Pearl Jam‘s Vs. hits all the sweet spots for me as a fan of the band. All the band’s metaphorical engines are firing at full, and there’s not a wasted track on the album. You certainly can’t credit MTV for this album’s success – the band decided not to create videos for the album, and didn’t release singles either.
Vs. represents a band that got super-successful all at once and freaked out a little bit. Long-term I think this resulted in some self-sabotage (e.g. some unlistenable tracks on Vitology and shying away from “Better Man” which is one of the band’s best), but Vs. actually turned out quite well.
There’s a bit of a stutter-start on the album’s first track, “Go” but then it lurches to life and turns the dial straight to 11. The chugging bass, the high-voltage guitar, and Eddie Vedder at full primal intensity make this a great way to start off the album.
“Animal” brings the groove in a way that none of the tracks that Ten did. Once again, Jeff Ament’s bass playing keeps drawing me in to this one. It’s just undeniable. The song threatens to go off the rails a few times, but it stays the course. In some ways it reminds me a bit of Neil Young’s patented “sloppy, but so damn satisfying” guitar playing.
Pearl Jam gets introspective
On the other side of the fence you’ve got “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter in a Small Town.” This is, for the record, not the longest song title in my list of favorite songs. That’d probably be “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict” by Pink Floyd, but I digress…
“Elderly Woman” is one of those songs that just perfectly sums up a feeling. The lyrics are evocative, but it’s Vedder’s vocals that pack a punch here.
“W.M.A.” is, sadly, as relevant today as it was when Vs. was released. Perhaps moreso. Before I heard the term “privilege,” Vedder and company stated the case fairly plainly: “he won the lottery / by being born … white male American… dirty his hands it comes right off.”
I always get a wry chuckle out of the reference to “Ben” by Michael Jackson at the end of “Rats,” and I wonder just how many Pearl Jam fans catch it. (My informal polling suggests close to zero, but surely some Pearl Jam fans are old enough to remember hearing the theme song to 1972’s Ben.)
Even if the reference is lost on you, the song is pretty great. Again, the cynicism is showing, with Pearl Jam comparing people unfavorably to rats. On the plus side for people, though, very few rats have been known to be able to play guitar, bass, or drums nearly as well as the folks in Pearl Jam. Something to do with the tiny paws, I suppose.
By the time Vs. closes with “Indifference,” a slow and contemplative tune that is unlike anything on Ten, I feel like it’s been a full musical “meal.” From raw and explosive rock to slower, more thoughtful and intimate fare, Vs. has all I could want.