1994. Grunge is dying a slow whimpering death after the suicide of its fateful leader. With Kurt Cobain's dramatic exit from this plane of existence, the sound that was supposed to lead the revolution in rock and roll instead ended up leaving a bad taste in your mouth. Many disillusioned Nirvana fans were left to pick up the pieces, and Courtney Love was left with a ton of unreleased material and a sudden spotlight from which to launch her new career. Yet Nirvana alone was not the Seattle music scene, as the media would have you believe. Pearl Jam launched its music career with the classic Ten, forever securing their place in rock and roll legend, but the fact that they were from Seattle was only incidental. In fact the lead singer, Eddie Vedder, is a surfer from San Diego. So much for image. No, this music was timeless, and with the release of Vitalogy Pearl Jam proved that the voice of rock lived on, and there was no way in hell they were gonna let something as limiting as a 'scene' stop them.
Vitalogy is something new and exciting before you even put the CD into the player. The title Vitalogy comes from a turn-of-the-century book, titled after a coined word denoting the study of life. It is filled with images from the book itself, photography from bassist Jeff Ament, and a scattering of bizarre images and words that seem right at home next to the material from the century old tome. Slip the CD out of its paper sleeve, encased in a book as it were, and hold on.
under your tongue, i'm like a tab
i will give you what - you're not s'posed to have1
That isn't to say that Pearl Jam wasn't affected by the death of Cobain. The man cast quite a shadow, and they had to live with the fact that Cobain deemed them a grunge city ripoff, in a case where, if you know the whole story the pot is calling the kettle black. Ironically, the album opens up with a track titled Last Exit, which seems to be a story of either suicide, escape or giving up. The stage is set for an album rife with anger, disillusionment, and blistering guitar riffs. Honestly, if this is supposed to be what giving up is, then I have no grasp of the concept of apathy. Through it all the album is seething with an intense energy.
Rather than give you a breather after the hard rocking Last Exit, Spin the Black Circle just punches it up even more, with a guitar riff that seems more punk than grunge. Some have surmised that this song is about heroin or some such nonsense. OK, the mistake is understandable with lyrics like, "see this needle, a see my hand - drop, drop, dropping it down, oh so gently," but we're talking about the needle on a record player here. Vitalogy was released on vinyl a week before it was released to CD and tape. On one page, a sticker asserts, "A CD is like bad acid: Not for production or consumption."
pull it out - a paper sleeve
oh, my joy - only you deserve conceit2
No one said rock couldn't be self-absorbed, and Not For You is not the only track on the album to espouse the views of Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder about fame, politics, selling out - and since this is rock they don't have to say it in the kindest manner, more power to them.
this is not for you
oh, never was for you - fuck you3
Eddie Vedder's influence on this album is pronounced, especially in the song-writing. Being that he is not a dedicated guitarist, some of the songs are rather simplistic in their arrangement. The verse to Tremor Christ is just two driving alternating chords - the interesting addition being the high open E string that resonates in time to the muting of the two chords. The lyrics also, are a sample of Vedder's poetic voice. The song is all in all rather hopeless, giving you only the possibility of redemption in defeat.
turns the bow back, tows and - drops the line
puts his faith in love and tremor christ4
Let it not be said that Vitalogy isn't varied. The first radio ballad of the album is the haunting Nothingman. Written by Jeff Ament, the song is the story of Everyman, and the tragedy that is his life. Part of the power of Vedder's lyrics is their ability to connect with the listener, infecting their head to make them think that his words are their own thoughts.
walks on his own - with thoughts he can't help thinking
future's above - but in the past he's slow and sinking
caught a bolt of lightnin - curse the day he let it go
To continue the album's intermittent 'fuck you' to the man comes the daunting force of Whipping. The riff is unforgiving, all the while interlaced with McCready's scathing guitar work. Check out the lyrics - they tell the whole story. An interesting side note: The lyrics in the book are written up on a signature sheet addressed to Bill Clinton demanding federal intervention in the issue of abortion-doctor slayings.
Up next is one of the three strange and experimental songs on the album. Vedder is often criticized for his angsty whine about the pressure of fame (Eddie speaks for the whole band by the way - he just happens to be the front man). Pry, to, then, is Vedder saying 'kiss our asses' in his own special way. The entire lyrics of the song are just a chant of "P - R - I - V - A - C - Y is priceless to me". As this is a thoroughly well formed and produced album, this leads perfectly into Pearl Jam's disgust with popular culture in general and its tendency to resolve the world into one-dimensional units of marketable crap. Corduroy is titled after Vedder's old brown jacket that he purchased used for 12 bucks only to see it remade, thrown on a model fashioned to look 'grunge', and sold for $650. Many dream of the glamour of fame, but be careful what you wish for.
