Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time – #492: Pearl Jam – Vitalogy (1994)

After their first two albums shot them into the stratosphere, Ed, Mike, and crew begin their descent into doing what they want to do – and it suits them incredibly well.  There have been solid albums on this list so far (#500-493), but this is the first I am truly passionate about.

PJ Vital

***Disclaimer: Attentive readers of this site (is that a thing?) will recall I wrote about Vitalogy as one of my “classic albums” last year before starting in on this RS Top 500 project…I am going to steal liberally from that post for this one.***

Nirvana may have been all the rage in early 1994, but Seattle’s other heavy hitters (and yes, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, we see you too) released their third LP just weeks after Nirvana’s unplugged swansong was released.  While Ten gets most of the notoriety and acclaim, this is the finest front-to-back set of songs they’ve released – and that is high praise for a band that I still consider to be America’s finest rock band going.

The first three tracks start the festivities off with a bang.  Matt Cameron’s steady yet frantic drumming is coupled with legendary guitar riffs from Stone and Mike on “Last Exit”, “Spin the Black Circle”, and “Not For You”.  Here we have Pearl Jam at their finest, showing off their unique ability to make rock and roll that can start a mosh pit and also make your Mom smile.  There has never been a finer homage to vinyl records than “Spin…”, which features the classic line “pull it out, paper sleeve, all my joy, only you deserve conceit… I’d rather you, rather you than her”.

Things get a little funkier on “Tremor Christ”, which paints a vivid picture of an injured and lovesick castaway over yet another genius guitar riff that reminds me of distorted power chord reggae- with Mr. Cameron again steering the song along.  His drumbeat and rat-tat-tat playing here carry the day.  Always remember, the smallest oceans do still get big, big waves…

“Once divided, nothing left to subtract; some words once spoken, can’t be taken back”.  So starts the mellow but heavy ballad “Nothingman”.  There is not an ounce of insincerity when Ed tells of a man who “caught a bolt of lightning, and cursed the day he let it go”.  That metaphor of woman as lightning bolt would be revisited on the band’s aptly titled tenth LP Lightning Bolt.

The next two tracks are the closest to filler as is found here.  “Whipping” kicks some serious ass although it does feel more like a demo than a fully fleshed out song.  Yet, it rocks as much as anything else on the album, and features some solid wordplay from Mr. Vedder, including “don’t need a helmet, I got a hard hard head; don’t need a raincoat I’m already wet… don’t need a hand, there’s always arms attached”.  “Pry, To” is basically an interlude – not bad, but not additive.

The instantly recognizable arpeggio of “Corduroy” is next, and by the time the drums come crashing in, it is obvious that this track is a classic.  This is one of the band’s favorites to perform live, and it is not hard to hear why.  When the band gets to come back in after the brief restraint found at around the three-minute mark, it allows for a sweet release during a performance.  Also, if this isn’t a truly Vedder lyric, I don’t know what is: “All the things that others want for me, can’t buy what I want because it’s free”.

The quirky genius of “Bugs” is next, with some goofy accordion and lyrical rambling that belie an interesting and clever anecdote of a man confronted with an insect invasion.  Should he kill them, befriend them, eat them (raw or well done?), trick them (he doesn’t think they’re dumb), or simply join them?  Looks like that’s the one.  Sounds of a whip cracking kick off the raucous shout-along stylings of “Satan’s Bed”, which finds Ed asserting that he has indeed never slept in Satan’s bed.

Based on crowd reactions during their live shows, “Better Man” has got to be the most mainstream song of Pearl Jam’s canon.  As much as this makes me want to hate on it (that’s just who I am, people), I simply can’t.  This is an absolutely beautifully written song from both a lyrical and musical standpoint, and will stand the test of time.  This is poignant and visceral songwriting; and subject matter that many people can relate to.  Feeling torn between unrelenting unhappiness and the uncertainty of what else could be out there – or even worse, the certainty that nothing better is out there.  Yearning, regret, anger, and sadness are all found here over music that rocks just enough but holds onto a vulnerability and makes for one hell of a live performance.

After another track that feels like an interlude or glorified demo, “Aya Davanita”, we get to my favorite song from the record: “Immortality”.  This has that pure sad Pearl Jam sound, and yet more of that vivid and sharp songwriting: vessels stabbed, whiskers in the sink, victims in demand for public show.  The guitar work that beings at the 2:15 is incredible, as is the verse that follows.  If you are not familiar with this song, drop what you are doing, put it on, and turn it all the way up.  Feel free to stop the record here, as “Stupidmop” closing out this classic recording has never made any sense to me.  Why tarnish a beautiful album with seven minutes of strange spoken word nonsense over noise?  Even with this one bizarre blunder, this album is one of my favorites and definitely worth repeated listens.

Worthy Tracks: “Last Exit”, “Spin the Black Circle”, “Not For You”, “Tremor Christ”, “Nothingman”, “Whipping”, “Corduroy”, “Bugs”, “Satan’s Bed”, “Better Man”, “Immortality”

Final Verdict: This is America’s Greatest Rock Band™ at their very best, so Hell yes it belongs – but it should be ranked much, much higher.

Spotify album link: https://open.spotify.com/album/5pd9B3KQWKshHw4lnsSLNy?si=PbZ-ruP8RiCZ_IXRjhDK0Q