I discovered Pearl Jam not too long after getting into Nirvana in a big way. Must have been mid 1994 or so. Certainly before the release of Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York. 1994? Yeah, up until that point I actually didn’t listen to that much music. Well, certainly not a wide range of music. I’d been listening to Guns N’ Roses (a lot), R.E.M., Queen, INXS and a few other bits and bobs – Rolling Stones, Iron Maiden (Fear of the Dark and Powerslave) and the Last Action Hero and The Crow soundtracks. There were also a handful of other tapes featuring tracks I’d picked up from free Kerrang! tapes and Radio 1’s rock show (with the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, etc), as well as a bunch of stuff of my dad’s that appealed to me (a couple of Beatles compilations (the blue and red best of LPs), Rod Stewart, Elvis and Frank Sinatra). It’s actually pretty odd thinking about it, but 1994 was the year of my great musical awakening; music grabbed a hold of me in a way I couldn’t ever comprehend.
Anyway, after Nirvana I started exploring other alternative rock bands, but Pearl Jam was the next band I grasped onto in a big way. I heard Ten and it blew me away. Caught up in the enthusiasm I called my friend and proclaimed that it was better than Nevermind. “You really need to hear this”, I said. It was a completely different album to Nevermind, of course – Pearl Jam were a completely different band; but at the time it made sense. Vs. sealed the deal, though. They took the hooks of Ten and turned them upside down. There was more grit, more urgency, and a bit more soul. Soon enough my friend and I were aboard the Pearl Jam bus and seeking a copy of Vitalogy. Of course, Pearl Jam were soon off the map and my candle for them started to fade as I was discovering a range of other bands while awaiting their long anticipated next album. By the time No Code dropped I wasn’t as interested. I was already hooked on other sounds.
Although I did drift back to them when Yield was on its way, I found myself falling out of love with the band after Riot Act. I have the three albums they released since (Pearl Jam, Backspacer and Lightning Bolt), but I’ve just never found them engaging enough to have an opinion on them. I really don’t know what it was with those albums, but the fact the music just didn’t resonate with me anymore would be the likely culprit. I just can’t relate to any of it. However, I do still find myself returning to that four album run of Vs., Vitalogy, No Code and Yield; I still have a lot of time for those.
Quite possibly my favourite of the bunch is Vs. It’s the one I listen to most often. Each time I still feel like it’s hitting that same musical nerve it did the first time I heard it. I picked up a copy about a year ago on eBay for a couple of pence over £16. Throw in the postage and it was just over £20. Ouch. Part of me was already regretting the purchase given I had it on CD, but the other part – the part that kept up the bidding – was already looking forward to it arriving. To hear that intro. Like an orchestra warming up.
The album itself still sounds vibrant and fresh. Lyrically it’s dark and EdVed has never sounded better – his phrasing and timing is spot on. He can often be heard screaming himself hoarse (like when he sings “Spin me round, roll me over. Fucking circus. Stab it down. One way needle. Pulled so slowly” before tearing it up when he screams “it’s my blood”) while the acoustic numbers are well suited to his baritone ramblings (like on the pretty wonderful Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town). The band sound impulsive, and the sparring of McCready and Gossard’s guitars often sound spontaneous.
Like I say, the shadows of Ten remain (Dissident and Indifference), but there’s a grit and an appetite to leave the stadium rock of that album behind them. EdVed sounds like he’s trying to exorcise demons or at least make sense of where he’s found himself. His voice is filled with urgency, passion and a little bit of vitriol. Although there’s a common thread – one of isolation and distance – Vedder references a number of frustrations that are both social and political. From abuse (Daughter and Rearviewmirror) and drug addiction (Blood) to taking on gun control (Glorified G) and police violence (W.M.A).
My favourite moments have never changed – the opening warm up before the rush of Go, the lifting broodishness of Glorified G, Rats (Ament and Abbruzzese providing a funky beat, while Gossard and McCready provide some pummeling guitars as Vedder tosses out lines that suggest he’s not at all pleased with the human race) and when Vedder sings “I’ll swallow poison until I grow immune. I will scream my lungs out till it fills this room” during Indifference.
As I look at the album and listen to Vedder’s thoughts against a setting of sparring guitars, gloomy bass runs, tribal drum patterns and moody splashes of lead, it reminds me what I love about Pearl Jam. In many ways, their best albums have a lot of the same hallmarks – unfinished ideas, a feeling of spontaneity, and an intensity that their later work just lacks. I appreciate that they’re getting older, but so too are The Afghan Whigs, Queens of the Stone Age, Masters of Reality, and Mark Lanegan. Pearl Jam are like the Foo Fighters. Sure, they’re carrying a torch, but they’re playing it safe. Just like U2 or the Boss; they have an incredible catalogue, but they’re really struggling to stay relevant. They don’t need a hit album – they need to sound like they are challenging themselves and their audience.
Still, Vs. is a brilliant album. I wouldn’t regret a statement like “this is better than Nevermind” if I’d said it about this one. No, sir.
This copy was pressed in Holland. A nice gatefold sleeve and complete with the original inner. Vs. isn’t printed anywhere on the cover or spine. There’s some surface noise in the quiet passages and a little pop or two, but otherwise it sounds great. All things considered, the £20+ was a good deal.