Review Summary: Simply put one of the best hard rock records of our generation.
It's a difficult thing for a band when they reach unprecedented heights of success. Pearl Jam's second album Vs. was the fastest-selling record in history, nearly going platinum in just five days. A band doesn't sell a million albums in less than a week if they're "just okay" or "riding the alternative bandwagon" like most detractors of Pearl Jam would point out in the first half of the 1990's. While Nirvana stuck to writing derivative punk tunes with plenty of voice cracks and AIC was fading into oblivion due to their inability to tour, Pearl Jam was on top of the world, slowly becoming the most important rock act on the planet. Vs. was freaking everywhere, and the radio staple "Jeremy" was still riding the airwaves all the way into early 1994. The band got even more recognition with their refusal to release singles & music videos and their much publicized boycott of Ticketmaster. Inner turmoil was beginning to stir within the band as well, with Stone Gossard's creative control slowly being overtaken by Eddie Vedder compositions. Under this much scrutiny, it's surprising how perfect the band's third effort "Vitalogy" turned out to be.
Vitalogy is Pearl Jam at their most aggressive: 2-minute blasts of raw punk-infused energy like the impeccable "Spin The Black Circle" are scattered throughout the record, striking between the most serene moments and the band at their most bizarre. Vitalogy's first two tracks both fit this bill: "Last Exit" begins with a sound check, showing off Dave Abbruzzesse's quick hands and finesse drumming (unfortunately this would be his last album with the band). The band immediately begins experimenting, staying within the hard-rock confines of the song but alternating between 5/4 verses and a common-time anthemic chorus. The final 15 seconds are especially intense with Vedder shrieking "THIS IS MY, THIS IS MY, THIS IS MY, last exit" as the song comes to an abrupt close. Vedder's vocals are somewhat of an enigma here: most of the time they're especially restrained but when he lets loose it's an all-out assault. "Spin The Black Circle" was my favorite song by Pearl Jam for quite some time, with the lyrics relating to one of my favorite hobbies (record collecting). The guitars are punkish and frenzied, featuring a grooving heavy riff with the occasional 3 to 5 second shred-fest. Jeff Ament's bass lines are still as busy and groovy as ever, with his performance on "Spin The Black Circle" being one of his all-time best. But Vitalogy isn't all about the band's heavy side. In fact, it encompasses just about every musical influence the band had in them.
Vitalogy is Pearl Jam at their most experimental: short instrumental tracks, spoken-word samples, ambient guitar intros and even an accordion are littered throughout these 55 minutes, never spoiling the rest of the record nor overstaying their welcomes. The intros of the songs are perhaps the most varied parts of Vitalogy: "Satan's Bed" begins with the crack of a whip before it basically becomes an inverted version of "Last Exit" with a 4/4 verse and 5/4 chorus with the line that will be one of the first standout parts of the album: "ALREADY! IN LOVE! ALREADY! IN LOVE!". "Aye Davanita" and "Pry, To" are difficult to pin down. "Pry, To" bugged me for quite some time as I thought of it as just wasted potential: it's basically just 63 seconds of Vedder mumbling behind a pretty rocking guitar riff. But once I realized how easily it linked into the next track, definite standout "Corduroy" i grew to appreciate it more as what the band intended it to be: a transition. "Aye Davanita" contains some mantra-esque vocals humming over one of the most infectious drum tracks Abbruzzesse ever laid down with a fantastic fingerpicked guitar hook. I don't know why the song is so looked down upon: it's catchy, not too long (less than 3 minutes) and it's very relaxing and just plain fun to listen to. "Bugs" definitely falls under the grower category. Led by an accordion and Vedder's spoken vocals, this is definitely one of the stranger songs on Vitalogy. The lyrics are both hilarious and haunting, with a man lamenting his misfortune at being surrounded by bugs everywhere he goes. But the bugs are somewhat of a metaphor for inner anger and distrust of other people, and the song (after quite a few listens) will definitely become one of your favorites although you'll probably have no idea why. "Better Man" and "Corduroy" both begin with eerie, creeping fingerpicking and distortion that create a foggy atmosphere which totally blindsides you once you realize how bright both tracks are compared to the rest of the record. "Hey Foxymophandlemama, that's Me" is the album's only weak point containing odd loops, spoken-word samples and plenty of drum solos. This wouldn't be so bad, but the song's 8 minutes which just completely crumbles it. Pearl Jam did their experimentation with heart and technicality, and it definitely worked.
But most importantly, Vitalogy is just Pearl Jam writing the best songs they've ever shelled out. "Tremor Christ", "Corduroy", "Spin The Black Circle", "Nothingman", "Whipping", and "Better Man" are all some of the greatest songs the band has ever written, showing the ridiculous amount of styles and influences the band were able to use to their advantage, with their traditional punk-infused sound ("S.T.B.C., Whipping") slow, beauteous ballads ("Nothingman"), hard-rocking distorted riffs and Abbruzzesse's signature tom-led beats ("Tremor Christ") and the band's pop sensibilities in two of the biggest songs they ever wrote, "Better Man" and "Corduroy". "Better Man" is the depressing tale of an abusive relationship, with the victim lying to herself to try and keep herself happy and not let down her man who doesn't even give a sh*t about her. The dynamic changes about halfway through from a slow guitar-led ballad to a rock-and-roll anthem. Truly awesome. "Corduroy" once again takes advantage of the band's impeccable use of dynamics, utilizing an uplifting heavy hook ("the waiting drove me mad") to the slow acoustic choruses, containing some of Vedder's best lyrics to date ("I don't wanna take what you can't give/I would rather starve than eat your bread"). Vitalogy in my opinion is Pearl Jam's best effort to date, and a record that any self-respecting rock fan should check out.
Recommended tracks (Asterisk signifies best song on the album):
Spin The Black Circle