Vs. already marked a turning point for Pearl Jam...and it was only their second time out.
Unwilling to record a set of songs that sounded just like the masterful Ten, and backing off from the intense media spotlight and comparisons to Nirvana, Pearl Jam became an enclosed group, a band vs. the world, 5 against 1. The cover art sums this up pretty well.
Vs. is a deliberate downscaling of the cavernous sound, if not the emotion, of Ten. The starker production is a big contrast to the previous blockbuster, sounding closer to Surfer Rosa than Boston, and it enhances the themes of this record: ending relationships, taking on the world, children with learning disabilities, white male police brutality, guns, blood, leashes, rats, indifference. It's as dramatic as its predecessor, but more newsworthy and less personal.
Perhaps because of what came before, Vs. was bound to suffer by comparison, but in no way is this a sophomore slump. The chugging, pleasing "Go," the hard rock "Animal" and the acoustic, emotional "Daughter" is one of the best 1-2-3 punches of any release of the 90s, if not the last 20 years. Although it gets radio play still, "Dissident" is a relaxing of the strident approach and a showcase of what would come later on in the decade for the guys.
The social conscience is here with "W.M.A.," an underwritten yet cool drum-drive piece about police brutality and the favorable treatment of white people ("Jesus greets me / Looks just like me"), the latter theme of which singer Eddie Vedder would cover in better detail on "Do the Evolution" off Yield. The track would be better had the lyrics been more upfront; Vedder sounds like he's singing from a stairwell with the mic still in the studio. Fan favorite "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" is here too; I never cared for the song, but as far as acoustic reminiscings about days gone by go, it's got to be in the Top Ten.
Some of the music just doesn't hit home; solid rock, to be sure, but not up to the rest of the disc. "Glorified G," "Blood" and the creeping "Indifference" don't warrant repeated plays. "Leash" isn't a good song but noteworthy because of Vedder's screaming; one of the few times he would go down this road and surely a rebuff to the record company, media, obsessed fans, etc. who had a tight grip on the band. It's a cousin to "Animal" and it's an unsettling listen.
But those four songs can be forgiven once "Rearviewmirror" comes on. Some of Vedder's most powerful lyrics, the story concerns an abuse victim who has to endure horror (I couldn't breathe, holdin' me down / Hand on my face, pushed to the ground) and undergoes self-examination ("It wasn't my surface most defiled") before finally finding the courage to leave ("Once and for all / I'm far away / Finally the shades are raised"). It could be read as physical abuse, a prisoner of war, or a metaphor for emotional abuse ("tried to endure what I could not forgive"). The music, especially Mike McCready's guitar solos, swell as the song builds in momentum before the emotional climax. The best moment on the album and one of the best songs of Pearl Jam's career; they would name their hits collection after this song, and it wasn't even a hit.
Catharsis often makes for great music, and in retreating inward Pearl Jam found more to say. Vs. can be a difficult listen, but despite a couple of subpar tracks, it remains a compelling one.