Pearl Jam kind of came out of nowhere in 1991. It’s not like the members of the band weren’t veterans of the Seattle scene. And they formed out of the ashes of the legendary Mother Love Bone upon the death of Andrew Wood, the frontman, in 1990. Wood’s roommate was Chris Cornell, frontman of Soundgarden, of course. And he conceived of Temple of the Dog as a Seattle supergroup to honour Wood. He enlisted Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament from Mother Love Bone, and guitarist Mike McCready and Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron. And then some surfer dude from San Diego rolled in, dropped some vocals on the single ‘Hunger Strike,’ and, as they say, a star was born. That song showcased the stunning vocal abilities of both Cornell and Eddie Vedder. Cornell sang high, Vedder sang low.
And out of that came Pearl Jam and an apocryphal about an indigenous grandmother named Pearl and a jam made with peyote. Whatevs. They opened for Alice in Chains in 1991, around the time their début album came out, Ten. It hit the stratosphere in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind, and the Seattle sound was globalized (it existed long before anyone gave a fuck). And in the process, Pearl Jam sold roughly 790 billion copies of Ten (well, 13 million copies in the US alone). Based on the incendiary singles ‘Alive,’ ‘Evenflow,’ and ‘Jeremy,’ Pearl Jam became superstars. They also wrote a song about school shootings (‘Jeremy’) before they were an almost daily occurrence in the United States.
So, in the wake of Ten, the pressure was kind of on Pearl Jam to top it. In terms of sales, they did not, as Vs. only sold about half as well. And, you know, only 7 million records sold in the US was kind of a disappointment. But, this is the better album. It’s furious and it’s a riposte to the ‘grunge’ sound, though it is also the dirtiest, nastiest album Pearl Jam ever cut. In hindsight, it is kind of amazing that this was a 7x platinum album and a chart topper. It’s edgy and dangerous, its edges are sharp.
Pearl Jam come out swinging on ‘Go,’ which begins in a primordial grunge stew before erupting into a dirty stomp. It’s kind of cliché now to assess Vedder’s voice. But back in the early 90s, he hadn’t yet laid the framework for a billion shitty bands from Tulsa to achieve stardom. He was vital and new. And here he was angry. He sounded like he was pacing the floor in front of his mic in the studio, all glare and fury. And his band weren’t bad either.
I loved this stuff. I may be from Montréal, but I grew up in Vancouver. And as such, all those Seattle bands were known entities in my world. They occasionally played Vancouver, and the early output of bands like Green River (which included both Ament and Gossard and Mark Arm of Mudhoney), Mother Love Bone, the Screaming Trees, Nirvana, Soundgarden, this was all stuff I heard on CiTR from UBC. It was also pretty easy to get Sub Pop albums in VanCity. I had even snuck in, underage, to a Soundgarden show. It was pretty epic, as they were touring behind Louder Than Love at the time.
These Seattle bands cut through all the pomp of 80s bands, whether the metal hair bands or the alternative rockers. These were dudes with some pretty righteous riffs, and some heavy duty fury. And that was it, they were just dudes. They weren’t characters on stage (with the exception of Andrew Wood, but he was apparently all that), they didn’t wear costumes. No, ma’am. They dressed like the rest of us punters. Ripped jeans, flannel shirts, t-shirts underneath, Chuck Taylors or Doc Martens on the feet. They wore their hair long. And then it exploded, and all of the sudden, suburban kids in Toronto wanted to look like what me and my friends looked like. It was bizarre.
It was really exciting when Nirvana broke. I remember the first time I caught ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in MuchMusic, in the livingroom of the place I shared with two brothers, Eugene and Jean-Paul, I shared a house with in Ottawa. They were hard-rocking dudes themselves. They were into Mötörhead, Ozzy, and the like. We sat there almost slack-jawed at Nirvana. It was also cool because all of the sudden, everything was different, the shite that made it onto the charts in the late 80s was dead, deader than dead. It was a new decade, and a new sound was needed to ride out the bloody, tumultuous twentieth century.
