Music Review: 'Vs.'
Dear Pearl Jam:
I’ve heard you’re unhappy with me. It seems something has come between us, and it’s time to get things out in the open-air our dirty flannel, so to speak. And what better time than with the release of your second album, Vs. (Epic Associated)?
I suppose it all started two years ago. Everyone was buzzing about you, in part because a couple of the guys in the band used to be in a few early and influential Seattle bands. So my interest was piqued too. However, I was disappointed by Ten, your first record. It huffed and puffed too much—all grunge style, not enough substance. And Eddie Vedder (or can I just call you Eddie?), you came off as the most tightly wound pop star since Michael Bolton. Besides, my good friend Michele told me you were considered a major babe, and you know how comments like that can affect other men.
So I gave Ten a mixed send-off in these pages—a B-, to be precise. And what happened? You printed an excerpt from my review (a snotty comment about how you ”flail about in search of a groove and a song”) on the back of a Pearl Jam T-shirt, along with other critics’ unkind comments. Mind you, it showed you have a sense of humor, and overall I was flattered, though a little hurt that you never sent me one.
Well, anyway…that seemed to be the end of it. But no. I caught you at the kickoff show of Lollapalooza ’92, and, frankly, you sounded like the Big Muddy. I wrote about that too. Next thing I knew, your publicist hated me, accusing me of disliking you because you sold 5 million copies of Ten.
Can’t we all just get along?
In the interest of a more harmonious relationship, then, allow me to open a dialogue. I’ve listened to Vs. a number of times, and even I will admit it sounds like a musical smorgasbord compared with the meat-and-potatoes Ten. It starts with ”Go,” which tries very, very hard to be punky, discordant, and noncommercial. Sure, you’ve sprinkled a few chest-thumpers throughout, much like the ones that fueled Ten. But you also toss in an ambiguous antiviolence tract, ”W.M.A.,” with downright tribal rhythms, plus a few ballads that sound as if they were recorded for an Unplugged show that never aired. Vs. is not a carbon copy of Ten; for that alone, you get points.
Some of your experiments work, too. ”Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” one of the folkie-acoustic numbers, has an unexpected melodic delicacy, and as the title character, Eddie delivers lines such as ”Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away” with more depth than I expected. Maybe you should book him for more Bob Dylan tribute concerts.
Then there is ”Rearviewmirror,” which hit me where it counts—perhaps because it is both sad and angry, or maybe because the first time I heard it I was feeling disconsolate myself as I sat on a bus careening along a dark, semideserted highway. For once, those rippling guitar chords wrap themselves around a real hook, and Eddie’s clenched delivery is perfect for a song about the pain of leaving behind a hopeless relationship and moving on. And how did you know I’m a sucker for guitar solos that burst out of the murk at the end of a song, just like on those old Neil Young and Crazy Horse records?
Which brings me to what disturbs me most about you. You’ve been labeled everything from alternative to grunge by your record company and that evil demon, the media. I know, I know—it’s not your fault. But Vs. confirms once and for all that there’s nothing underground or alternative about you. Ultimately, you’re another mainstream, he-man rock band. Remember when Eddie sat in for Jim Morrison at the Doors reunion at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony and didn’t seem out of place at all? If you were truly that alternative to anything, that display would have scared you as much as it did me.
So I shouldn’t expect anything out of the norm from you. And I don’t get it on Vs., either. With ”Dissident,” in fact, you sound a little like the Black Crowes, meaning you sound like young old farts imitating other young old farts.
On the bright side, Eddie keeps getting Vedder. I’m particularly impressed by that 12-second scream he emits in ”Blood.” But he still sounds awfully pent up, and his elliptical lyrics (”Torch her from you to me/Abduct it from the street”) don’t offer any clues as to why. Plus, I take it personally when Eddie screams, ”Get outta my f—in’ face!” as if he wants to kill someone—like a rock critic. (I’m just sensitive that way.) Still, hipper Northwest bands like Mudhoney would give their Doc Martens for a singer with a fifth of Eddie’s personality. Do yourself a favor—take out an insurance policy on his vocal cords.
I’ve tried to be honest and overcome my biases, but I guess I still have problems with you. I also must be honest enough to say that. Once again, but for different reasons, you rate a B-.
P.S. If you use anything from this review on your next promotional T-shirt, can I get one this time?