Sometimes depression sneaks out of the shadows when I least expect it, and sometimes it brings with it unpredictable compulsions, especially where music is concerned. This is the closest I can get to an explanation for the fact that, suddenly, in the middle of a period in which I was listening to nothing but Krautrock (related post hopefully forthcoming) and late 80s midwestern college rock (see "Adventureland" entry), I wanted to hear nothing but the second Pearl Jam album, "Vs." Digging through my crates and crates of unorganized cassettes is always a pain in the ass, but I hunted it up, and I've been playing it for the past two days to the exclusion of almost everything else.
"Vs." is a transitional album for Pearl Jam, released at a time (1993) when they were on top of the world and could do pretty much anything they wanted. The problem for them was that they weren't sure exactly what they wanted to do, a state of mind that is reflected on "Vs." In fact, my copy of the album appears to be self-titled, for exactly that reason. The album was originally due to be titled "Five Against One," but the band changed their mind on that title so close to the album's release date that, while it was possible to remove the title from the album's artwork, there wasn't time to get the new title, "Vs.", inserted into the artwork before the album's release. Therefore, the entire initial pressing of the album bears no title at all. Considering that it sold nearly a million copies in the first week of its release, I'm sure my title-less cassette copy isn't rare at all (and that, even if it were, it wouldn't be valuable, because it's a cassette), but it's still interesting to look at, and see that telltale sign of Pearl Jam's uncertainty as a band at this point in their career.
Where the sound of "Vs." is concerned, that uncertainty barely comes through at all. Despite the fact that there are obvious differences from song to song that point to a gradual evolution in their sound (differences we will discuss later), the whole thing still feels unified enough to hold together remarkably well. In fact, I'd say that "Vs." was the last Pearl Jam album with a consistent, unified feel until the release of their true self-titled album, 13 years later. The roots for all of Pearl Jam's various sonic offshoots are present on this album, but they're all still close enough together to fit well next to each other.
Pearl Jam's initial sound, the mix of postpunk alternative rock and 70s hard rock that was characterized as grunge, is also pretty well represented on this album. "Dissident" and "Daughter" are good balladic sequels to the first album's "Black" and "Jeremy," while uptempo rockers like "Go," "Animal," and "Glorified G" follow the template set by the first album's "Evenflow" and "Alive." These aren't the songs I'm interested in talking about, though. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy all of them; in fact, the song on the album that I come closest to disliking, "Rats," is still halfway decent. I just don't think that these songs represent the most interesting aspects of "Vs."
The song that's always meant the most to me on this album is "Rearviewmirror," a song that strips away a lot of the overtly grungy elements present on the album's other uptempo rockers and focuses on a driving but overall melodic sound. Although the album lists all songs as group compositions, references I've read online state that Eddie Vedder wrote the music for this song by himself, and that he plays guitar on it as well as singing. Learning this helped me to understand what makes this song so appealing for me. In 1993, I was getting pretty heavily involved in the underground hardcore scene, and was particularly into bands typically given the "emo" tag at the time, such as Fugazi and Rites Of Spring. From reading press about Pearl Jam at the time, I know that Eddie Vedder was also pretty into bands like Fugazi at that point, and so I can imagine that they had an influence on his songwriting. "Rearviewmirror" was the first of quite a few songs contained on the Pearl Jam albums of the 90s that sounded to me very similar to a lot of the more underground, hardcore-related bands I was listening to at the time. There was always a bit of a guilt trip coming from my hardcore friends when I would spend money on a new Pearl Jam album instead of buying another hardcore record or whatever, but I felt justified in doing so by those songs. "Brain Of JFK," from "Yield," is one that comes immediately to mind, as does "In My Tree," from "No Code," and both "Whipping" and "Corduroy" from "Vitalogy." Even "Light Years," from "Binaural," one of the only songs on an overall-mediocre Pearl Jam album, stuck with me precisely because I could imagine a band like Sunny Day Real Estate doing a very similar song.
