Twenty years ago, before it became mostly an exercise in nostalgia, an argument stemming from the simple question “Nirvana or Pearl Jam?”, was worth having, even though by this time in 1994, Kurt Cobain was dead and Nirvana was effectively finished. In fact, the argument was more timely than ever before as 1994 drew to a close, because at this point two decades ago, we had a brand new album from each band.
On November 1, 1994, Nirvana released its MTV Unplugged show, originally recorded just under a year prior. A few weeks later, on November 22, Pearl Jam released Vitalogy on vinyl, followed by a CD release in early December. Both albums were major releases. Both were, and remain, critical successes. Both eventually sold millions of copies. Both are, for lack of a better term, grunge records. And both were close to never existing at all.
But beyond that old, subjective question about which band or which album is better, perhaps now we can ask ourselves a different one: Which of these two albums was more important? Which one spoke to the time in which it existed? And which album can tell us more, as a historic artifact, about the early 1990s?
The answer to all three is Vitalogy.
Let’s get something out of the way immediately. Vitalogy is no classic in the conventional sense – not the way Unplugged is. People don’t have Vitalogy in their old boxes of CDs, but there’s a good chance they held on to Unplugged. And yet just as Unplugged showed Nirvana fans a new side to the band, what with the downbeat melodies and obscure Meat Puppets covers, Vitalogy effectively accomplished the same for Pearl Jam fans. Still, it’s not generally remembered that way.
Instead, Vitalogy is remembered (when it is at all) as a mostly inaccessible oddity. Though it contains some of the band’s classic works (“Spin the Black Circle”, “Nothingman”, “Corduroy” or “Betterman”), some of the tracks between them are downright bizarre – certainly for a band at the height of its commercial rock fame. “Bugs”, for example, is an accordion-driven, swivel-eyed rant about insect intentions. The final cut of the album, “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me”, is almost eight minutes of bizarre recordings of, so the story goes, patients at a mental institution. The album art is equally odd. It includes, for instance, an X-ray of Vedder’s teeth. Its exterior is also strange. Vitalogy’s spine runs the long side of a conventional CD case, so it stands awkwardly on a shelf. Even the title is obscure: apparently lifted from an old second-hand quasi-medical journal Eddie Vedder found.
It’s a little out there, in other words.
On the other hand, despite being an outlier in the Nirvana cannon, Unplugged is an easier listen. There are some truly wonderful moments on that album – perhaps some of Nirvana’s best ever. It also benefitted from being a posthumous release, for both the band and Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide the previous April. While at moments it appeared as though Pearl Jam would come to an end before Vitalogy was finished due to internal band issues, likely there would have always been a third Pearl Jam album. Unplugged – with a set decorated, as Cobain requested, like a funeral – was never initially going to be released. Only after Cobain’s real funeral did it emerge.
To the end, Cobain’s public persona was largely that of the reluctant rock star. “I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me,” he wrote in his suicide note. “The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun.” Unplugged helped stamp this image into popular culture forever. It featured few of the band’s major hits, eschewed in favour of rare covers and lesser known Nirvana songs. In marking the 20 years since Cobain’s death, LIFE magazine repeated the tale of Cobain saying he would have preferred to simply be a backup member of Courtney Love’s band, Hole, than continue as the lead of Nirvana. “That’s a unique admission,” LIFE Books’ managing editor, Bob Sullivan, wrote.
It wasn’t, really. Cobain’s attitude about the mainstream music business was – conceptually, anyway – shared by a number of people in what became known as the grunge scene. It was part of the ethos, part of the reason disaffected young guys and girls gravitated to Seattle in the first place. Seattle was an undisturbed getaway in a far-off corner of the U.S., and had nurtured a lively underground rock scene for nearly a decade before anybody noticed. Like anything else, the scene was eventually co-opted and monetized – eventually becoming the mainstream – but for a time, when Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Mother Love Bone*, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, and others began (or even earlier, when their previous incarnations – like Green River – started), it was still a separate entity in the music world. Alternative, is what they called it.
