October 19th, 1993, Pearl Jam released their second album, Vs, through Epic Records. How do you capture lightning in a bottle twice? The enormity of following up on one of the most successful debut albums of the ’90s would send most bands into hiding. Pearl Jam obliterated the notion that matching Ten was impossible by leaning even harder into all that made their debut so magical. On October 19th, 1993, they released Vs, one of rock history’s most successful sophomore albums.
Pearl Jam’s debut, Ten, had become one of the most beloved albums of the early ’90s, out-selling Nirvana’s Nevermind and leaving all comers in its wake. Released in August 1991, Ten went on to sell over thirteen million copies. Its popularity was not down to any clever marketing campaigns or manufactured hype; the foundation of the album’s success lay in the searing energy of the performances, the barely contained electric energy of the band, and eleven stone-cold classic songs.
Marry to that, the atomic bomb the Seattle music scene detonated on the unsuspecting rock world in 1991; this perfect storm would help Ten course through the consciousness of the music-buying public like wildfire. With incendiary live performances and a profoundly charismatic frontman, Pearl Jam cemented their position at the forefront of the new rock revolution emanating from the Pacific Northwest.
When asked if the band felt any pressure writing and recording the follow-up to such a pivotal album, guitarist Stone Gossard recalled: “I don’t think we were thinking about it. We had been writing songs, and we felt that they were good. Jeff and I had been writing songs in bands for ten years, so we knew we wanted to record, and everybody was excited about that. We didn’t think about it that way. Vs was the first record we had made with Brendan O’Brien; he liked to move quickly and didn’t take anything too seriously, which was important for us then.”
“If anything, Ten was already so big that the pressure was off because we knew that we had more to do musically,” Stone continues, “We knew what we were writing, and we knew that we had good songs coming. We knew we didn’t have to match Ten because we felt we’d already accomplished much of what we wanted to do, so now, we could concentrate on the music.”
Rehearsals for Vs began in February 1993 at Potatohead Studio, situated in an alley between Second and Third Avenue and Bell and Battery Street in Seattle; Potatohead Studio was a familiar haunt for the band as it was their chosen rehearsal space since their inception. The band moved to The Site Studio in Nicasio, California, in March 1993 to start recording. The familiar, gritty realism of Potatohead rehearsal space starkly contrasted with the idyllic, retreat-type setting of The Site recording studio in California. Eddie Vedder felt The Site was far too comfortable to produce a gritty and authentic-sounding rock and roll album.
“How do you make a rock record here?” Vedder remembered asking. “Old rockers? Maybe they love this. Maybe they need the comfort and the relaxation. Maybe they need it to make dinner music.” The studio’s luxurious setting was so opposed to the album’s mood that Vedder often wrote lyrics and slept in his truck rather than stay in the accommodations provided.
Bassist Jeff Ament recalled, “When we were recording Vs, there was much more pressure on Ed. I thought we were playing so well as a band that it would take care of itself. But he was having a hard time finishing up the songs, the pressure, and not being comfortable in such a nice place.”
Vedder felt like the band was rushing through Vs, losing control of its music and turning over the reigns to its managers. “At the end of the record, I didn’t feel like it was done,” he recalled. “I still had some changes, and lyric changes, and changes in the production of it all.”
He continued: “Things were happening quickly, and forces stronger than us were dictating things at that point.”
Producer Brendan O’Brien tried talking Vedder off the ledge, assuring him they still had time to make changes, which they did, but the frontman was still on edge. After recording the album, he described the brief respite as “the longest we’d ever been apart at the time.”
Vs came into being at an intriguing intersection in Pearl Jam’s career; It was the point where the band began to circle the wagons and take control of their destiny—vehemently holding ground on decisions that flew in the face of standard practices within the record industry. Pearl Jam was through playing the music industry games regarding the promotion and advertising of their albums, refusing to make music videos for any singles. At the same time, they restricted press and TV access for interviews to a handful of chosen outlets.
Turning off all means of promotion to a drip was not done as a cantankerous two-fingered salute to the music industry but rather a move designed to protect its protagonists from an ever-spiralling whirlwind of worldwide fame and press intrusion. In a move that now seems like a masterstroke considering the depressingly high attrition rate among Pearl Jam’s Seattle contemporaries, circling the wagons when they did, in the manner they did, may have buffered them just enough to weather the oncoming storm.