"Rearviewmirror" begins with a catchy but understated verse. When Eddie starts singing, he sounds almost conversational. "I took a drive today," he sings, over music that sounds like the perfect accompaniment for driving. "Time to emancipate." Interesting choice of words here. "Emancipate" is a word that refers to gaining freedom, historically from slavery, but in a modern American context it's more often used to refer to a child being freed from the legal custody of their parents. In fall 1993, when "Vs." was released, I was 17 years old and beginning my first semester of college. While I wouldn't technically be an adult for three more months, it felt like I'd finally gained freedom from my parents, who had made living with them during my teenage years (and really, for most of my life) very hard. This is but one of many lyrical parallels between this song and my life at the time it was released. "I guess it was the beatings that made me wise," Eddie sings next. "But I'm not about to give thanks, or apologize." To this day, I feel like I learned some important life lessons at the hands of my parents, things that perhaps people with happy childhoods never learn. I'm glad I know these things but sometimes the burden of that knowledge feels crippling. Maybe that's what has been calling my mind back to this song recently; lately I've been feeling almost paralyzed by the potential negative repercussions of my actions. I don't want to explain any more than that. I'm glad I know what I know but I'm not thankful to my parents for those lessons because they hurt then and they hurt still. And I may sometimes regret being the person that I am but I'm not going to apologize, either.
When the song moves from the first verse into the pre-chorus, an element of tension is added to it that never quite dissipates. The driving bar chords played by Vedder and Stone Gossard's rhythm guitars are intensely propulsive, but the way they mix with Mike McCready's single-note lead, which adds a melody that's tinged with a wistful sadness, creates a feeling in the song as a whole of depression and self-doubt combined with an intense desire to break free of frustrating limitations. Over this chorus, as the music seems to push towards a moment of confrontation, Eddie sings, "I couldn't breathe. Holding me down. Hand on my face. Kissing the ground." The thoughts expressed in these lyrics are left incomplete, but it's easy enough for the listener to fill in this narrative of oppression, and to understand what's happening, even with chunks of phrasing obviously missing. The feeling of an inability to breathe, even a metaphorical one, the feeling of constant repression, is a familiar one. The next two lines are even more moving. "Enmity gauged, united by fear." I think fear might be one of the driving forces of my life, and my parents were the original inspirers of such feelings. "Forced to endure what I could not forgive." What is that line, if not a perfect description of family life?
I'm finding it hard to write about my feelings where this song is concerned. As I was typing the previous paragraph, I kept thinking, "What's the point? These people can look up the lyrics themselves. They don't need me to tell them what they mean." Nevertheless I will continue, as I think it's important to try to get across the way this music makes me feel, in order to make clear that it is important music. Even Pearl Jam's fans often seem dismissive of the deeper emotional content of their music, or at least that's how it often feels to me. I feel like people who look for that sort of thing in their music tend to dismiss Pearl Jam as music for jocks, and miss the fact that there is a lot of sincerity and real emotion packed into their songs, and that they have always tried their hardest to connect on a real level with anyone listening to their records. Maybe I'm projecting a bit, or assuming too much--that if I heard a sincere emotion in a record where most people didn't, it must be there, and they must all be missing it. I'm really not sure. But ultimately, I don't know that it matters. I know what I was able to gain from listening to these songs, and if the things I hear are there for me, they can be there for other people if those people are open to them.
Getting back to "Rearviewmirror" (which I now feel better writing about, so thanks for indulging me with that previous paragraph): there is no first chorus to the song, so after the first pre-chorus, the song moves right into its second verse. The tension from the first verse and pre-chorus remains embedded within it, but when Eddie sings the second verse, he returns to the more even, conversational tone he struck in the first verse. "I seemed to look away. Wounds in the mirror waved. It wasn't my surface most defiled." I'm not going to explain that. You know what it means. Besides, the second pre-chorus is what's really interesting here. The first two lines of it are completely different than they were the first time, and it's the second of those two lines that I find most interesting: "Fist on my plate. Swallowed it down." There's a powerful image here, but it's not one that makes that much linear sense. What does it mean that there was a fist on his plate, assumedly served to him as dinner? I'm not exactly sure, and my tendency is to take it overly literally and think about how hard it was to eat dinner with my family, how stressful my mother made it for me every time. I can imagine that everyone who hears it will have their own interpretation, but no matter what it meant to Eddie, I like the image a lot and I'm glad he used it.
The next two lines of the pre-chorus are very similar to the third and fourth lines in the first pre-chorus, but what's interesting are the small, almost unnoticeable, differences between them. When, on the first pre-chorus, Eddie sang, "United by fear," here he sings, "Divided by fear." And more importantly, on the final line, where he sang "Forced to endure what I could not forgive," now he sings, "Tried to endure what I could not forgive." It's an interesting contrast in that it points out how hard it can be to endure abuses of an emotional nature. Just because one is forced to endure them, in that one is not given an escape, that does not mean that one will succeed in enduring them. It's easy to break under the pressure of such things. It's not that surprising when people come out the other side of such abuses a mere shadow of their former selves. I hope I'm not dipping too far into the realm of cliche, but regardless I think it's the truth.