Grounding in that alternative culture was part of what motivated Cobain to remain somewhat aloof (not to mention his own personal issues). The ‘alternative’ culture was also part of what motivated Pearl Jam to fight the Ticketmaster behemoth over ticket surcharges in the early ‘90s – a rejection of mainstream, big business rock ‘n roll. A rejection, in the end, of the very thing they were very quickly becoming a part of. In hindsight (or perhaps even at the time), it’s easily dismissed as naive, hypocritical or even quaint, but the sub-pop (and even Sub Pop) mentality was genuine at the time.
“Betterman”, Vitalogy’s biggest commercial hit, for example, was never supposed to be on the album. The band’s producer knew it was a hit when he first heard it – when Pearl Jam recorded it for Vs., their second album. But Eddie Vedder didn’t want it on either record. Instead, the band wanted to release the song on a Greenpeace benefit album. Vedder didn’t want to release a pop song.
This is where Vitalogy’s importance starts to emerge. By this point in Pearl Jam’s career, the band had released two major records. Ten – an album replete with pop hits – catapulted them into superstardom, and Vs., their follow-up, stood for a time as one of the best first-week releases of all time – 1.3 million units. (For perspective, that’s about the same as Taylor Swift’s 1989 did this year.) So, they were undoubtedly famous. And yet, whereas it was always asked of Cobain how much he really wanted the fame he gained, it was asked less of Pearl Jam. Perhaps it should have been.
One day, Pearl Jam drummer Dave Abbruzzese thought guitarist Stone Gossard wanted to speak to him about the band working with famed U2 producer Daniel Lanois. “I was thinking, man, we should work with somebody who'll take this band somewhere and let us be magical rather than go drag our feet and just poop out some records,” he told Spin magazine in 2001. Instead, he was fired from the band. Tim Bierman, the head of the Pearl Jam’s fan club, Ten Club, remembered the day manager Kelly Curtis told them Vs. had sold over a million copies in its first week: “Instead of high fives, it was hung heads.”
It is possible to attain fame and not enjoy it.
"You look at it objectively and you think, 'What could be so fucking hard about being in a band?'” Vedder said in 2009, thinking back on his and Cobain’s trajectories. “But if you're coming from a place that's real, it's much harder."
So, the question in that case, once you’ve achieved the fame you don’t enjoy, is what to do next?
As your band breaks down and the tour for your million-selling sophomore record stretches on, you make Vitalogy.
Vitalogy executes the left turn off the road to superstardom Nirvana never got the chance to make; it’s the escape hatch Pearl Jam opened in order to not become U2. And they didn’t.** By the sounds of it, had Vedder got his way, Vitalogy might have been an even greater diversion than it already is. “Betterman”’s eventual inclusion is a testament to that. It is the one true pop hit, forcibly injected for sales revenue, as outside the door, the grunge scene finalized its transition to mainstream runway fashion.
“Ed was trying to break up our formula from early on; he immediately realized that getting bigger wasn’t necessarily going to make any of us any happier,” Gossard told Spin. Would Cobain have agreed? Judging by Unplugged, one expects so.
And yet, while that MTV performance still serves fans and popular culture as the funeral Cobain intended it to be, it feels limited. What we mourn with Unplugged is Cobain or Nirvana, rather than grunge itself, or the energy of the alternative wave. Vitalogy, on the other hand, while not a funeral, is like a postmortem. It’s an examination from survivors. Vitalogy is the story of what happened to grunge, to Seattle, to Cobain, to Vedder, to them all.
*Mother Love Bone was one of the first Seattle bands to start making waves, fronted by enigmatic frontman Andrew Wood (Screaming Trees would probably be the other). They’d recorded an EP in 1989, and were set to release a debut album, Apple, in 1990. Wood died of a heroin overdose before it was released, and two members of the band, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, would go on to form Pearl Jam. The band, and Apple, did get good reviews, however.
**The next time Pearl Jam had a major chart climber wasn’t until 1999 when “Last Kiss” emerged, which was, perhaps fittingly, a song the band did for a benefit album. Between Vitalogy and “Last Kiss”, Pearl Jam gave us three difficult records – No Code, Yield, and Binaural – all of which emerged as the 90s rock scene morphed from grunge to pop-grunge to pop-rock to pop, and which didn’t really recover until 2001 when the Strokes released Is This It, a full decade after Nevermind and Ten were born.