Vinyl Dust-off: Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy

Lliam Easterbrook – sonic archaeologist – brings you his latest finds from excursions into ancient record bins.

By Lliam Easterbrook
[senior features writer]

4/5 records

Pearl Jam was the biggest band in the world in 1994.

Their previous record, 1993’s Vs, had become the fastest selling album in history (despite boasting no music videos in an era crazed by MTV), and the band — especially lead singer Eddie Vedder — had become overnight icons.

Vedder felt swept up by the hoopla, unable to deal with the stardom thrust upon him.

Vedder wanted Pearl Jam to grow modestly, on their own terms, like Fugazi or the Pixies.

Given the rush of stardom and the negative implications that sometimes come with it — loss of privacy, being labeled as “selling out,” crazed fans (Vedder had a female admirer crash her car at 60mph into the iron gate outside his Seattle home), and constant media scrutiny — Pearl Jam felt the need to break away from the mainstream.

Vitalogy is Pearl Jam’s breakaway album.

On Vitalogy, production was stripped to an almost murky sound. Raw, edgy, experimental.

And like Vs, no music videos were made to promote the album.

In the age of compact discs, Vitalogy was initially released only on vinyl, a move that would further distance them from the limelight.

Pearl Jam was trying to alienate itself from the mainstream by further circumscribing their reclusive stance — to obtain an exclusivity, as it were, to be by themselves, with the hope of developing a core fan base (something they would continue to do until the mid 2000s). The album cover and notes — a beautiful colour booklet — were taken from a 1920s medical book of the same name, and featured depictions of strange and archaic medical procedures, instruments and ruminations spliced with Vedder’s cryptic lyrics.

Kurt Cobain was quoted as saying that Pearl Jam wasn’t truly “alternative” because their songs contained prominent leads and ‘70s-inspired anthem rock.

Pearl Jam seemed to take this to heart because Vitalogy features faster, more punk-focused tracks that revolve heavily around riffs and rhythm instead of the lead-focused material of their earlier albums.

“Spin the Black Circle” is frenzied punk rock about the ritualistic nature of playing vinyl, while “Not For You” is Vedder’s dark rhythmic ode to the authoritarian record companies trying to capitalize on Grunge and the Seattle scene.

Fast songs are juxtaposed with slow eerie numbers like the macabre-psychedelic “Tremor Christ” and the reflective “Immortality” — a song Vedder wrote after he learned of Cobain’s suicide. “When I first found out, I was in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., and I just tore the place to shreds,” Vedder said at the time.

If releasing the record on vinyl and refusing to make music videos weren’t enough, the album also contains several experimental tracks.

“Satan’s Bed” is a sardonic, funk-tinged romp about making deals with the devil: “Never shook Satan’s hand, look see for yourself you’d know it if I had, that shit don’t come off/ I’ll rise and fall, let me take credit for both/ jump off a cliff, don’t need your help so back off/ I’ll never suck Satan’s dick…again, you’d see it, you know, right round the lips,” Vedder sings impishly.

The Tom Waits inspired “Bugs” features a rampant accordion with Vedder mumbling about bugs “on my skin” and “in my room.” He asks, “Should I join them?” And if that wasn’t enough, “Hey Foxymophandlemamma, That’s Me” — the most disturbing song on the album — was created using a continuous loop of recordings from patients from a psychiatric hospital.

Vitalogy is Pearl Jam’s most garage-focused, experimental album.

At a time when they could have reigned as rock gods, they chose to shun the whole industry and make an album that is staggeringly idiosyncratic.

Pearl Jam can still sell over five million copies of this frantically-paced, at times insane, and unashamedly sincere album, which ultimately speaks volumes about the band’s cult-like following, and even more about a time in music when art and conviction triumphed over image and ambivalence.

Play It Loud. Play It Proud.

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