The emotional tension of the song as a whole has only further increased during the second verse and pre-chorus, and there's a break of sorts after the second pre-chorus, in which the beat drops out and the whole band vamps for a couple of measures, seemingly steeling itself for what is to come. When they finally launch themselves into the song's only chorus, it feels like the level of tension cannot be increased much further without some sort of explosion. Sure enough, that explosion comes on the chorus's final line. Eddie sings the ten-word chorus in such a way to stretch it out over four lines, his voice rising in pitch and intensity as he goes, repeating words as necessary in order to lay the last two words over the musical crescendo of the chorus's final line. "Saw things... clearer... once you were in my..." and here he fairly screams the song's title: "REARVIEW MIRROR!" This scream is at the top of his vocal register, and if I'm honest, it's slightly above the top of mine. I have a very clear memory, from the spring of 1994, driving back to my college after spending spring break at my parents' house, working through the stresses of the past week by playing "Vs." at top volume and singing along with the entire album. When Eddie screamed this song's title, I tried to scream along with him, and damn near blew my voice out completely. I can still remember how much it hurt my throat, but also that, in a fucked-up way, it felt good to hurt myself doing something like that.
There's one more verse in the song, and after the musical and emotional crescendo of the chorus, you might expect it to lose some intensity. It doesn't happen, though. It's less like a climactic moment and more like a moment that blows the song wide open, allowing it to carry on with the intensity of the chorus through the final verse, with all three guitarists slashing at their strings as drummer Dave Abbruzzese pounds away at his kit with a furious energy. "I gather speed from you fucking with me," Eddie sings. "And before long, I'm far away." That line always felt the best when I heard it as I was driving away from my parents' house. The song's last line is most interesting for its parallel with the song "Daughter," which comes earlier on the album and which ends with the line "The shades go down" repeated several times. The final line of "Rearviewmirror" is "Finally the shades are RAISED," with "raised" written in all capital letters on the lyric sheet. It's strange to say, but I actually never noticed this song's seeming link to "Daughter," a song about a child feeling unable to rise to the expectations of a parent, until this most recent return to this album. I guess maybe "Rearviewmirror" really is a response to the damage parents inflict on the psyche of children, and it's not just something I see in the song because of my own history. That's cool if it's true.
There are other interesting songs here that are worth talking about. "W.M.A.", which stands for "white male American," ends side one with a tribal sounding, drum-heavy workout that, when I was younger, was one of my least favorite songs on the album. I'm not sure what's changed for me this time around, but after listening to it several times through over the last couple of days, I've seen something really awesome about it. Its emphasis on percussion presages some of the songs on "No Code" and "Yield" that took advantage of the drumming talents of Jack Irons, who replaced Dave Abbruzzese when he left the band after "Vitalogy." While I certainly don't want to denigrate the talents of Matt Cameron, who joined for "Binaural" and has been with the band ever since, I sometimes wish Jack Irons hadn't felt the need to leave Pearl Jam (which he did in 1998 due to his dislike of Pearl Jam's intense touring schedule), as I found his contributions to Pearl Jam's sound interesting and unique. That said, "W.M.A." proves that Irons wasn't the only drummer they ever had who was capable of such percussion workouts.
Apparently "W.M.A." was written after a white cop hassled a black friend of Eddie's outside their recording studio but didn't give Eddie any trouble at all, despite the two of them being together at the time. Eddie's frustration with this incident comes through very well in the song, particularly on the song's choruses, where he screams "Police stopped my brother again!" over and over. Maybe it was this passion that I missed in the song before. While Eddie's vocals are quiet and lower in the mix on the early verses of the song, he fairly screams his lines on the choruses. The song is largely driven by percussion and bass guitar, with the lead and rhythm guitars mostly adding additional layered textures on top of the melody played by the bass and the intricate rhythm of the drumming. There are obviously multiple layers of percussion on this song, which doesn't make Abbruzzese's main beat any less impressive, as it is obviously complicated and tricky even on its own. However, the emotion of the song is increased by some of the percussive layers, particularly on the choruses, when a second drumkit, playing a simpler beat that emphasizes the snare hits, is tracked in overtop of the main drum rhythm. This second layer of pounding, especially on the 1s and 3s of this 4/4 beat, allows the song to gain a more driving, intense feel without in any way diminishing its rhythmic complexity.
