ticketmaster.
It’s sometimes hard to believe that this song lives on this album. Which may be precisely why it does. It’s a bring-you-to-your-knees gorgeous ballad of lost love that gently swells until the tears flow. And most any fan can recite its opening lyric (often while mimicking Vedder’s deep vocal): “Once divided, nothing left to subtract/ Some words when spoken, can’t be taken back.” It’s full of memorable lyrics, also including, “Caught a bolt of lightning, cursed the day he let it go.” And then he goes up an octave: “She once believed in every story he had to tell… He who forgets, will be destined to remember…” It’s the stuff legends are made of.
2. “Better Man”
It’s one of the band’s trademark tunes, a pop-rock song unlike anything they’d done before. And it was written by Vedder when he was still in high school (and omitted from Vs. because it was considered too accessible. LOL). It paints a poignant portrait of a woman trapped in an unhealthy relationship that she just can’t bring herself to leave: “She lies and says she’s in love with him / Can’t find a better man.” Twinkling guitar and organ give rise to one of Vedder’s most-recognizable and endearing vocal performances, as his yarling of yore tapers off into a touching turn: “She loved him, yeah / She don’t want to leave this way / She feeds him / That’s why she’ll be back again…”
If one song strikes the heart of the chaos of Vitalogy, it’s this jam that’s equal parts twinkling chorus and tangled verse. The tune again fights back at the band’s sudden fame, inspired by Vedder seeing a corduroy vest in a store selling for $500 dollars, labeled, “Pearl Jam Eddie Vedder corduroy shirt.” He sings, “I don’t want to hear from those who know / They can buy, but can’t put on my clothes.” And that bridge finds the band lifting Vedder up and up: “Everything has chains!!! Absolutely nothing’s changed!!!” Thing is, after Vitalogy, everything would change for Pearl Jam — and there’d be arguably fewer chains.