The waiting drove me mad - you're finally here and I'm a mess
I take your riches back - can't let you roam inside my head
I don't want to take what you can give
I would rather starve than eat your bread
I would rather run but I can't walk
Guess I'll lie alone just like before8
Bugs is the second experimental track on the album. The only music besides percussion is the sole repeated melody played by Vedder on an accordion. His rant on the 'bugs' that fill his head and his room seems like the voice of insanity or prolonged drug use. Interesting nonetheless, but it's definitely not pleasing to the ear.
As a music lover, I have been involved in the argument about 'selling out' so much that I cringe when I hear anyone bring it up nowadays. That being the case, I can't muster the interest to discuss whether Pearl Jam has sold out or not. Whatever the case may be, Satan's Bed is Pearl Jam's take on not selling out, with popular culture bearing the lovely personification of that grand old baddy, Satan himself. "I'd never suck Satan's dick!" Oh? You don't say, Eddie. "Again you'd see it, you know, right 'round the lips." Ahh, the very opposite of a euphemism.
who made, who made up, made up the myth
that we were born to be covered in bliss?
who set the standard, born to be rich?
such fine examples, skinny little bitch
model, role model, roll some models in blood
get some flesh to stick, so they look like us
i shit and i stink, i'm real, join the club
i'd stop and talk, but i'm already in love10
Don't be scared off just yet. We have one more radio ballad left, and it's one of Pearl Jam's top selling singles of all time, Vedder's own, musically and lyrically, Better Man. Considering the nature of the rest of the songs on the album, the story of a young woman caught in a relationship with a man she doesn't love can catch you by surprise. Heavy distortion with a piercing echo greet you at the intro and then is softened by a lyrical guitar melody that is soon accompanied with an uncharacteristically mellow Vedder. An organ serves as a refreshing addition to round out the track.
waitin', watchin' the clock, it's four o'clock, it's got to stop
tell him, take no more, she practices her speech
as he opens the door, she rolls over
pretends to sleep as he looks her over
she lies and says she's in love with him, can't find a better man
she dreams in color, she dreams in red, can't find a better man11
As I'm concurrently listening to the album as I write this, I can't help but laugh as the next track comes on. The track is an instrumental, at first the only words associated with it are the title, Aye Davanita. In the book the title is accompanied by 'The Song Without Words' but there just happens to be a full poem written below it, and it seems to be related to, or a continuation of, Better Man. If anyone could message me with the meaning of Davanita, be it a foreign word or whatever, I'd greatly appreciate it.
She laid alone
during her best days
as a work of art
raeding(sic) naked on the bed
spent some of her best days
cleaning carpet f__m her hair
spent her worst days
owing you the pleasure
of taking blame...
spent her whole life
disbelieving in her worst fears.
A work of art...
A work of art.
This is just one author's opinion, but I think that Immortality is specifically about Kurt Cobain. It's a rather dark piece about escape through death, thereby gaining immortality. I can do no better than the lyrics themselves, so I won't try.
a truant finds home - and a wish to hold on to...
he saw the trapdoor in the sun
truants move on - cannot stay long
some die just to live13
If Bugs didn't scare you away and you've made it this far, then Hey Foxymophandlemama That's Me (aka Stupid Mop) is your final test, and the third experimental on the album. The 'song' is comprised of ethereal guitar sounds and distortions combined with actual dialogue from a psychology educational video about schizophrenia from the 70's or 80's in which an old schizophrenic woman rants about her stupid mop. Though the song epitomizes chaos at times, there is a definite underlying story that is this woman's life, including sexual abuse as a child, obsessive compulsive behaviour, masochism and fantasies about suicide.
The last poem in the book isn't any more upbeat, but it is considerably more poetic.
I waited all day.
you waited all day..
but you left before sunset..
and I just wanted to tell you
the moment was beautiful.
Just wanted to dance to bad music
drive bad cars..
watch bad TV..
should have stayed for the sunset...
if not for me.
And to end with a slight c&p only to most likely get myself downvoted... Well, this little snippet of an interview with Eddie Vedder regarding Vitalogy is wholly relevant and I thought it fitting to end with words from the artist and frontman himself after I've been so long-winded.
"Obviously, it's the first time that's happened to you, the sense of having no control. When something gets that big and co-opted, people start making fun of it. I remember wanting to have a sense of humor, but where we were coming from wasn't funny. Liz Smith dressing in grunge wear in Vanity Fair - that wasn't funny. Or the K-mart supplements in the Sunday paper with grunge wear for kids. Actually, that was kind of funny. We put our heads down and got through that period simply by being devoted to what we feel comfortable doing, which is making records and playing live, not some of the peripheral stuff, like being on people's TV sets. Looking back, it seems like it shouldn't have been as hard as it was. If this was Behind The Music, they'd try to glorify that period and make it seem worse than it was, or make it seem like we were all ticking time bombs... To be honest, it was a difficult time, and we were young men who wanted to do the right thing and preserve our dream, which was to be in a band and make music."
- Last Exit
- Spin the Black Circle
- Not For You
- Tremor Christ
- Pry, To
- Satan's Bed
- Better Man
- Aye Davanita
- Hey Foxymophandlemama That's Me