I’ve been waiting for a reason to post this for a while, and I was too busy yesterday cavorting in the sun to stop and recognize the 13th anniversary of the release of Pearl Jam‘s sophomore album Vs. That’s a good landmark date for posting this (and how is it possible that the album is 13 years old?! That makes me feel really old. Let me sit down for a sec).
A friend of mine across the pond was just buying Vs. and wrote to me asking for a few of my favorite tracks and why. Well, that’s certainly a loaded question with me, isn’t it?
I sat down to write about the album for him, and this is what flowed out. Let me walk you through it, as this is one of desert-island discs, hands down, favorite Pearl Jam, in my top 5 CDs EVER. You may *not* love it, but damned if I don’t at least try to convert you.
PEARL JAM’S Vs. – TRACK BY TRACK
Go and Animal are two of the tightest opening tracks ever paired. They flow seamlessly into each other, churning and hard-hitting. The drumming throughout this album is savage and tight, so aggressive and right on point by Abbruzzese. Go starts fiercely and doesn’t let up, in fact it even builds after Mike’s blistering solo at 1:44, with everything just lunging in unison to the white-knuckled end. Then right into Animal, one of the best 2 pairings of songs ever – so much so that I find myself thinking of them as one song, and it has been known to happen before that I have quoted a lyric from one thinking of the other. Caught me. Maybe because they tell the same kind of story for me – Go being perhaps about someone trying to escape, die, get away “I pulled the covers over him, should’ve pulled the alarm…” and then the wrenching angry wail in Animal, “WHY would you wanna HURT me?!”
Vedder’s voice is right on target with the caged screaming on this album, probably moreso than Ten and any other album they’ve released since Vs. I’d rather be with an animal.
Daughter is thoughtful and sure, poor little girl, alone, listless et al, but I usually skip it. Although I have always appreciated the line, “She holds the hand that holds her down . . .”
Glorified G was one of the first songs that I practiced drumming all the way through to, and the percussion is far and away for me the crispest, sharpest, most interesting part of this song. It’s a bit more lighthearted and spaciously-paced than some of the others, with a beat that is almost pop. Plus a very gnarly guitar riff and some good-natured ribbing in the direction of a gun-happy America. The bridge at 1:45 is a cleaning-out and refocusing to the two strongest elements in the song — the drumbeat and the guitar wail — with Vedder proudly announcing in a bit of sotto voce, “Kindred to bein’ an American.”
Dissident – I love the droning guitar, reminds me of a mosquito or a bee. A little overplayed for me as well, but he sure does let it wail on “escape is never the safest path.” Overall, though, this is not my fave track either on the album. Tough song to sing in concert (even though Vedder still nails it).
W.M.A. is such an adventurous work in terms of the percussion. I appreciate the foray into a different kind of song, using African rhythms and a non-traditional structure. Kind of a think-piece, can you say that about a song? No anthemic chorus like you get on so many PJ songs; instead a slow build and a focus on racial inequities in law enforcement. I love it when it all builds around 2:26 and the background vocals come in with the sharp “cha-cha-cha” and Vedder’s voice cracks through a scream with “POLICE stopped my BROTHER again,” I appreciate the cynical ethnocentrism in the line “Jesus greets me, looks just like me,” and the imagery of betrayal and handwashing with “Do no wrong, so clean cut. Dirty his hands it comes right off.”
Blood is just a full out punk thrash bloodbath, but the verses possess a certain restraint in front of the wah-wah wall of guitars. I once made a mix of snippets of verses and lines in PJ songs about blood (there are a lot) and this song was the beginning and ending of my homemade mash-up. There’s a double entendre line where he sings, “Painted big, turned into, one of his enemies.” If I recall correctly, the liner notes write this as “Paint Ed big, turn Ed into, one of his enemies.” This was during the whole “deal with fame” period. I love how Blood just completely disintegrates at the end. Just falls apart from the thrashing. But does it really?