"Blood," which begins side two, is often referred to as one of the funkier tracks on the album, but that's not at all what I see in it. Instead, I find myself focusing on its choruses, which again feature Eddie delivering an intense, screaming vocal. This is true of several other songs on the album, including both of the others I've discussed so far as well as at least one other that I will get to later. However, his screams on "Blood" are on a whole different level of intensity. This song's midtempo rhythms are played with a pounding intensity that reminds me more of hardcore than anything else, particularly a lot of the thrashy, midtempo bands I was listening to in the early 90s. I'm not saying that this is Pearl Jam's 108 moment or anything, particularly considering Mike McCready's wah-wah heavy lead guitar track on the song, but it comes about as close as they ever get to that sort of thing. Really, I think it just might be comparable to Rage Against the Machine, another band of the era that mixed funky accents into a thrashy, midtempo hardcore base. Eddie's vocals on the verses are sometimes rather understated, and certainly bear no resemblance to Zach De La Rocha's rapping cadence (and thank god for that), but still, the comparison to Tom Morello's guitar playing and De La Rocha's more intense choruses is obvious. To me, this song is the first (or maybe the second, if you count the first album's "Porch") indicator of the more straightforward hardcore direction that certain later songs of theirs (most notably "Spin The Black Circle") would take.
The last three songs on this album also interest me, all for different reasons. "Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town" jumped out at me as soon as I got this album. For one thing, it was the only song on the album with a title longer than one word (if you don't count "Glorified G," with its second word being one letter, or "Rearviewmirror," which had its second word combined with its first). For another, it was the album's only completely acoustic song (though "Daughter" was close). For a third, it was an acoustic ballad that didn't sound like previous examples of the form as dispensed by Pearl Jam and other grunge bands of the era. I feel like this song points the way forward to tracks like "Off He Goes" and "Red Mosquito," from "No Code," or "Wishlist," from "No Code." It's hard for me to point to the difference between this song and songs like "Daughter", the previous album's "Black," or, say, "Hunger Strike" by Temple of the Dog (which wasn't even acoustic, but bear with me here). The song's lyrics tell a heartbreaking story from the point of view of someone who has always taken the path of least resistance and made the easy choices in her life, and now looks back and feels that she's lost out on all of the opportunities she's ever had. The thing that seemingly brings this home to her is a visit from a former companion, one who presumably made a different choice. I think, when I was a teenager, that I keyed into the emotion of this song without completely understanding what the lyrics meant. That wistful, lonely feeling that the song exudes is one I've always been able to understand. Now that I'm older, though, I look at my own life and wonder if I've ever truly challenged myself. I struggle year after year to focus on being a creative person, on making music and writing various things, and I never really feel like I get much of anywhere. But is that my fault? Am I too scared to risk taken the paths that might offer resistance? And is it too late for me to change? I'm only 33 but it's hard not to see myself as too old, as having squandered opportunities that I can never get back. I think I understand this song a lot more now than I did back then.
The album ends with "Indifference," a dark, quiet song that is another I never liked that much until this recent return to "Vs." The mix of quiet lead guitar lines with more prominent organ and softly tapped percussion and cymbals provide the perfect emotional tone to back Eddie's somewhat resigned lyrics. In them, he juxtaposes expressions of his own passion with the repeated question, "How much difference does it make?" "I will scream my lungs out until it fills this room," he sings at one point, and at another, "I will stand arms outstreched, pretend I'm free to roam. I will make my way through one more day in hell." For me, the personal revolution is the only one that makes sense anymore. When I was younger, I thought that I could get involved in the kind of radical political activism (a fancy word that just means "work") that involves protesting, carrying signs, and other, sometimes more dangerous, forms of "direct action." I no longer believe in such things. I'm willing to knock on people's doors and ask them to vote for Barack Obama, because I really do think he was a better candidate for president than John McCain. I'm glad my state's electoral votes went in his favor, but now that he's president, I'm not all that surprised that he's not doing everything the way I'd hoped he would. I don't expect perfection, and I don't believe that it's possible to even attain something that's somewhere in the neighborhood of perfection. If things can be made slightly better, then I figure that's about the best I can hope for. Where I'm trying to make things better in my life is on a personal level, and maybe on a social level, with the people in my immediate vicinity on a day to day basis. But even that feels somewhat pointless, not to mention presumptuous to even consider attempting to change the ways other people think and act. As if I know any better than they do what should be done in any given situation. Really, I just want to make my own life better, to make it something I can enjoy rather than just endure. I'm not too sure how to do that, and I'm not sure that anything I try can make a difference. But if nothing else, at least I'll know I tried. At least I gave it a shot.
