Reneging on fame and success
Vitalogy is one of the most important albums in Pearl Jam's career, as it clearly divides their story between their first two full-length records that turned them into stars and the following, more experimental ones, that gradually took them away from the spotlight. This was still a tremendous success, becoming the second fastest selling album in US history, after their previous work, Vs; but it was also the first that did not outsell the previous.
It is impossible to separate this album from its time, as this was the work with which the band reacted to the massive success of their first two albums, reaffirming themselves as an alternative group with a punk past. Pearl Jam were always seen as the grunge band that had more to do with classic rock, at a time when that was viewed with suspicion by ‘the most Taliban’ of the alternative nation. Their success made them feel guilty and, in a way, this is their particular In Utero, a wildly uneven and difficult record designed to alienate a large part of their audience, in which some of the best and most direct songs of their career, such as Better Man and Corduroy, coexist with some of their strangest experiments, such as Bugs or the unspeakable Hey Foxymophandlemama, That's Me, as well as punkier offshoots such as Spin The Black Circle, chosen as the first single - despite being much less commercial than the two songs mentioned at the beginning.
With Vitalogy Pearl Jam is on the warpath, against success, against the industry, against Ticketmaster (it was during its recording when they confronted the ticketing giant) and, finally, against themselves. The band was on the verge of disappearing, as it was the last album to feature Dave Abbruzzese, a drummer who was capable of composing great songs such as Go and Last Exit, while Mike McCready had to enter a rehabilitation center, and the founder, and main songwriter until that moment, Stone Gossard was about to leave the band before he saw how Eddie Vedder took over the reins.
The singer makes clear in the lyrics his detachment from fame and the industry. It seems clear that the ghost of Kurt Cobain's death wanders throughout the album, with some feeling that the lyrics of Immortality are dedicated to Nirvana’s lead singer. What is evident is that on this album Pearl Jam loses some of their ‘stadium epicness’, to try to sound as independent as possible. McCready hardly solos during the album (he himself would say that Vitalogy is a more rhythmic and less solo album), the band ‘forgets’ to record videos for MTV and the album leans more towards a raw sound and with several experiments, like Vedder playing a rickety accordion on Bugs.
Still, the opener is very powerful with Last Exit, a song that opens with a cacophony of noises, until Abbruzzese cuts to the chase by savagely pounding the drums, the guitars sounding dirty and cutting - and Vedder is sharper than ever. This is followed by the brutal Spin The Black Circle, a tribute to ‘the 45 revolutions per minute single’, which is the most aggressive moment of their entire career; something that is understandable if we take into account that the song sounds at that devilish speed because Vedder made a mistake when playing Gossard's demo and accelerated it. In the end the band decided to leave it that way and turn it into this punk thrash.
This was followed by Not For You in which Vedder sent an explicit "fuck you" to all those who thought they could buy them. Musically you can already see their debt to Neil Young, with whom they would collaborate the following year on Mirror Ball. Tremor Christ was a joint effort between bassist Jeff Ament and McCready, with great guitar work (McCready with one of his Strats and Gossard with a Les Paul). Next appeared the first ballad of the album, Nothingman, which was recorded in one hour in February 1994 in Seattle. This song is a marvel with music by Ament, and lyrics by Vedder, about a man's emptiness and regret after a relationship breaks up.
Whipping, one of six songs composed alone by Vedder, again goes for a near-punk abrasiveness, with the singer adding one more guitar to those of Gossard and McCready, mainly a Telecaster, something he repeats on several of the album's songs. Pry, To was the album's first curve ball, a ramshackle funk in which Vedder repeats "P-r-i-v-a-c-y is priceless to me."
The second side opened with one of their best songs, one of those that can't be skipped in their live setlists to this day, Corduroy, with a brutal chord riff played by McCready, Gossard and Vedder, as the singer once again expresses his frustration with the spotlight and the commodification of music. Bugs is insane, with its out-of-tune accordion and Vedder trying to channel Tom Waits - a clear throwaway that gives way to the powerful Satan's Bed, another of Gossard's contributions.
Better Man is the most remembered song on the album, arguably the band's most perfect melody; so much so that the members were suspicious of its pop potential. Vedder had written it before joining Pearl Jam and it had been considered for Vs, but rejected. It finally saw the light of day due to the insistence of producer Brendan O'Brien who clearly foresaw its full potential. Aye Davanita is another paranoiac track, a kind of 'hare krishna' jam, leading into Immortality, the third ballad on the album, a beautiful and haunting song in which Vedder examines his most extreme emotions. The album's finale comes with Hey Foxymophandlemama, That's Me, a song, to call it something, that was a disturbing sonic experiment with which Pearl Jam sent success to hell.
Being seen as a commercial group in 1994 was the worst thing, and Pearl Jam had the type of success that no longer exists – that of selling millions of discs (in physical format) and tens of thousands of tickets for each one of their concerts. In short, a success that any current rock band would kill for, but they didn't want it, so they torpedoed a large part of their huge fan base and regained their credibility and independence with an irregular album that is sometimes maddening, sometimes ridiculous - but mostly totally fascinating.