Pearl Jam
Vs. and Vitalogy Deluxe Editions

The year 1994 was a wild one for all things grunge. The genre had all but ended hair metal and pop music, MTV was playing mostly grunge videos, and Kurt Cobain’s suicide made the cover of Newsweek. Grunge had reached the mainstream and was at a peak that it would never see again. Pearl Jam, lumped into that genre, had recorded their third album and had mastered the jam-band sound with which they would ultimately stick. Their album cuts had gotten weird (“Rats,” “Aya Davanita”), but they had also honed their singles into incredibly catchy, radio-ready chart smashers (“Daughter,” “Better Man”) that are still omnipresent on Top 40 stations today. Eddie Vedder and crew’s penchant for taking someone else’s underground concept and showing it to the world (Fugazi’s $5 ticket price policy informing the Ticketmaster debacle, Riot Grrrl skin graffiti on SNL, Neil Young collaborations, etc.) hadn’t ended up coloring them the rip-off artists their Seattle peers might have saw them as much as it had made them heralds to the pre–World Wide Web culture-starved youth of all things alternative. It was about this time that the youth started to see through it.

It was also around this time I realized I’d been tricked. Pearl Jam dressed like grungers. They were in grunge movies. They were on 120 Minutes with other grunge bands. But they were not grunge, at least not like Nirvana or Tad or the Melvins. The kids who I shared an affinity with that also liked Pearl Jam started listening to this milquetoast music named Phish. They traded their flannels for thick corduroys with patches sewn onto the rumps. Instead of smoking the weed, they were wearing it. I was so confused. I felt duped, angry, and stupid. But Pearl Jam were putting out actual vinyl records when the major record companies had all but abandoned the medium. There was even a single espousing the beauty of vinyl (“Spin the Black Circle”) that came with it’s own big-hole 7-inch adaptor for those kids who couldn’t find the one that came with their parents’ turntable. The gatefold, thick-stock record sleeves of Vs. and Vitalogy were beautiful and the inserts had indecipherable artwork with scrawled lyrics all over the place. This band had to still be authentic, right? Did the music even matter anymore?

In celebration of Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary, Epic/Legacy has released newly expanded versions of Vs. and Vitalogy, along with a live set from 1994. This is the stuff I was freaking out about at age 13. Am I excited about listening to these records again? Fuck yes. But I’m also so worn down from hearing some of these songs that I’m somewhat ambivalent. Luckily, Pearl Jam has packaged the records in fully deluxe covers (the CD sleeves even smell like the old album packaging), so all you discerning collectors won’t feel like you’re buying into a failing record company’s last grasp at relevance. The ultra-collector edition (only available through the band’s website) has five LPs, three compact discs, one cassette, a “Composition Notebook,” a “memorabilia-filled envelope,” and one cassette—just to give you an idea of how extensively this band has been documented and how dedicated they are to providing a quality product to their fans. The music still holds up, and from start to finish Vs. and Vitalogy (like Ten before them) are actual albums and not just collections of singles. The “complete package” album always seemed to be a goal for Pearl Jam. Instead of pandering to the radio and video industry with singles, they actually produced records that flowed from one song to another. While they always did seem like the B-team in terms of the strength of their songs, their first three albums work as whole pieces much better than they do as individual cuts.

As far as the bonus tracks added onto Vs. and Vitalogy, you’ve got to hand it to their original sequencing and editing impulses, because the outtakes really did deserve to be taken out. There’s a few wince-inducers, like “Crazy Mary” on the former, although the included version of “Better Man” on Vitalogy, sans rhythm section, shows how well Vedder’s whacked-out vocal melodies work with Mike McCredy’s Hendrix-on-Prozac guitar lines. And while those melodies and most of the guitar riffs are still memorable and still just as strong (“Dissident,” for one), I still can’t figure out what the hell Vedder is singing about.

The real gem of this reissue is the live disc, which was recorded at the Orpheum Theater in Boston in April 1994. This is Pearl Jam at the top of their game, before the Lenny Bruce–like political grandstanding, before the years spent hiding from the mainstream, and about a week or so after the world found out about Cobain’s suicide. Pearl Jam couldn’t have been more popular or more in tune with their audience. All of the songs from Vs. are still tight, all of the songs form Vitalogy, fresh. Even the few songs off Ten (“Release,” especially) sound like the band was still having fun playing them. Sure, some of the best and most mythical shows happen in dive bars or basements, but Pearl Jam was on top of the world and playing a mid-sized theater in Boston to 2,000 apeshit fans buzzing with a palpable exhilaration and feeding on each others’ vibes. There’s a capable cover of the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” featuring Mudhoney’s Mark Arm (perhaps Pearl Jam flexing their record collection cred in order to refute the “sellout” label slung upon them, which Vedder addresses before “Not For You”). But the most exciting part of the show is drummer Dave Abbruzzese. This was right before the band fired him, but instead of playing like a guy who just got his pink slip, he’s on top of every fill, nailing all the important intros that the air drummers in the audience surely mimed. There are hundreds of band-endorsed “bootlegs” and even more audience recorded tapes, but this is pretty much the essential live recording that any long-johns under cargo shorts with combat boots–wearing grungophile should have in their Pearl Jam stacks.

Was it the themes of lost innocence or troubled kids or abusive or inattentive parents that made Pearl Jam appeal to my generation? Was it Vedder’s sincere-to-a-fault attitude and the unyieldingly naked emotion which he managed to convey that captured my confused post-adolescent mind and made me think I had an ally singing for me on the radio? Or was it just that this was an undeniably skilled band with a singer that could skim the cream off the top of the best parts of underground rock and present them in a palatable, albeit confusing, way? Pearl Jam leaves me just as befuddled about liking them now as I did when the jocks started wearing that black shirt with the white stick figure giving the peace sign, but revisiting these two albums makes the contributions Pearl Jam made to modern rock obvious.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy