In Praise of Pearl Jam’s Massively Popular Yet Totally Underrated ‘Vs.’

I can remember the poster perfectly, because for a while in the early 1990s you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing it up on someone’s wall. It was an evocative black-and-white shot of a young Eddie Vedder, clad in shorts, mic in hand, climbing onto a monitor, against a backdrop of an apparently endless crowd. Across the bottom was the wording “Pearl Jam, Vs. — Fastest Selling Album Ever.” These days, you can’t even find it on the Internet (although you can see the photo below). You certainly don’t see it on walls anymore — I guess most copies got torn down as adolescence gave way to adulthood, and maybe some are still gathering dust in garages and attics the world over. The past doesn’t change, but the way we look at it does. Twenty years makes a hell of a difference, really — because Vs. came out 20 years ago tomorrow.

vedder

A few weeks back, Grantland ran an article about Counting Crows’ August and Everything After, making the argument that it and Nirvana’s In Utero were a lot more similar than we remember them being. The piece made some worthwhile observations (some of which I responded to here), but perhaps the most compelling was that “the difference is that Kurt Cobain is now an eternally romanticized dead person, while Adam Duritz exists among the eternally awkward living.”

The argument was a bit of a stretch, for all that it was an interesting exercise in examining how we rearticulate the past to fit the narratives we impose upon it from the future. But if there’s a band to which this still-alive syndrome does apply, it’s Pearl Jam. It always feels a little silly feeling sorry for people who a) you don’t know, b) retain the affection of legions of loving fans, and c) have already earned more money than you’ll see in a lifetime, but it feels like history has dealt Pearl Jam something of a rough hand.

When we look back at the grunge years these days, the accepted wisdom is that Nirvana was the defining band of the era. This is probably fair — although you do find the occasional brave contrarian arguing otherwise — but it does mean that we tend to forget that Pearl Jam were very much Cobain et al’s equals at the time, so much so that “Nirvana or Pearl Jam?” was the “Beatles or Stones?” argument of the early and mid-1990s.

These days, they’re often dismissed as hopelessly earnest and/or kinda bro-y, not least because Cobain wasn’t above sniping at them along those lines. But while they were certainly less nihilistic and bitter than Nirvana — compare and contrast “All that’s sacred comes from youth” to “Teenage angst has paid off well/ Now I’m bored and old,” for instance — the allegations of preachiness are rarely supported by their lyrics. For all that Vedder’s songs were certainly less obtuse than Cobain’s, they don’t exactly venture into white flag-waving Bono territory. The fact that Pearl Jam spawned a legion of dreadful imitators (Creed, Nickelback, etc.) is often held against them, but really, that’s like blaming Black Sabbath for Twisted Sister or NWA for Soulja Boy.

And most importantly, Vs. holds up. It came out a month after In Utero, and it wasn’t just its sales figures that vanquished Nirvana — at the time it felt like the better record, or at least the most coherent one, a fact that’s often forgotten in the wake of Cobain’s suicide elevating him to generation-defining godhood. It’s still arguably the best record Pearl Jam ever made — although the enduringly weird Vitalogy is probably better in my opinion — and it’s certainly the one that resounded most with the public. (As far as critics went, pretty much everyone except Robert Christgau loved it, which is as ringing an endorsement of an album as you can get.)

As far as the lyrics went, the Issues that Vedder addressed were generally handled with subtlety and grace, not veering into the mansplaining that undermined, say, “Better Man” — he revisited the themes of dysfunctional and violent families that had characterized Ten, producing some of his best lyrics in the process (“Daughter” and “Rearviewmirror,” the latter being arguably the best song he ever wrote), and also extended his remit to tackle subjects like police brutality (“WMA”) and gun control (“Glorified G”). And shit, even Cobain rarely wrote songs as flat-out misanthropic as “Animal” or “Rats” (“They don’t scam, don’t fight/ Don’t oppress an equal’s given rights/ Starve the poor so they can be well fed/ Line their holes with the dead ones’ bread… They don’t compare”).

The music… well, on occasion it seems as dated as Jeff Ament’s silly L.A. Gear shoes — particularly the “heavy” tracks like “Blood” and “Leash” — and the production is overly polished, but on the whole, it also holds up. Indeed, at times it’s remarkably inventive — the drum parts in “WMA,” for instance, or the rolling funk-influenced bassline on “Rates” — an early indication of the strange directions the band would take on its follow-up. It’s hard to hear the hits with anything resembling a fresh perspective given how overplayed they’ve been, but kids just discovering this in their older siblings’ (or, god forbid, parents’) record collections may be pleasantly surprised by how dynamic songs like “Go” and “Animal” sound. Vedder has spoken about “[not feeling] comfortable in the pace we were in,” and it sounds like it: there’s a certain restive energy to the album, a dynamism often missing from their later work.

In these days when the charts are a parallel universe, it’s hard to imagine the fastest-selling album ever also feeling like one that’s going to have any sort of lasting cultural relevance. And it’s certainly difficult to see it being a rock record. A quick look at the albums that have supplanted Vs. for the fastest-selling-ever title since 1993 reveals that seven are by pop acts (two by N’Sync and two by Backstreet Boys, along with albums from Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga) and three by proponents of the genre that took rock ‘n’ roll’s crown as the music that speaks to kids today, hip hop (two by Eminem and one by 50 Cent).

As we discussed on Flavorwire earlier this week, the days of guitar music as preeminent expression of youth culture are long behind us. Indeed, you can argue that for dudes with guitars, at least, Vs. represented the last flourishing of an era where chart music and the counterculture — such as it was — collided. (Both Pearl Jam and Nirvana were pretty much always referred to as “alternative,” even when they were the two biggest bands in the world.)

This isn’t necessarily a cause for mourning, of course — diversity in music can only be a good thing — but still, Vs. is a relic of that strange era when a band like Pearl Jam (or Nirvana, for that matter) could be huge, when the charts didn’t seem like a separate realm populated exclusively by pneumatic girls and carefully-constructed five-member boy bands. If you haven’t heard it in a while, pull it out and give it a listen. And shit, maybe even think about where that poster might be these days.