Before the invention of Soundscan in 1991, record labels would claim staggering sales and shipments of the records. However, with Soundscan, you had a system that (for the most part) would show pretty accurately how many records would sell week to week. Much has been made over debut weeks in the last decade, but in 1993, Pearl Jam sold 950,378 copies of their sophomore release vs. during the third week of October. Then and now, it is an astonishing feat. It held this record for five years with only Vitalogy (which sold 877,000 copies) released a mere thirteen months later coming close to eclipsing it. Rappers and teen stars would break this record eventually, but all of them did it in a vastly different media world where the act would be on every television station possible the week of the release to ensure record sales. Pearl Jam were nowhere to be seen the week vs. hit stores. In fact, they shunned MTV and radio by refusing to release singles and do music videos. At the time, it was revolutionary to see any act give the middle finger to the powers that be. No one had done it before and only with the dismantling of the recording industry are other acts brave enough to do it today. Taking a page from Led Zeppelin in the early 1970's, Pearl Jam did everything they could to help extinguish the colossal interest placed on the band. They stopped doing interviews, no videos, limited touring, no proper singles and they didn't even put a name on the album cover. The LP edition didn't even mention the band's name (except for the spine, once again, the same thing Led Zeppelin did with their IV record). Despite all of this, as I remember that time, the buzz in the air was intangible. It wouldn't have meant a thing if the music fell flat, but despite enormous expectations, the band delivered and many people, including this writer, believe vs. to be their magnum opus. Much is spoken about Pearl Jam's clash with corporations during this time, but what many overlook is the stride they reached musically which is now documented on a magnificent 3CD reissue of this 1993-1995 period. vs. and Vitalogy have both been remastered with bonus tracks and an extra live CD of the band's final performance of the vs. tour from 1994 in Boston. Under the direction of producer Brendan O'Brien, Pearl Jam found their footing as a band and the songs written and recorded during this period are the result of the pressure and the intensity they faced. The final result is nothing short of devastating.
The time between Pearl Jam's first ever gig (October 22, 1990) and the release of their debut record Ten (August 27, 1991) was a mere ten months. Despite the eclectic and seriousness of their first record, it was recorded and released in such a whirlwind that the songs in essence came before Pearl Jam were really a band. Between the release of Ten and their second record vs. in October 1993, their world changed more than any of them could have ever imagined. Almost overnight Pearl Jam became a band who was deemed the voice of their generation, the ones people looked to for answers and a money making juggernaut for promoters, radio programmers, their record company and MTV. Everyone wanted a piece of them. These types of strains are what break up bands. Pearl Jam could have suffocated under this weight, but they did the opposite. Originally titled Five Against One, vs. is a collection where the five members indeed reverberate like a band ready to take on the world. While the songs are still intimate and personal, their scope went from full screen to widescreen with a rage reserved for the darkest of metal bands. Because of the way the Ten album, the live performances on the Lollapalooza tour and the "Jeremy" video took off, everyone was in the band's ear offering advice. The band wanted none of it. The polished studio essence on their debut was absent replaced with a much more potent and acerbic sonic force. If Ten was a heavy weight boxing match, vs. was Fight Club on speed. On the previous record, the music felt almost classical in its composition, on vs. it felt like the Ramones meet the Clash meet U2 (circa 1983). The band was taking no prisoners and when I tuned into the MTV VMA's in 1993 and heard the band tear through "Animal", I knew changes would be abound on the newest record. Their ire flew off that stage in a way I'm not sure if I have ever seen before or since. Some felt it was an act, I knew it was anything but. The stakes were higher, the rules had changed and more importantly, Pearl Jam was a band. With two years of gigs (approximately 175 shows) underneath their belts the band was more brazen and brash. Rare is an artist who can sell as many records as Pearl Jam did and then to create a record that isn't just as good but in many ways, superior to Ten.
Right from the prayer-like opening punch of "Go", the band proves to be obstinate in its need to leave their prior album in the dust. The classic rock stimulus of Ten was pushed to the side with the band taking up more of a punk rock mind-set as featured on "Animal", "Blood" and "Leash". The tribal ecstasy of "W.M.A." makes up for what some see as one-dimensional lyrics and yet it's impossible to deny the way the song seeps into your psyche because of the zeal with which they were executed. The band took to the recording studio ready for a fight and with bloody knuckles fought their way through twelve compositions ranging from simple storytelling to rage to a heightened understanding of the world around them. They didn't merely compose about divisive topics, they let their rage vent up from within them shouted it from the top of their lungs and instruments. "Glorified G" has a beat and enlivening riff made for the radio, but it's a stinging declaration against guns. "Daughter" and "Leash" give voice to the misunderstood hearkening back to "Jeremy" and "Why Go" from the debut. "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" is a perfect mid-tempo ballad of a woman trapped in a small town who comes eye to eye with an old flame who doesn't even remember her. It's the misfortune and ache that I could relate to when I heard the record. It's dressed up for FM dials and evokes a sing-a-long every night in concert, yet beneath the picturesque melody is pain. These universal themes are ever so simplistic, but it's not the songwriting that made this record a source of salvation for me, but the fever within it.
Pearl Jam was writing at a higher level of consciousness with vs. and when you're lost and in need of direction, a compilation of songs that feel as if they were written to resuscitate your life prove to be not just fortifying and invigorating, but resurrecting for your soul as well. No song better epitomizes the emancipation than "Rearviewmirror". Delivered in a breakneck speed, the song takes the listener on a fervent getaway and may be one of the utmost driving songs ever laid to tape. Hitting the road, leaving your past in the dust and seeing the future with a clear head is something too many of us fail to do, but if anything the song inspires. I learned that sometimes it's best to confront my demons and at other times, to look away from situations that couldn't be resolved and to never look back. There's middle ground between reconciling your past with your present and leaving a bad situation in the dust. Pearl Jam may have been on top of the musical heap at this moment in their career, but they were equally protective of what they had built. They weren't looking for an easy buck or unnecessary celebrity and even if they had recorded these same songs with a tenth of the passion, it wouldn't hold up today. Fortunately for us, the music reigned supreme and Pearl Jam proved their worth with vs.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Pearl Jam's vs 25 Years Later
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