Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Vitalogy’ by grunge antiheroes Pearl Jam.
By 1994, Pearl Jam was in the midst of an identity crisis. The mega success of their debut album ‘Ten’ had made them superstars but the role of biggest band in the world wasn’t one they were comfortable with. An attempt to distance themselves from their popularity on their sophomore album failed miserably with ‘Vs’ almost selling a million copies in its first week. The band weren’t making things easy for themselves either with singer Eddie Vedder and guitarist Stone Gossard locked in a power struggle over who was taking creative control of their forthcoming new album. Further distraction came in the form of an ill-advised boycott of Ticketmaster which ended in abject failure. And yet amidst all this turmoil came ‘Vitalogy’, an uncompromising and nihilistic masterpiece that ranks top of Pearl Jam’s distinguished back catalogue.
Quickly distancing itself from the classic rock sound of their debut, ‘Vitalogy’ opens will a flurry of hard hitting punk rock numbers. Last Exit bursts out of the traps, an amped up garage rock cut seeping with energy and vitriol. Spin The Black Circle follows and is even faster and more abrasive, the band paying homage to their hard-core punk influences. Of the opening trio of tracks it’s Not For You that leaves the most lasting impression. Another visceral punk number, this one sees the band at their most outspoken. “This Is Not For You/Never was for you/Fuck You” Vedder screams as the song draws to a close; a perfect riposte to MTV and the rest of mainstream music scene that the band felt so used by.
The bands new found fondness for punk continues throughout the album. Tremor Christ, Whipping and Satan’s Bed are all abrasive, raw and full of blood curdling anger with Vedder sounding like a wounded animal on vocals. This was the first album on which he took the reins and his stamp is marked indelibly on it. Much of the lyrical content deals with the anger and confusion he felt surrounding both his fame and his animosity towards his band mates. Musically as well, he plays a larger role than before; contributing on rhythm guitar and even on drums in place of the bands soon to be sacked drummer Dave Abbruzzese, who was to become a victim of the band’s rather strained recording sessions.
In addition to embracing a more abrasive punk sound, ‘Vitalogy’ also sees Pearl Jam indulge their more experimental tendencies. Bugs still sounds surreal with its spoken word delivery and accordion driven arrangement. Ava Davinata goes even further left field; a bizarre three-minute mix of tribal chanting. It’s the albums final song, Stupidmop, which takes the prize for the albums oddest song though; an unsettling seven-minute medley composed of snippets of dialogue from patients at a mental institute, this is as bizarre as it gets. Though the trio make for a challenging listen, their experimental nature only adds to the album’s allure.
For all the bands attempt to distance themselves from the spotlight, there’s a lot on here that does its best to embrace it. Corduroy is stunning; another diatribe about fame, it’s one of Vedder’s best ever lyrical offerings. The albums two slow songs Nothingman and Immortality are another pair of classics; both poignant but without ever veering towards oversentimentality. It’s the bittersweet Better Man that stands head and shoulders above all else; written by Vedder as a teen about his fraught relationship with his stepfather, the song begins with hushed vocals over solemn chords before transforming into a Springsteen-esque anthem. Twenty years on and the ballad is still the best song the band has recorded.
Written as a massive fuck you to commercialism, ‘Vitalogy’ did what it set out to do, pushing away the band’s unwanted audience. From here on, Pearl Jam were no longer the world’s biggest band merely a cult act. That may seem a strange concept; that a band’s best album made them less popular, but that tells you more about the fickleness of mainstream music than it does about the album’s quality. It’s probably true that their time as the world’s biggest band was over anyway. After all by late 1994, grunge was yesterday’s news, Green Day and Pop-Punk was the new flavour of the month. But at least with ‘Vitalogy’, Pearl Jam left on their own terms. This album was goodbye to MTV and every other aspect of commercialism that went with it. And as goodbyes go, they don’t come any more hostile than this one.
Did you enjoy this weeks edition of Golden Vault? Get involved, comment below and join us next week in the Golden Vault where we’ll be discussing ‘(Come On, Join) The High Society’ by These Animal Men.