The 90s began with all this optimism in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of communism and all that. There was suddenly a brightly coloured future. As Mike Edwards of Jesus Jones sang in ‘Right Here, Right Now’:
I saw the decade in, when it seemed
the world could change at the blink of an eye
And if anything
then there’s your sign of the times
But by the fall of 1991, Jesus Jones were over. Hell, even U2 re-invented themselves for the new decade.
But then Gen X realized they were screwed. Douglas Coupland had published the novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture that same year, 1991. I didn’t see myself in the characters, but I was a young’un then. My co-workers in the restaurants I worked in who were 5 or 10 years older than me, they did. They saw their world getting smaller. They noticed they were pushing up on 30 and they still lived in crappy rented flats and worked dead-end jobs, with university degrees. Most of the Seattle bands, these dudes were just that much older than me to know what I wouldn’t figure out until later in the decade: That Gen X, the so-called Slacker Generation, were the first generation to get screwed. Millennials think they have it bad, well, take a number kids, we were here first. The fact that the Boomers called us Slackers said it all. Rather than acknowledge that we did not have the future our parents had when we were born in the 60s and early 70s, they instead blamed us for the fact that there wasn’t really a future for us, that our university degrees weren’t going to be worth much more than the paper they were printed on. Or that we would graduate from university with massive student loans, even in Canada. And that we’d be working those shitastic McJobs as we hit 30. That we wouldn’t own our own homes and have 2.5 kids and a white picket fence by the age of 25. No, sir, it was downward social mobility for many of us (not so much for me, having grown up in the working classes, though).
And so, the Seattle Sound gave us this, it acknowledged we were screwed, that we were left out. It was in the screaming feedback of those guitars that we realized we were going to get squeezed from both ends, as the next batch of kids, those Millennials, were going to massively outnumber us. And because the Boomers weren’t retiring, we weren’t getting jobs, and thus, when they did, we weren’t shiny and young anymore. And the kids got the jobs, at least those that existed. And so, as I put it on my friend’s Facebook wall last week as we discussed this, we weren’t the Slacker Generation, that perhaps we worked harder with less raw material to create our own worlds than the generation before us and the generation after us.
And Pearl Jam, and all the other Seattle bands, were the soundtrack to this disappointment. As I finished my undergraduate degree in the early 90s, it was Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Soungarden and the Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains and Flop who provided the soundtrack. And Vs. was Pearl Jam’s greatest moment by far.
Despite the rocking fury of the album, it says something about the song craft that second single from the album, ‘Daughter,’ a largely acoustic track about a young girl with a developmental issue, that stands out. Vedder noted that this was an issue that had, by 1993, only recently been diagnosable and treatable in schools. Vedder’s voice, in all its power and fury, was also empathetic, and so our young girl is not a freak, she is not a problem, she is not difficult, but a girl with an understandable problem, and she has agency.
‘W.M.A.’ is also a mostly acoustic jam session song about police brutality. And this was one of the things about Pearl Jam in the early 90s, they were a heavily political band, and they had good politics. And then there’s the awkwardly titled ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In a Small Town.’ Again, Vedder is all empathy and understanding as he imagines her coming across a former lover who has returned to the small town:
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
I swear, I recognize your breath
Memories like fingerprints are slowly raising
Me, you wouldn’t recall for I’m not my former
It’s hard when you’re stuck upon the shelf
I changed by not changing at all
Small town predicts my fate
Perhaps that’s what no one wants to see
I just want to scream hello
My God it’s been so long
The final single from the album, ‘Dissident,’ is another political track, about a woman who takes in a guy on the run from the police for political reasons, though she is hesitant about taking him in. In the end, she sells him out, and she has to live with that guilt:
When she had contact with the conflict
There was meanin’, but she sold him to the state
She had to turn around
When she couldn’t hold, she folded
A dissident is here
Escape is never the safest path
Oh, a dissident, a dissident is here, oh.