November 22nd, 1994, Pearl Jam released their third full-length album, Vitalogy, through Epic Records. The album was first released on vinyl, followed by a release on CD and cassette two weeks later on December 6th, 1994. In hindsight, Vitalogy is Pearl Jam’s most integral and important album of their storied back catalogue. It’s a flashpoint for the band. Their meteoric rise to fame after the release of 1991’s Ten and 1993’s Vs catapulted five scrappy punks from dingy clubs into huge, soulless venues controlled by Ticketmaster. The video shoots, endless radio and MTV promos and glitzy awards shows were anathema to the band, who found themselves ethically and morally opposed to their surroundings.
These days, it’s not uncommon for many of the world’s most prominent artists to abstain from doing interviews. Pearl Jam helped blaze this trail. “I don’t want to be a star; it’s not worth it,” an already fame-fatigued Eddie Vedder said in 1993. “I think the less you know about a musician, the better. All that you need is the music.” And so it was that Pearl Jam essentially stepped back from promoting Vs. It’s often cited that they deliberately sabotaged themselves by doing so, but that is to miss the point entirely. “If you hear that none of us in the band are doing interviews, it’ll just be because we’re trying to keep some control on this,” Eddie argued, not unreasonably. “It’s a little bit of music preservation.”
Behind the scenes, a shift in dynamic was also afoot. Ten and Vs were primarily fueled by the creative direction of the Stone Gossard/Jeff Ament dynamic; Viatalogy saw Eddie Vedder assume more control. This shift subtly changed the band’s sound; Vitalogy is dryer, less bombastic, shorn of stadium-filling bluster, and interspersed with odd, experimental flair.
Gone was the soaring and emotionally spirited rock songwriting of Jeremy, Even Flow, Garden, replaced by a more taut, streamlined approach the band edged towards on Vs with songs like Rearviewmirror, Dissident, and Daughter. It’s stripped down, lean, and uncompromising and marks the first time Pearl Jam would start to experiment with some truly odd sounds.
Vitalogy’s sound is rife with a brooding hostility; tensions were aimed both outward and inward as, three albums in, cracks began forming within the members’ relationships. As Vedder assumed more and more control, Stone Gossard thought of quitting, and drummer Dave Abbruzzese would be let go as sessions wound down.
Producer Brendan O’Brien said: “Vitalogy was a little strained. I’m being polite—there was some imploding going on.” Bassist Jeff Ament said that “communication was at an all-time low”. Drummer Dave Abbruzzese stated that the communication problems started once guitarist Stone Gossard stopped acting as the band’s mediator. According to Gossard, Vitalogy was the first album Eddie Vedder made the final decisions. Feeling his position in the band was undermined, Stone thought of quitting the band entirely.
Gossard said the band had trouble collaborating, so most songs were developed from jam sessions. He added, “80 per cent of the songs were written 20 minutes before they were recorded.” To compound matters, during the production of the album, guitarist Mike McCready went into rehabilitation to receive treatment for alcohol and cocaine abuse.
These distractions should have caused the songwriting process to falter. The band’s powerful dynamic was forged from the camaraderie of its members pulling in the same direction. The rifts in interpersonal relationships fueled the creative process in a new way. Vitalogy, despite its tensions, is a cohesive album filled with some of Pearl Jam’s best songwriting.
The band wrote many of Vitalogy’s songs during soundchecks on the Vs tour, and most of the album’s tracks were recorded during breaks in the touring schedule. The first session occurred in late 1993 in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the band recorded “Tremor Christ” and “Nothingman”. The rest of the material was written and recorded in 1994 in sessions in Seattle, Washington and Atlanta, Georgia, with the band finishing the album at Bad Animals Studio in Seattle after the tour’s completion.
Before Vitalogy’s release, drummer Dave Abbruzzese was fired in August ’94 due to personality conflicts with other band members. Stone Gossard said: “It was the nature of how the politics worked in our band: It was up to me to say, ‘Hey, we tried, it’s not working; time to move on.’ On a superficial level, it was a political struggle: For whatever reason, his ability to communicate with Ed and Jeff was very stifled. I certainly don’t think it was all Dave Abbruzzese’s fault that it was stifled.”
The album opens with a jumbled blurt of notes from various instruments. The urgent thwack of Dave Abbruzzese’s drums soon slices through, and the first words Eddie Vedder utters are, “lives opened and trashed” as riffs seesaw behind him. But Vedder’s typewritten liner notes for the song offer a grim addenda that isn’t in the music. He writes, “If one cannot control his life, will he be driven to control his death?”
For Pearl Jam’s record label, “Spin The Black Circle” was an unlikely choice for the first single from Vitalogy. Still, this punked-up paean to vinyl — which debuted live at a March ’94 show in Denver — couldn’t have been a more apt first salvo from an album defiantly released on vinyl two weeks before the CD and cassette formats. By 1994, vinyl was a forgotten format. With dizzying chords whipsawing behind him, Vedder howls about “the ritual when I lay down your crooked arm,” referring to the joy of setting the tonearm on the record.
In the book Pearl Jam Twenty, Vedder recalled the song took shape after he accidentally listened to guitarist Stone Gossard’s demo at the wrong speed. “I pulled Stone off to the side and said, ‘I think I’ve stumbled onto something. There’s a killer song here if you’d play it this fast.’ and I played it to him,” Vedder says in the book. “He thought I was totally insane. But without putting up a fight, they tried it, and that’s what it became.” The song’s main riff strongly resembles Husker Du’s “Beyond The Threshold” from their 1984 album Zen Arcade.
