Our Take: Thirty Years of Pearl Jam’s ‘Vs.’

Pearl Jam's 'Vs.' © Lance Merner
Pearl Jam's 'Vs.' © Lance Merner

Audrey's Take

9 Music Quality
8 Production
10 Content Originality
9 Memorability
9 Lyricism
8 Sonic Diversity
8 Arranging
Atwood Magazine dives into Pearl Jam’s sophomore album ‘Vs.,’ one of the most influential albums in grunge and rock history, three decades after its release.
Stream: ‘Vs.’ – Pearl Jam

On October 5th of this year, Pearl Jam’s second studio album turned thirty years old.

Vs. is the quintessential grunge/rock album of the nineties and a wonderful follow-up to their massively successful freshman album, Ten. Lead singer Eddie Vedder, guitarists Stone Gosserand and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament, and drummer Dave Abbruzzese all contributed in huge ways to this masterpiece, sending the album to the top of the charts upon its release in 1993. Less structured and more raw than their first album, Pearl Jam took a step back from promotional efforts and focused purely on the music during the creation of this album.

I would argue it is one of the best rock albums of all time, steeped in originality and intricate storytelling. While you may not agree with me entirely, this album truly has something for everyone, and perhaps diving a little deeper into this diverse collection of tracks will change your mind.

Vs. - Pearl Jam
Vs. – Pearl Jam

Go” is the first track on Vs., and it sets a wild and unfiltered tone for the album. The song is the perfect marriage of both the hard rock and grunge aspects of Pearl Jam’s sound, catching the listener’s attention immediately. The uncontrived, authentic feel of the album is evident within the catchy guitar riffs and the killer McCready guitar solo after the first chorus. The lyrics, simple and ideal for screaming, describe a last-ditch effort to get someone to stay in a failing relationship:

Please, please, please
Don’t go on me
Don’t go on me
Don’t go on me
Don’t go on me
Please, don’t you want me, don’t go on me
Please, don’t go on me

The desperate begging builds to a frenzied crescendo that the listener can feel, and any sense of control or structure disintegrates as the song progresses. The anger, confusion, and yearning is palpable and raw; all hallmarks of a great grunge song. While this song, in my opinion, cannot be categorized as a lyrical masterpiece, it certainly ranks for emotional intensity and shows how much meaning can be portrayed using very few words.

The second track “Animal,” another angry anthem, maintains the same hard-hitting grunge energy provided by “Go.” However, this track features more developed lyrics and a slightly (almost imperceptibly) more mellow sound. The original title of the album was slated to be Five Against One, taken from the opening lyrics of this track ( “1,2,3,4,5 against 1”) which emphasizes the importance of this song to the album.

Its similarities to “Go” and some of the other songs on the album make it less of a standout, but it is still an awesome track to scream along to in the car. “Animal” embodies the idea of adversity and provides an emotional outlet to listeners of many walks of life.

The third track on the album takes a huge departure from the first two in the best way possible. “Daughter” is a beautiful piece of storytelling (a skill at which Pearl Jam is extremely adept) featuring a young girl with an undiagnosed learning disability living in an abusive/neglectful household.

At the time, many children with learning disabilities were written off as “problem children;” purposefully rebellious and difficult to deal with. The character in this song is misunderstood and struggling to find acceptance, both in the world and in her own home. Her anger and despair – her adversity against those who are supposed to support and love her – is portrayed beautifully and tangibly through the lyrics.

Alone, listless
Breakfast table in an otherwise empty room
Young girl, violence
Center of her own attention
The mother reads aloud, child tries to understand it
Tries to make her proud
The shades go down, it’s in her head
Painted room, can’t deny there’s something wrong

This song is softer, more refined, gentler than “Animal” and “Go,” and the voice of this young girl shines through clearly. This is the first song on the album featuring social commentary, but it is certainly not the last. Hauntingly beautiful, “Daughter” is a testament to Eddie Vedder’s songwriting skills and hard evidence of the musical range and variety of which Pearl Jam is capable.

This diverse collection of songs continues on with “Glorified G,” a song that is really one of a kind and a personal favorite. Satirical anti-gun (and anti-toxic masculinity) lyrics are backed by Jeff Ament on upright bass and a wild blend of guitar riffs from Gosserand and McCready, combining country, funk and rock to create a really cool and memorable sound. At first listen, this innovative track may sound as if it was written in all seriousness. In reality, the song is a caricature of gun owners in America. The track was inspired by drummer Dave Abbruzzese telling the band he had purchased a gun, sparking outrage from the other members (especially Vedder). A conversation about guns in America ensued, and thus “Glorified G” was born.

