Vs./Vitalogy/Live at the Orpheum Theater, Boston, April 12, 1994
Sony Legacy, 2011
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/28/2011
In 1993, the artist who put up the most vocal resistance to fame was Kurt Cobain. In fact, the only artist who put a slightly lesser fight against fame was Eddie Vedder. Though Cobain famously mocked Pearl Jam, they shared a mutual admiration for Neil Young, so much so that the two artists took on paths that were inadvertently inspired by Neil Young. Cobain’s path, of course, was self-destruction, where he chose to include Neil Young’s famous quote “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” in his suicide note. In contrast, Pearl Jam hoped for Neil Young-style existence where they could release an album without a massive amount of fanfare and have their fan base whittled down to a dedicated cult following (so they could still make a decent living) of fans who truly “got” the band.
Pearl Jam has pretty much succeeded in every way in attaining this goal. But it took time. It took one or two absolutely alienating albums. And it took a few years for the band to get into a comfortable groove that is evident in their latest album, Backspacer. So comfortable is the band in their own skin right now that they’ve started to actually revisit the albums that made them the biggest American band on the planet in the early ‘90s. Two years ago, they reissued their 12 million-selling Ten. Now, Sony Legacy is releasing reissues of Vs. and Vitalogy, either separately or as part of a box set that includes a 1994 concert at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre.
Pearl Jam had similar approaches to recording a follow-up as their counterparts in Nirvana. Both wanted harder, rawer sound on their albums. Both singers wrote about being trapped (Cobain’s style far more autobiographical, Vedder preferring to project in character sketches such as “Daughter” and “Dissident”). But for all of Vedder’s public hand-wringing about his desire to be left alone, he still couldn’t shake his classic rock fixation and desire for the big hook. He also couldn’t escape one of his biggest reoccurring themes in his songs: the want for human empathy and interaction.
As an album, Vs. still rocks like a mother. Unfortunately, revisiting it can sometimes be a painful experience, like reading some of your freshman and sophomore poetry submissions. Even as a sophomore, I knew some lines were either hokey or stretching a bit too far for profoundness (“Daughter”‘s “young girl, violins(ence),” “Rats”‘s “They…don’t shit where they’re not supposed to / Don’t take what’s not theirs / They don’t compare”), and time has not done these lyrics a lick of good. But good songs always manage to hold up over time, regardless of a few lyrical misfires. And Brendan O’Brien’s remastering only improves the impacts of the best moments of Vs. Though the production was first-rate the first time out, the guitars (courtesy of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard) sound crisper and more up front on this reissue.
With the exception of a few experimental tracks (“Rats,” “W.M.A.”), Vs. was not an album that would have been made to alienate millions of fans. Yes, the band chose not to release any videos and minimally promote Vs., but with tracks like “Dissident” and “Rearviewmirror,” the album is every bit the monster follow-up the band wanted and shunned at the same time. The best example of this is in the song “Leash.” In the song, Vedder both courts the idea of being a spokesman (“Take my fuckin’ hand”) and decrying the idea. But even when he’s shunning fame, he can’t help but still offer a hand to the outcasts (“I’m lost I’m no guide / But I’m right by your side/ I am right by your side”).
The same sentiments don’t hold true for Vitalogy. It would be the last “blockbuster” album for Pearl Jam, and one of the most confounding. Perhaps taking cue from Nirvana’s In Utero, Vitalogy is a bleak, pained arty album that has an almost equal ratio of lighter-ready anthems (“Corduroy,” “Better Man,” “Not For You”) and one-listen-is-fine experiments (“Pry To,” the infamous “Bugs,” and the unlistenable “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me”). The remaining songs show Pearl Jam fully embracing their punk-loving instincts.
It’s not a stretch to imagine Vedder feeling the sting of Cobain’s comments about Pearl Jam’s music being far less challenging for their listeners than Nirvana. And it’s not a stretch to imagine Vedder incorporating the most alienating tracks into Vitalogy as a direct response to Cobain’s criticisms. The only problem, of course, is that Vedder has always been more of a Who fan than a Germs fan. And that is why despite the fact that Vedder was getting more vocal in his hatred of fame, he couldn’t help but succumb to the “big riff” of tracks like “Corduroy” and “Not For You.”
Listening to Vs. and Vitalogy back-to-back, it’s striking how much Vedder’s songwriting shifted from character sketches to autobiographical. Even though Vs. was released at the height of the band’s popularity, it contains few moments of self-pity. Vitalogy is full of ‘em. Even the album’s most appealing straightforward rockers contains lines like “small my table, it seats just two” and “I would rather starve than eat your bread.” Still, the album sold like gangbusters. The release of the album on vinyl before CD resulted in moving 35,000 copies of a supposedly dead form of media. Its first week CD sales almost reached 900,000, a first week number Britney Spears would sell her children to Madonna to achieve.
The remastered production helps Vitalogy in the same way it did Vs. in that the guitars sound crisper, but the difference is far subtler. In terms of extras, they include a track that is already readily available elsewhere (“Crazy Mary” was on the Sweet Relief benefit album), a track that is well familiar to most dedicated Pearl Jam fans (“Hold On”) and interesting, albeit unessential outtakes during the Vitalogy sessions. As far as the live set in Boston, the band has famously released so many concerts on CD and made available for bootlegs that it’s hard to get jazzed at another concert. However, the inclusion of Mark Arm from Mudhoney and a great cover of Neil Young’s “Fuckin’ Up” make it one of the best sets the band has released on CD.
So, despite the packaging of Pearl Jam’s most explosive years into an attractive reissue with enhanced cover artwork and adding a small bit of studio finesse, is it enough to merit a purchase? Sadly, the remastered versions falls into the “only buy if your previous copies are scratched to hell” category. An inclusion of more rarities or liner notes, either written by a well-respected music critic or the band detailing what went on during these recordings would have offered a far greater insight into what was going on with the band during this period. Instead, like the remastered version of Ten, it only offers another well-packaged trip down memory lane.
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