"Indifference" may be the final track on "Vs.", but I think the song that comes immediately before it is the real climax of the album. "Leash" is a song that dates from Pearl Jam's earliest shows, and I'm not sure why they didn't include it on "Ten," but I'm glad they didn't, because I think it fits much better on "Vs." There are elements in the rhythm guitar parts of the same emocore influence that show up on "Rearviewmirror," though it's far less emphasized on "Leash," a song with a very traditionally grunge-sounding lead guitar from Mike McCready. Eddie's lyrics are simple, especially on the verses. "Troubled souls unite. We've got ourselves tonight" are the two lines that constitute the entire first verse, but although they are simple, there's a powerful message there, especially when combined with the first pre-chorus: "I am fuel, I am friends. We've got the means to make amends. I'm lost, I'm no guide--but I am by your side. I am right by your side." This song is written in such a way as to come across like a hand held out, in spirit if not in fact, to all the troubled kids out there who picked up this album. I can remember this meaning a lot to me at age 17.
The second verse appears to focus the song's message more specifically. "Young lover I stand. It was their idea, but I proved to be a man." This could mean pretty much anything, but on the lyric sheet, a line Eddie ultimately chose not to sing gives a further hint: "Told me to get her pregnant." Is this a pro-choice song? That would certainly make sense, considering how vocal Eddie has been in support of that particular cause over the years, but it's never fully explained. That's OK, though; there's ultimately a beneficial effect in keeping this song general rather than specific, in allowing for as many people as possible to see themselves in its lyrics. The second pre-chorus furthers that possibility, as Eddie sings, "I will myself to find a home, a home within myself." This metaphorical declaration of independence feeds right into the song's chorus. The pre-chorus ends with Eddie singing, "We will find our way. We will find our place." As the pre-chorus transitions into the chorus, backing vocals from the rest of the band sing, "Drop the leash," as Eddie screams, "Get out of my fucking face!" And this, right here, is the moment it feels like the entire album has been building up to. As McCready eschews a lead guitar line to play the rising, euphoric-sounding rhythm guitar chords in unison with Gossard, Eddie's repeated screams of "Get out of my fucking face!" sound so incredibly life-affirming that they seem to belie the confrontational aggression of the words themselves. This might not have made sense to my parents if they heard it at the time, but this song was never for my parents, or anyone else's. The point that must be understood in order to get why that particular confrontational-sounding phrase comes across as a positive anthem, a celebratory manifesto, is because it's not that Eddie Vedder is screaming this phrase AT you, the listener--he's screaming it WITH you. I'm sure I was far from the only 17 year old, at the time and since then, who has felt the need for affirmation from people I looked up to, musicians and otherwise, in my own personal declaration of independence. "Leash" presents itself as an anthem and a full-on youth manifesto for all of Pearl Jam's teenage fans, in much the same way that Rage Against The Machine's "Killing In The Name" did when it was released around the same time. However, "Leash" isn't focused in a political manner, and it's not a statement of rebellion, per se, although I guess it sort of is, at that. What it's really about is not whether or not we, the youth, do what anyone tells us to do or not; it's about the fact that we have the choice. Our future is in our hands, and we are the only ones who can decide what we want to do with it.
The fact that Pearl Jam chose not to end the album with this youth manifesto, that they chose to juxtapose "Leash" with "Indifference," and to wonder whether there was anything to be gained from expressing our freedom, is something that makes sense to me now, to a far greater extent than it did when I was a teenager. Having said that, though, I still prefer to walk away from this album with "Leash" being the song, the message, that sticks with me. Having left my 20s behind years ago, it's hard for me to feel young anymore, but still, Eddie's exhortation, cried out over the final guitar solo in "Leash," to "delight in your youth," still rings true to me now. Regardless of how much time I might have left in my life, and regardless of how old I am and how much older I'm going to get, it's still worth it to try to get the most I can out of it. That's a tough thing to do at the best of times, and a lot of times it's easier for me to see myself as an unthinking drone who passively goes to work, comes home, eats, watches TV, pays bills and goes to bed having done nothing of consequence. However, I will continue to fight against that impulse, regardless of how much difference it ultimately makes. I'll keep trying to make something of my life until there's no life left for me. I don't always know how to do that, but what else is there? Pearl Jam - "Rearviewmirror" and "Leash"