Double think, dumb is strength
Never shot at a living thing
Glorified version of a pellet gun
Feels so manly, when armed

There is so much to unpack in this song, from the reference to doublethink indoctrination to qualifying the feeling of manliness with “when armed.” Especially having been written by a group of white men (one of which is a gun owner), the level of self-awareness is wonderfully shocking. The cleverness and originality of this song makes it a real stand-out, and the mockery of toxic masculinity backed by weaponry is important and enjoyable.

Dissident” is another storytelling track, chronicling a woman’s experience with taking in a refugee and then dealing with the guilt of surrendering him when the responsibility proved to be too much for her. It is really impressive and unusual the way that Vedder and the band embody characters who are so different from themselves, creating complex storylines imbued with nuance and feeling. The theme of adversity continues, both within the woman as she struggles with guilt and between the refugee and the government. Themes of regret, tragedy, and personal responsibility are also explored in this track as well:

She gave him away when she couldn’t hold
No, she folded, a dissident is here
Escape is never the safest path
Oh, a dissidence, a dissident is here

“Dissident ” has a similar hard-hitting grungy sound to the first two songs on the album, giving the album a sense of continuity despite its wide array of topics and musical choices. Part of the beauty of Vs. is its ability to have many different songs that come together into one congruent collection.

W.M.A.” is a drum-driven track about a white man witnessing police brutality against his black friends. Eddie Vedder wrote this song in reaction to systematic racial discrimination in America (especially pertaining to mass incarceration) after watching his black friend get hassled by the police while Vedder himself was left completely untouched. His outrage at the clear discrimination by the police led to the creation of this song. Vedder plays off of the common misconception that Jesus would have been a white man with the line, “Jesus greets me looks just like me” and establishes the privilege automatically granted to white men in America by comparing it to winning the lottery “just by being born.”

Anger and allyship are communicated through the lyrics and the fast-paced, emotionally driven chorus consisting of the repeated phrase: “Police stopped my brother again.” The steady bass line and drums make the song reminiscent of a chant at a protest as Vedder airs his grievances and shows support for the black community (while tactfully avoiding speaking for a group of which he is not a member). He amplifies marginalized voices and in doing so creates a beautiful and rousing anthem.

This album could be analyzed and dissected ad infinitum, but we’ll finish this review of Vs. with what is arguably one of the best Pearl Jam songs ever written.

Elderly Woman Behind The Counter in a Small Town” is a lyrical masterpiece and another testament to Pearl Jam’s storytelling abilities. With a title purposefully made to stand out amongst the others, it is clear that this track is special. The lyrics tell the story of an older woman who has spent her whole life in the small community she grew up in, and she looks back on regret at her life when a familiar face from her youth returns to town. She is angry towards herself for not having seen the world, and sad that the passage of time has robbed her of the life she once thought she would lead. Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam create characters that feel so incredibly real and spark empathy within their listeners. The simple chord progression carries the listener through the story, emphasizing the nostalgia and sorrow that the woman is feeling.

I seem to recognize your face
Haunting, familiar, yet I can’t seem to place it
Cannot find the candle of thought to light your name
Lifetimes are catching up with me
All these changes taking place, I wish I’d seen the place
But no one’s ever taken me
Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away…
Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away…

Stuck in one place, yearning for freedom and wishing she had done more living. It is hard not to feel enraptured by this song. This track shows a softer side of Pearl Jam and adds to the incredible variety that has been packed inside of this album.

If this article inspires you to listen to one song off of this album, let it be this one.

Pearl Jam's 'Vs.' © Lance Merner
Pearl Jam’s ‘Vs.’ © Lance Merner

Vs. is a plethora of human experiences synthesized into one cohesive album.

Voices that are often overlooked or ignored are amplified within the lyrics of each song, reifying their importance and validity in American society. There is a story for everyone, an experience to connect to, no matter who you are. This collection of songs truly has the capability of bringing people together and sparking empathy. The unfiltered quality of this album emphasizes the authenticity with which it is imbued and produces real, raw emotion in its listeners.

Thirty years down the line, and every song is just as relevant as the day it was released. It is fair to say that Pearl Jam’s Vs. is timeless.

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Vs. - Pearl Jam

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