Pearl Jam induces a level of obsessive compulsive behavior. Shortly after “Ten” was released, I found myself scrounging for more material. My efforts lead to Temple of the Dog, which tripped me further down the grunge scene that defines my generation; good, bad or indifferent. The band’s relevancy throughout the years is credited to its willingness to adapt its sound despite pressure from its fanbase or label representatives. In 2019, that fanbase knows its place — as do corporate heads — but those boundaries were not well established when “Vitalogy” hit the shelves in 1994.
“Vitalogy” celebrated its 25th anniversary last month, and it marks a significant threshold. Sonically, it differs from the band’s previous two releases: “Ten” and “Vs.” Eddie Vedder and Company rejected the fuzzy, distorted guitar of that Seattle Sound. Vedder took the reins of songwriting duties and proceeded to lash out against Madison Avenue and his loss of privacy. The album was also a manifestation of the band’s collective frustration boiled over from a gauntlet of touring, writing and recording three albums in five years.
The sound was different. “This is not for you,” Vedder sings on the album’s third track, and I remember feeling he was speaking to me as the tape cassette spun through my stereo. Its very purchase broke my self-imposed “three-song” rule: If you like three songs from the album, buy it. Pearl Jam had earned an exception; a significant achievement to earn such trust in a college student with little money to spend. But, as I listened through, I found myself betrayed. The goose-honking of an accordion on “Bugs” prompted me to stop listening.
“Vitalogy” sat in my dorm room collecting dust as tracks debuted on the radio. “Spin the Black Circle” was a welcomed punk track followed by “Not For You.” Once I graduated that following May, I hadn’t developed a warm relationship with “Vitalogy.” “Immortality” would be a song I’d hear occasionally at the bars I seldom frequented.
Musicians are people, and as such, they grow and change with life experiences. For those same reasons, I’ve since come to consider “Vitalogy” to be among my favorite albums. Somewhere in those 25 years I, too, caught a bolt of lightning and had cursed the day I let it go. Lyrics I could not appreciate as a college kid have a profound meaning to the man I am today. In retrospect, the album passes the “three-song” rule. For the dysfunctional relationship portrayed in “Better Man,” for the familiarity in the sound of “Corduroy,” and that punk homage I hear in “Spin the Black Circle.”
“Vitalogy” marked the beginning of the end for grunge. One of the genre’s founding fathers walked away from the Seattle Sound just as it became a commercial commodity. For those who were not ready to leave it behind, this release was jarring, unexpected, and in my case, unwelcomed. But, within the context of Pearl Jam’s robust catalog of music, “Vitalogy” fits. And, on a grander scale, the introspective voice captured on some of the aforementioned tracks gravitates towards a matured audience who, too, grew up and walked away.
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.