The One After: Pearl Jam’s ‘Vs.’

featured / News / Special Features / March 10, 2017

The One After is a new feature that will see Modern Vinyl writers taking on the album AFTER the peak. In other words, what did a band do to follow up their greatest record? How do you follow up “Blonde On Blonde?” What about “London Calling?” Did the artist build off their success, recoil from it, or land somewhere in between?

Here’s a possibly unpopular opinion: Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut, Ten, is the more important album, but 1993’s sophomore follow-up, Vs., is the better one. Ten spawned three hit singles in “Jeremy,” “Alive,” and “Even Flow,” and in the over 25 years since its release, has become absolutely iconic. The number of reissues alone ought to point to how revered it’s become in the canon of the ‘90s alternative rock explosion; four different versions came out in 2009, with more represses and reissues in 2014. The Discogs page for the album will make your eyes bug out.

However, the actual music is essentially a transition point between Mother Love Bone and what Pearl Jam would eventually become. Given the tragic end of Mother Love Bone’s singer, Andrew Wood, one can only imagine how guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament felt afterwards. In the wake of Wood’s death, there’s the record the pair made with Soundgarden’s drummer Matt Cameron and singer Chris Cornell, along with vocalist Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready, titled Temple of the Dog, which one would think is the transitional work. Given it was a collaboration, though, based more on the words written by Cornell, it does sound more like a Mother Love Bone and Soundgarden record than proto-Pearl Jam. I mean, when it got a wider 1992 re-release in the wake of Ten’s success, it’s still the sort of thing which I thought was a new Pearl Jam song for a couple of weeks whenever I’d hear it on the radio, but in retrospect, that’s more to do with Vedder’s voice than anything else.

But, Ten: it was on the Billboard charts for 256 weeks. It actually did so well in 1993, it outsold Vs., the album which was released that year. Its songs still get played on alternative rock stations, despite being older than the classic rock songs which were playing on the radio when it was released — but that’s another story, really. The fact of the matter is, Ten was such big a deal, so epic in its influence that it managed to get another record reissued on its strengths, and continually outsold its successor at the exact same time.

How do you top a record like that? Well, you can’t, sales-wise. But, like I said at the beginning — Vs. is a better album. One only needs to listen to “Go,” the song that kicks off the record, in order to hear exactly what the transition between the “Stone and Jeff get Eddie and Mike to help them record some songs” vibe of Ten was and the full-band sound of the sophomore record that followed. 

Whereas Ten was kind of loose in its execution — with the connection between one half of the band and the other somewhat tenuous — after a solid year on the road, Pearl Jam was a tight, well-oiled rock ‘n’ roll machine. So, when they entered the studio with Brendan O’Brien in early 1993, they set up in-studio much the same way they played live, and you can just hear the sonic cohesion between the band members. Stone Gossard and Mike McCready play off one another, as well as Jeff Ament, rather than just taking turns playing parts. That interplay is most apparent on non-single “Rearviewmirror,” where the trio really came into connection for a metronomic rocker that should’ve been a single.

Ironically, despite the fact the rest of the band seemed to be happiest at the choice of recording location, Vedder was evidently miserable in the cheery location. Unsurprisingly, the lyrics on Vs. are darker than those on Ten. Granted, you have Ten songs like “Jeremy,” talking about school shootings, but the topics focused upon for Vs. are really, sincerely deepened: gun culture, racism by the police, and child abuse are but three of the tackled subjects.

The acoustic numbers, like “Daughter” or “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” tell stories about people left behind or ignored, and still resonate strongly. When viewed in this context, it’s unsurprising to learn that the Vitalogy cut, “Better Man,” was actually rejected for inclusion on Vs. Given its similarities to the likes of “Daughter” or “Elderly Woman …,” it makes sense that it was left off to be reworked for a later date.

Hell, even the rockers manage to evoke a sense of loss. One of the more choice deep cuts on Vs., “Rearviewmirror,” is catchy as hell, and ranks among the better songs to crank loud as you accelerate down the highway, but the lyrics are all about leaving town — and someone — behind. It’s accessible, but bleak — which is kind of a grand summation of Vs. as a whole, really.

Vedder also manages to evoke snarling punk hatred upon the media with “Blood,” whose opening — “Spin me round/ roll me over fuckin’ circus” — evoke true fury for the first time in the band’s catalog. It’s not a sound they’d often return to, but it’s a welcome moment, ready to be counterbalanced by the rather more commercial “Rearviewmirror.”

Pearl Jam followed up their smash debut by recording an album that was tighter sonically, more lyrically cohesive, and in general, the sort of thing that sounds like it was recorded by a band — not just a collection of musicians in a room who’d only been together for a little bit. Granted, the trade-off is that there are fewer songs of rather more universal themes — after opening track, “Go,” the album never really returns to the anthemic nature of something like “Even Flow,” in favor of more specific writings.

That specificity may have made Vs. a less commercially successful album, but it’s by no means a slouch. Out of the gate, it nearly went platinum, which is far faster than its predecessor. It also stuck at number one on the Billboard charts for five weeks, which is the longest any of the band’s albums would ever occupy that position. It might not be the historically significant signpost that is Ten, but I’d rather rock ‘n’ roll than be a slave to status any day.

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Nick Spacek
Nick Spacek was once a punk, but realized you can’t be hardcore and use the word “adorable” as often as he does. Nick is a self-described “rock star journalist,” which is strange, considering he’s married with four cats and usually goes to bed by 9. This is just further proof that you can’t trust anyone online.

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