Friday, April 30, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Vitalogy,’ Pearl Jam (1994)

If “Vs.” was a meaner record than “Ten,” then “Vitalogy” is downright nasty. Harsh. Devoid of all studio sheen. This album is stripped bare to the essentials and, as such, is one of the band’s best-sounding records.

Lyrically “Vitalogy” is unquestionably Eddie Vedder’s best Pearl Jam album. The heart of his tale is “Corduroy,” a song so rich with meaning it’s worthy of an essay all its own. Now a rock star, Vedder’s life had changed violently in the past few years and he’s left wondering if and why this is what he wanted. “You’re finally here and I’m a mess” he howls in the opening line—they could’ve put that on the album cover as a tagline for the whole thing.

At the core of "Vitalogy" is the struggle to retain one's humanity amidst the most trying of times. Music being such a core part of who Vedder is, several of the songs here address his relationship to the art form and the business behind it (“Not For You,” “Spin the Black Circle,” “Satan’s Bed”). But elsewhere he focuses on abusive relationships (“Nothingman,” “Better Man”), and a feeling of being bereft and lost in a new world he doesn’t understand (“Tremor Christ,” “Whipping”). Given the heavy subject matter, it should come as no surprise the songs that bookend this album are about escape (“Last Exit,” “Immortality”).

Vedder’s intense desire to pull back from the crushing weight of superstardom is easy to criticize—isn’t making tons of money and being famous why you get into the business in the first place?—but at least he’s being honest. “Vitalogy” was written at a crucial point in the band’s history, as they were on the verge of dissolving under the pressure. Thus, this is the band’s most personal album and, arguably, their most affecting. There's mercifully little politicking going on here.

It’s not all great, though. Dribbled in between the 10 actual songs on “Vitalogy” are experimental musings that drag it down. After awhile you just start overlooking the noodlings of “Pry, To” and “Aye Davanita”; you chuckle at “Bugs” or skip it altogether; you push stop after “Immortality,” not wading through the dystopian psychobabble of “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me.” But just because we’ve grown accustomed to ignoring all that filler doesn’t make it go away, and any honest assessment of “Vitalogy” must take into account how much these tracks take away from what could have been Pearl Jam’s best album. Trim all the crap out of this CD and you’re left with … this:

Last Exit

Spin the Black Circle

Not For You

Tremor Christ




Satan’s Bed

Better Man


Put that playlist on your iTunes and let it run straight through. Wow.

But, intentional or not, those twisty cuts accomplished exactly what Pearl Jam wanted—and needed. “Vitalogy” was the band’s last smash-hit album. They lost a significant number of fans too weirded out by this CD to stick with them any longer. After “Vitalogy,” Pearl Jam became the biggest cult band in the world. They continue to sell out arenas most everywhere they play, but “Vitalogy” let just enough air out of that fame balloon and in so doing kept Pearl Jam from exploding.

That’s worth sacrificing a classic album for, I guess.

Grade: A-

Favorite Track: “Corduroy”

Least Favorite Track: “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me”

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