“Not For You,” the album’s second single, finds the band channelling Neil Young through a punk rock prism. Vedder delivers a sermon on the disorienting invasion that fame had brought: “Small my table, seats just two/got so crowded I can’t make room/where did they come from? Stormed my room!” and rages against those who try to co-opt the band as some crass marketing object. “You dare say it belongs to you/This not for you!”
The atonal, jarring main riff of “Tremor Christ” is a tension-filled workout and an allegory of a sailor imperilled by diabolical storms at sea. The song is filled with vivid ocean imagery, a favoured subject of Vedder’s throughout Pearl Jam’s entire back-catalogue. “Tremor Christ’s” heavy use of the flattened fifth chord, also known as the devil’s interval, creates an unsettling mood, especially when combined with the rhythmic stabs of the guitars. This uneasy musical score matches Vedder’s lyrics in painting a menacing tone: “Ransom paid the Devil; He whispers pleasing words; Triumphant are the angels if they can a get there first.”
Recorded in February 1994 in Seattle, “Nothingman” was written by bassist Jeff Ament. Ament’s resonant stand-up bass anchors the lilting sway of this gorgeous ballad, and Vedder’s tenor is a clarion as he sings of a man’s emptiness and regret after a relationship goes sour: “Some words, when spoken, can’t be taken back.”
“Whipping” is a pulsating ripper, the kind of punk-tinged barnburner Pearl Jam excels at. Vedder sounds maniacal as he laments unnamed powers-that-be. “I can’t believe a thing they want us to. We all got scars; they should have them too.” His voice is barely contained throughout the open verse before the hushed refrain of the chorus as he whispers “The Whipping” over and over before unleashing ever-escalating shards of grit and venom as the song careens toward its raging end.
“Pry, To” is a funk jam interlude reminiscent of a less well-formed “Dirty Frank,” the b-side from the Ten days. At just over one minute long, it’s relatively insignificant, with Vedder repeating an unambiguous message: “P-r-i-v-a-c-y is priceless to me” and then just “P-r-i-v-a-c-y” until the track fades out.
“Corduroy” is a Pearl Jam classic, filled with an ever-building emotional arch; it’s a thrilling rush of powerful rock songwriting. Vedder expresses his frustration with the spotlight and the commodification of music. By 1994, fashion labels were trying to cash in on a perceived “grunge look.” “They can buy but can’t put on my clothes,” he sings at one point. Later, he asks, “Take my hand, not my picture.”
Vedder wrestles dissonant shards of melody from an accordion he found in a thrift shop on the album’s second interlude, “Bugs,” as he examines the theme of intrusion by way of the metaphor of “bugs in my room/bugs in my bed/bugs in my ears” which “surround me I see/see them deciding my fate.”
“Satan’s Bed” opens to the crack of a whip. “Never shook Satan’s hand; look, see for yourself,” Vedder seethes in a coarse rasp. “You’d know it if I had, that shit don’t come off.” There’s a ramshackle tumble to the band’s performance as they wrestle with an insistent groove. The chorus tightens to a gang vocal wail of “Already, In love, Already, In love.”
“Better Man” instantly became one of Pearl Jam’s most-loved songs and remains a setlist staple. The song had a long road before its official Pearl Jam debut. Vedder had written it years earlier, “before I could legally drink,” he told Spin in 1994. Vedder had performed it live with his late ’80s band Bad Radio. Pearl Jam first took a stab at recording it for 1993’s Vs, but it was on Vitalogy that everything came together at the urging of producer Brendan O’Brien, who’d long been a fan of the song. “It’s such an undeniable melody, lyric, and arrangement,” Gossard later said.
“Aye Davanita” is a nearly three-minute interlude—a chugging wash of bright, trance-like jamming, with low vocalisations repeating some indecipherable words.
“Immortality” opens with a lone electric guitar before blooming into a beautiful, gliding track filled with pathos and longing. Vedder sings of “running in the dark” and “victims in demand for public show.” “Some die just to live,” he intones softly as the music rides to a close. After the album’s release, many believed this song was about the life and death of fellow Seattle grunge rocker Kurt Cobain. Several lines could refer to drug usage in the song. For instance, “artificial tear” could symbolise substances dripping from a syringe. Also, there is a mention of a “cigar box on the floor,” and a cigar box was found next to Cobain’s body.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published November 20th, 1994, Vedder addressed the song, explaining that it was about his state of mind and that the cigar box was where he kept his tapes. Asked if the song was about Cobain, Vedder replied: “No, that was written when we were on tour in Atlanta. It’s not about Kurt. Nothing on the album was written directly about Kurt, and I don’t feel like talking about him because it might be seen as exploitation. But I think there could be some things in the lyrics that could help you understand the pressures on someone who is on a parallel train.”
The album closes with “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me,” a seven-and-a-half minute, disembodied soundscape of voices and shards of feedback, and drummer Jack Irons’ first recorded piece with the band.
With hindsight, Vitalogy sits at a crossroads in Pearl Jam’s early career. The album’s rawness was startling on release compared to the muscularly slick rock of Vs or Ten. Vitalogy was more complex and erratic, trading Vs’s clarity for a sludgier minor key. Darker themes and bleak restraint characterise the musical and lyrical approach. It’s the album where Pearl Jam first indulged their more left-field impulses; the fever-dream dissonance of the interludes and instrumental soundscape tracks are jarring as they butt up against the more lush balladry also on display.
Pearl Jam was a band that, right from the onset, proved to be uncomfortable with their immediate and overwhelming fame, which caused them to take some steps back that ultimately saved their career. The fact that they were able to see through that blizzard of endless hype and incessant bullshit is a testament to their strength of character. While Vs found the band hitting their stride musically, Vitalogy is the sound of a band trying new things and almost daring themselves to fail spectacularly. It’s an exhilarating, passionate and, at times, stunningly beautiful album.