The band’s longtime photographer and friend Lance Mercer noted, “Pearl Jam definitely became more guarded like any band would when that much notoriety happens that fast. I don’t know how I’d be affected if that many people were stalking me. The fandom was skyrocketing, and everybody wanted a piece of him (Vedder). Who’s to say how you’d be affected?”
On October 25th, 1993, Despite the band’s refusal, Time magazine put Eddie Vedder on its cover, much to their unhappiness. The cover feature further inflated the myths Pearl Jam had spent years attempting to tamp down, and Vedder hated the accompanying photo. Alice In Chains Sean Kinney recalls, “For Ed to find himself on the cover of Time magazine, where they’re trying to make him the voice of a generation, and with all Kurt was going through, it was a conflicting time. I was relieved that that didn’t happen to us. There was no jealousy or anything. I just felt for them.”
Despite the seemingly counter-intuitive activities of pushing the corporate machine as far away as possible, the band saw little dent in their popularity. Vs has, to date, sold an eye-watering seven million copies in the United States alone. In its first week of release, it sold a staggering 950,378 units, making it the fastest-selling album of all time, in its first week of sales, a record it held on to for five years. Six of the album’s songs generated top forty positions in the US Modern Rock Charts despite only four of those six being commercially released singles. The record also received three Grammy Award nominations. And that was just in the US; Vs also topped the charts in eight other countries worldwide.
Vs is a far grittier and rawer affair than Ten. No less emotionally charged than its predecessor, it’s jarringly abrupt and wickedly intense. Ten’s rough edges were smooth, lush reverbs and a cinematic mix added to the atmospheric feel. Vs is dry, in your face, and packing a hell of a punch. That’s not to say Vs doesn’t have its more reflective moments. These dynamics are amplified even more dramatically as the band careen from all-out, bile-filled ragers to acoustic folk ballads and ghostly, atmospheric dreamscapes.
The opening song, “Go”, immediately sets the tone for what will come. Drummer Dave Abbruzzese wrote the main guitar parts for the song. “With “Go”, I just happened to pick up the guitar at the right moment.” Abbruzzese said, “Stone asked what I was playing and started playing it, then Jeff started playing it, and Eddie started singing with it, and it turned into a song.” Stone Gossard recalls, “That song went through a cool evolution. Dave played us the two main parts, that BAM-BAM-BAM groovy chordal riff bit and then the main ascending riff in more of an acoustic vein. Then, when he got behind the drums, everyone turned up loud, and it evolved into something else, a little more hardcore.”
“Go” was the first single released from the album; it’s an exhilarating ripping tune with tightly coiled, tension-filled verses that give way to a euphoric chorus. Mike McCready’s guitar solos sear above the fray, Dave Abruzzese’s drumming is explosive, and Vedder’s shredded howl is caustic and engaging. As openers go, it’s quite a statement.
With no time for the listener to catch their breath, “Animal” barrels in with a powerful groove and a signature Stone Gossard riff. The song’s punctuated verses carry Vedder’s impassioned howl of “One, two, three, four, five against one, Five, five, five against one.” Originally, Vs was titled Five Against One, taken from the “Animal” verse lyrics. Concerning the original album title, Gossard said: “For me, that title represented a lot of struggles that you go through trying to make a record. Your independence—your soul—versus everybody else’s. In this band, and I think in rock, the art of compromise is almost as important as the art of individual expression. You might have five great artists in the band, but you don’t have a great band if they can’t compromise and work together. It might mean something entirely different for Eddie. But when I heard that lyric, it made a lot of sense to me.” The song was released as the album’s third single and peaked at number 21 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
“Daughter” was the album’s second single; the song topped the US Album Rock and Modern Rock Billboard charts, spending eight weeks at number one on the former chart. “Daughter” eventually peaked at number 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart, becoming the band’s first top-40 single. Driven by Stone Gossard’s open-tuned acoustic guitar and Mike McCready’s perfectly placed guitar fills, the song still bounces along at a rocking pace while eschewing the amped-up distortion of the previous tracks. “Daughter’s” upbeat musical feel belies some deep lyrical reflections by Vedder.
“The child in that song has a learning difficulty,” said Vedder, “and it’s only in the last few years that they’ve been able to diagnose these learning disabilities that before were looked at as misbehaviour, as just outright rebelliousness, but no one knew what it was. Because these kids seemed unable or reluctant to learn, they’d get the shit beaten out of them. The song ends, you know, with this idea of the shades going down—so that the neighbours can’t see what happens next. What hurts about shit like that is that it ends up defining people’s lives. They have to live with that abuse for the rest of their lives. Good, creative people are just fucking destroyed.”