Rearviewmirror is the best track on the album for me on most days. The way it builds, the steady drumbeat. It’s your car engine, it’s the lines passing on the road, it’s a steady pace as the protagonist starts out on his “drive today” . . . “time to emancipate.” As the rage builds, as the memories come flooding back “I couldn’t breathe, holdin’ me down…” the song builds until the frantic, driven ending – at which point the song cannot stop. It’s got too much momentum behind it, going somewhere that can’t be stopped, it inevitably must explode. It just keeps you hanging there, clinging on until that moment. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up with the final lines of “saw things . . . saw things . . . saw things . . . saw things . . . clearer, clearer . . . once you . . . were in my . . . REARVIEWMIRROR!”
I see little fireworks.
At the end of Rearviewmirror, it is so intense and Abbruzzese (the drummer) had some persistent wrist problems. If you listen carefully, after he furiously reaches that last cymbal crash, he hurls the sticks against the wall, where you can hear them clack to the floor. Listen to this through from Dave’s point of view, picture him just pounding away on the drums (starting at 4:08) as Mike wails on the guitar, feel the tension and the pain as he hammers through, sweat pouring off, and the final action of hurling the sticks against the wall before the song itself is even all the way done. Rock n roll, baby.
Rats I’ve never been able to pin down. I remember in high school my friend Shannon calling it “Eddie’s little wank-off piece” and I don’t exactly know what is going on with it. I mean, a song about rodents and their culinary habits and defecation locales? References to the Michael Jackson song “Ben?” (“Ben, the two of us need look no more….”) about — I’ve heard — a boy and his pet rat? Musically, it is a swaggering, bluesy rock piece with a GREAT intro, and I like Vedder’s low growl. But beyond that it was always lost on me.
Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town. While I do like this song, I’ve always thought this was a bit too nice, too restrained, too pretty of a song to put here on this album, which for the most part is pretty blistering. I’m all for mixing it up a bit, but sometimes Daughter and Elderly Woman sometimes feel too sedate for me (and maybe, even moreso, I grew tired of hearing them all the time on the radio, like in my dentist’s office). I love the songwriting here, the words – “cannot find the candle of thought to light your name, lifetimes are catching up with me . . .” — Evocative of creating some distant reality in some small dusty general store in a small town, running into someone you knew a lifetime ago. And who can deny that great chorus (which is even better in concert) – “And I just want to scream . . . HELLO . . . My god, it’s been so long, never dreamed you’d return . . .” As many times as I have heard this song, standing in the midst of 30,000 people screaming hello also gives you the chills.
Going from Elderly Woman into Leash is like jumping from the steamy hot tub into the swimming pool – it’s bracing, and they always seemed an odd dichotomy to me, placing them back to back. Leash is hard hitting, but melodic as well and I always forget that until I hear it again. I just remember the screaming and the rage. The churning feeling of this song, and the build, is also similar to opener Go. I do love the purity of youth captured in this song, and the anthem to losing yourself in the music, the moment (long before Eminem did). This entered my life when I was 14, and although I was generally a pretty happy kid, every teenager needs a rallying cry, a musical moment that defines you as OTHER from the previous generation, and for me this was it.
Indifference is absolutely ASTOUNDING, one of those tracks that slips by unnoticed because it is understated and at the end of the album. From the sedate, mollified opening lines — rolled off the tongue over a smooth bassline . . . “I will light the match this morning so I won’t be alone. Watch as she lies silent, for soon light will be gone…” It’s like you are lying on your back in bed, watching the first golden sunbeams JUST starting to illuminate the room. The start of the song has always carried the feel of just waking up. But then the lyrics grow steadily more interesting for me, because even though he is still singing in the same easy rhythm (although with a bit more potency here), there is quite an urgent sentiment being expressed, “I’ll swallow poison until I grow immune. I will scream my lungs out til it fills this room . . .” I associate this song in my mind with Kurt Cobain, even though it was written before he died. I know that Kurt’s death made Vedder question, a bit, the seeming futility of the idealistic quests he was undertaking, I think at that time Vedder felt the weight of the world on his shoulder — the thrust into the ‘Messiah of Rock’ spotlight — and this song was part of his questioning of his changing role.
More than you asked for? Give it another go. And turn it up loud.