In 1993, the Seattle supergroup reached their commercial peak, but their creative revolution was just beginning
Because Alice in Chains and Soundgarden didn’t explode on impact the way Nirvana and Pearl Jam did, maybe we should best remember the grunge boom not for its eternal crunch but for its politics. Its two biggest, most visible bands parroted unsweetened liberal politics in the Clinton mainstream, shedding the misogynist skin of 80s hair-metal whose excess matched Reagan’s isolationism.
Easily their commercial peak, Pearl Jam’s second album Vs. set records in the week and a half it took to sell 1.3 million copies in October 1993, and coupled with Nirvana’s feminine/feminist meditation In Utero a month earlier, it was the moment where those two bands overlapped most in popularity and political-mindedness, a coincidence not lost on the guys who almost named their album Five Against One.
While Vs. sprawled in all directions thematically and musically, it states its business immediately within the wriggling groove of “Go,” which describes an abusive relationship from the villain’s perspective. The music uncoils perfectly to match its unreliable narrator, with Eddie Vedder mumbling the tell “Suppose I abused you” over a dodgy riff and only taking front and center on the pleading chorus “Please please please/ Don’t go on me,” intentionally louder and more attractive (that pleading, single-note guitar counterpoint) to look sympathetic in the midst of his evil neglect. It’s frightening. Similarly weak characters narrate “Glorified G” (“Got a gun, in fact I got two/ That’s okay man, cause I love god”) and “Dissident” (“When she couldn’t hold, she folded: ‘A dissident is here!’”).
But just as many songs on the record are sung by the victim: “Daughter,” the album’s biggest hit, concerns another chilling power dynamic, where the disabled child in question is made to believe they shouldn’t “call me daughter/ Not fit to.” The “Go” narrator’s partner could well be the one getting up the guts to hightail it on “Rearviewmirror”, and “W.M.A.” casts Vedder as a bystander screaming “Police stopped my brother again” at the “white male American” of the title, an officer whom Vedder sneers “won the lottery by being born.” Those are the “mature” songs, while the anthemic “Leash” (“Get out of my fucking face”), nailbombing “Blood” (“Fucking circus”) and get-over-yourself humanity metaphor “Rats” (“They don’t shit where they’re not supposed to”) are childish enough to ensure their frattier audience’s attention doesn’t wander.
As music, “grunge” didn’t do Vs. justice then nor 20 years later, where it’s especially notable how American the thing sounds. Soloist Mike McCready curls Skynyrd-esque twang around “Dissident” like chicken wire, and two other hits, “Daughter” with its careening solo, and the leisurely strum of “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” also contain more country ingredients than hard rock radio was prepared for in 1993. Rockers on the other end of the spectrum were given color by the wah-wah pedal though, breaking up the shooting pinball riffs of “Blood” and “Animal” with and Isaac Hayes-style scratch-funk. Since funk and country are two of the most American genres imaginable, it’s no surprise Pearl Jam dominated the airwaves so much they resorted to reining in their popularity themselves, refusing to make videos and eventually boycotting Ticketmaster. Vedder wasn’t shy politically either, drawing an abortion-symbolizing hanger on his shirt in duct tape for TV appearances and scrawling “PRO-CHOICE” on his arm in Sharpie. The title Vs. perfectly summed up that conflict as well, a band at odds with its own accessibility grappling with the need to cut off its own head before it becomes cancerous. It could’ve been much worse internally than dismissing one drummer, Dave Abbruzzese, a gun owner who inspired “Glorified G” in the first place.
Vs. isn’t Pearl Jam’s best album; those would be its crafty and explorative follow-ups Vitalogy, No Code, and Yield, none of which endured in the public consciousness like their first two albums. But with the exception of the self-consciously weird Vitalogy, it’s the album that fans from both eras can identify as most comfortably them. Listening to 2013’s as-yet-unfollowed Lightning Bolt, as with the previous back-to-basics moves Pearl Jam and Backspacer, there’s not a scratch on the crunchy chords, with every song’s skin pulled tight and no discernable humor. These are misrememberings of a band that opened their biggest album with a jam, made a goofy fable insisting humans should be as principled as rats, and entrusted one of their biggest hits (“Daughter”) with only one verse and a lengthy solo.
Compared to those haplessly conventional new ones, these traits are Sonic Youth or Yoko Ono. But from Vedder’s tear-filled screams selling “Blood” as scarier than silly, to the swampy adult-contemporary dirge “Indifference,” Pearl Jam used to naturally make a whole world of emotions and guitar tones sing, to an audience so big it contained many, many people they could just as easily rail against. It’s a dry run compared to the acrid poetry and fully-formed Beatlesque song shapes of In Utero, but Vs. held its own.