“Glorified G” opens with a catchy riff by Mike McCready, “I wrote part of that one. I had this Gretsch Country Gentleman and started jamming on this little thing in D (sings riff); the riff just came out of that. Stone came up with his weird part. All these strange, disjointed parts turned into a song. Stone’s doing something weird, and Jeff’s doing something weird and offbeat, but it works for some reason; I don’t know why.”
“Dissident” has an uplifting, lilting feel and tells the story of a woman conflicted about her decisions, “In “Dissident,” I’m talking about a woman who takes in someone who’s being sought after by the authorities for political reasons.” said Vedder, “He’s on the run, and she offers him a refuge. But she can’t handle the responsibility. She turns him in; then she has to live with the guilt and the realization that she’s betrayed the one thing that gave her life meaning.”
“W.M.A” stands for White Male American. Dave Abbruzzese takes centre stage for this atmospheric, grooving, percussion-heavy dirge. The cascading soundscapes by McCready and Gossard swim atop Jeff Ament’s dexterous melodic bass. Vedder explains the song’s lyrical origins: “I think I’d probably stayed at the rehearsal studio the night before, and it had been a couple of days since I had a shower, and I’ve got my old shoes on, and I don’t look too great, a little grunge on my teeth or whatever. And I’m sitting there with this guy who’s of a darker colour than me, and along come these cops, they run around with their bikes trying to look cool. So here they come; they’re heading straight for us. And they just ignored me and started hassling him. Compared to me, this guy looks as respectable as fuck. But they started hassling him, which blew me the fuck away. So I started hassling them, and one thing led to another. I was just really wound up by it. I had all this fucking energy rushing through me. I was mad. Fucking angry. I got back to the studio, and the guys had been working on this thing, and I just went straight in and did the vocals, and that was the song.”
“Blood” boils with apoplectic rage against the media and certain magazine publications. The irony is that Eddie thought the barrage of press intrusion was draining his creative lifeblood, yet his hatred toward them created vital outpourings like “Blood.” Vedder lacerates and shreds his vocal cords throughout this throttling thrill ride.
“Rearviewmirrow” is an all-time Pearl Jam classic. It perfectly builds the emotional intensity as it hurtles to an explosive finish. Vedder and Abbruzzese struggled to nail the song to their exacting standards during the recording sessions. Near the end of the sessions, they both got the takes they were searching for. According to the Pearl Jam documentary Twenty, Abbruzzese celebrated by throwing his drumsticks across the studio, which you can hear on the recording.
For the song “Rats,” Vedder portrays these rodents as superior and more civilized than most humans. “They don’t eat, don’t sleep, They don’t feed, they don’t seethe, Bare their gums when they moan and squeak, Lick the dirt off a larger one’s feet. They don’t push, don’t crowd, Congregate until they’re much too loud, Fuck to procreate till they are dead. Drink the blood of their so-called best friend.”
“Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town” is a beautiful acoustic song filled with haunting pathos and stellar hooks. A musing on ageing and regret, the song started life as a poem by Eddie Vedder; its central premise is about two people (possibly lovers) who are reunited after many years, one of whom stayed in the same town all her life and the other who left.
“Leash” is a song the band had been playing throughout the Ten tour. A highly charged rocker with a wrecking ball swinging. Its controlled abandon is electrifying as Vedder pronounces, “Drop the leash, drop the leash, Get outta my fuckin’ face.” The album ends on a beautifully transcendent note with “Indifference.” The song delves into themes of societal apathy and the importance of empathy over a gorgeous atmospheric soundscape.
With Vs, Pearl Jam maintained their rigorous standards of integrity in the face of that massive commercial success. Each band member threw all they had behind some breathtaking performances. Stone Gossard and Mike McCready proved they were among the great rock guitar duos of the ’90s, weaving cascading riff after riff throughout. Jeff Ament’s supple, melodic bass lines are as vital to each song as they were on Ten. Vs was Dave Abbruzzese’s first album with the band. Having been a member since August 1991 and making Dave Krusen’s Ten performances his own on subsequent tours, Abbruzzese didn’t hold back stamping his mark on Vs; his performances marked him as MVP. Eddie Vedder delivered the most biting, raging, caustic vocal performances of his career, while underneath the venom and fury lay some deep ruminations on life and the human spirit.
The one-two punch of Ten and Vs made Pearl Jam one of the era’s biggest bands. They must be commended for producing such essential art as they struggled to keep a tight hold of their ideals and identity amid the frenzy of fans and media, hungry for a piece.