Solving the dilemma between integrity and sales

By Sergio Ariza

1993 was the year of confirmation for grunge and alternative music, the two most popular bands of the movement, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, both put out, with barely a month apart, the sequels of Nevermind and Ten, and the world turned its head once again towards Seattle. At stake was something much more important than both band’s success: integrity. Nobody doubted Kurt Cobains band and no-one was surprised that In Utero was a much rawer and alternative record, a visceral reaction to their own success, however there were doubts about Eddie Vedder’s boys, the most ‘classic’ of the movement, since a part of the alternative world saw them as a kind of grunge Genesis , and believe me when I say that in 1993 there was nothing worse than being compared to Genesis.  

But Vs would show that Pearl Jam’s integrity was safe and sound and that they could mix Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pixies with no problem. It’s a dirtier, more aggressive album than Ten, but the band doesn’t forget their guitar solos. It was the first produced by Brendan O´Brien, the first for drummer Dave Abbruzzese, who brought the first single under his arm, Go, and the first in which the singer, Eddy Vedder, began to musically influence much more as a writer than as a simple lyricist. The group’s influences were still grounded in classic rock from the 70s with a much greater punk and alternative feeling. The record sounds more abrasive and live than Ten thanks to many of the songs being recorded by O´Brien in ‘jam sessions’, where Vedder showed, for better or worse, he was grunge’s most unique singer. But there was also room for acoustic ballads like Daughter and Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town, which broadens the spectrum of a band unafraid of showing their personality.

The album opens with two cracks of the whip, Go and Animal, the first is the hardest they’ve ever recorded, a menacing, dizzying song where Mike McCready delivers one of his most rapid energetic solos using his wah. There’s no time to rest with Animal, an incendiary song by Stone Gossard in which McCready once again shines with a guitar he rarely used, a Gibson ES-335. After that storm we get to the marvellous calm with Daughter, one of the band’s best songs, and the first done on an acoustic composed on Gossard’s Guild. Glorified G is a rarity that works to perfection, built on a riff with a country touch on the McCready’s Gretsch Country Gentleman, the rest of the music is pure funk.

Then comes Dissident, an anthem ‘a la’ Pearl Jam, with music written by Gossard, McCready and Jeff Ament, and the lyrics by Vedder, who hasn’t lost an iota of his strength after 25 years. In this song Vedder speaks of the “holy noby a woman (rather ahead of the nowaday “no means no”) and the following W.M.A., which is nothing more than White American Male, which talks about police brutality against people of colour in the USA. Blood takes them back to hard funk, with a lot of wah, and a tight heavy chorus. Rearviewmirror is another of the band’s great songs and the first composed solely by Vedder, who also plays guitar for the first time. Rats is dark and menacing with Ament’s bass up front, then comes the emotional Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town, Vedder’s 2nd song, with an acoustic folk touch. The final duo is made up of Leash and Indifference, the first is one of the most underrated songs of their career, with amazing strength and an epic chorus over which McCready again floats with his guitar using the wah. Indifference gives an emotional end to one of the most important records of the 90s.

One month after In Utero debuted as #1 on Billboard, Vs was released with a cover where there is no mention of the band’s name nor the album’s. There were no videos, nor anticipated singles, and when the promotional tour began they got into a long legal battle against Ticketmaster over ticket prices. No-one could blame them for anything, but even so, the album broke record sales in the first week, and remained at the top of the charts for 5 weeks. Cobain would later commit suicide and with it, the slow commercial decline of alternative rock. But with Vs, Pearl Jam showed that in certain times, you could sell without risking your integrity.