The Seattle Grunge Explosion fixed a spotlight firmly on a genre previously regarded as an unrefined and picayune performance art. Orchestrated by the stray members of TV dinner families and nursed in garage jam sessions, grunge adhered to a societal undercurrent buzzing with busy and rebellious souls. It was a few years before I was born but there must have been a thick fuse silently burning away in the back edges of American suburbia long before that final boom because the blast radius shook the foundations of popular music for the next 3 decades. The fallout of this 90’s atom bomb of angst and attitudinal power is rightfully considered an iconic music shift and that fading orange glow is now a guiding star for turbulent teendom all over the world.
Grunge was not just listened to in the contours of inner-city life, but it was also predominately written there. Yes, this ‘for the people – by the people’ motif has been prevalent in the arrival of most musical forms but not since the late 60’s was a sub-culture engineered so feverishly in a single place, in a maladaptive sound and in such a short space of time. Grunge was becoming the epitome of the new youth. It wasn’t as polarising as punk in its careless commitment to anarchy but was proving inclusive in its fresh approach to projecting raw attitude. With authenticity and anti-consumerism at the helm, It better suited an everyday and mundane style that was rife in the slower-paced places existing in the Pacific North West. So there was no surprise when those straighter edges, who didn’t conform to piercings, leather jackets and liberty spikes in the stir of the brit-punk phenomenon, went and bought their records on the way to college and wore merchandised T-Shirts over ripped jeans and worn-down shoes at the weekend. Nearly ALL found something meaningful and accessible in grunge.
Fast forward a few reels. Popularity for grunge had rapidly expanded. Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, The Posies and Soundgarden had developed as household names and they all originated from the rising and rightfully dubbed ‘Grunge City’. Seattle was vastly becoming a pseudo-metropolis and a safe haven for insurrection to dance brazenly in the streets. Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’ in 1991 had propelled them into an unpredictable yet prevailing success. The genre now faced an uphill clamber away from this new wave of grunge popularity and many in the industry struggled to stay afloat against the rising levels of their own conflicting identities; personalities that had formed in contention to the laidback anonymity their music usually afforded. Pearl Jam were riding particularly crest high compared to many others and the immediacy of their popularity both helped and hindered the Seattle band off the back of their debut hit. Despite this, the usual preservationist snobbery (even from other bands) questioned the legitimacy of the band’s ‘grunge’ sound and having yet narrowly escaping that pigeon-hole meant they were free to exercise a discretion that other players like Chris Cornell of Soundgarden or Kurt Cobain of Nirvana couldn’t. Whether a seminal creator or cheap imitator, artists of the new grunge scene were now expected to consciously figurehead a mass-movement AND this posed a really significant question… what happens to nameless and unruled aggression when it becomes symbolized? What happens when a music culture based intrinsically on anti-norms becomes normal? Well in 1993, just 2 years after their first album and a whole year after I was born, Pearl Jam released Vs. It is an album defiant in its timing, animalistic in its sound and profound in its spirit. It largely de-railed grunge from the esoteric heading that was emerging over the horizon.
It all began with a lot of pain. Pearl Jam’s creative spark fell sick from the commercial bug and particularly frontman Eddie Vedder struggled preserving the band’s writing prowess; even sleeping rough in a studio sauna for several weeks. Ironically enough, it was a growing contempt for the industry and a reluctance to give into the corporate machine that became the impetus for their second go. You could argue that it was this change so late in an evolving game that finally broke its own rules. The band rekindled a confidence that dispelled their relationship with success forever and though Pearl Jam have never ventured away from flourishing achievement, the aftermath of Vs. ensured that they were always worthy representatives of popular culture in all their work that followed. Not because their music was enjoyed by millions of fans everywhere but because first and foremost, Pearl Jam had become front-row fans themselves and the strongest of advocates for their own sound. What manifested was a very angry and politically charged album indeed. It was aimed at the dismantling of delusional workings within modern day America with the assembly of an anti-establishment and Vs. was probably the first great monument built in the fight for that arcadian skyline.
But just like anything idyllically fashioned, great things are best viewed as the sum of their many great parts and this album is no different. There is such a tangible sprit etched into this vinyl that I fear it’s meaning would be ultimately lost if dissected too much. Suffice to say, the commentaries while cleverly devised and intricate are not at all delicate. ‘Daughter’, the album’s third song, is a mastery of storytelling depicting all the horrors of child abuse. Glorified G Is a satirical appraisal on US gun culture and W.M.A is a plea for the privileged to tackle police racism head on. As I’m writing now, the latter is now more topical than ever.
There is something very wild and animalistic dwelling in these songs, especially in the heaviness of the record’s A Side. In Allan Jones’ illustrated stories of Pearl Jam, Vedder said the album was like “going through hell” to serve as a voice for people unable to alleviate a dysfunctional society. There is a very evident and hellish quality as we delve that bit deeper with every revolution. Like, Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ or the final short story in Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fairenheit 451’, the album feels like an incessant trudge through an incarnate evil, the difference being that we’re not traversing an Amazonian jungle but in fact, journeying through urbanised life. Woven into this mania are the towns and cities where we all live and so even in the two tracks that aren’t melodically boastful, exhaustingly quick or electrified with guitar solos and devilish drumming, there is an expectancy for even the recesses of Vs. to always be spiritually loud. Onto the B side, Vedder and Co trades in this selflessness to strike a critical blow of their own. I’d urge anyone to not get goosebumps about a minute in, as the lead singer sheds all restraint with a shriek aimed at modern media that could boil.. well.. ‘blood’. ‘Rats’ is also a worthy footnote in highlighting Pearl Jam’s contempt at the growing disgustingness of the society chronicled in the first 8 songs. A “they don’t compare” ringing out over a bell-like thud just over halfway through the track so perfectly analogises what we consider to be vermin with what we get away with so ignorantly. The utter obviousness of those nesting in such a place is then finally hammered home in the final number ‘indffference’. But my favourite song on the album ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’ shares more in common with a Salvador Dali painting than just the eccentricity of its name. It is absolutely thought-provoking and so surprisingly wedged between the likes of ‘Rats’ and ‘Leash’ that the sudden change of pace is a haunting reminder of where you are and Vedder even says it – “I seem to recognize your face.. haunting.. familiar yet.. I can’t seem to place it”. Here, the siren-like front man echoes “hearts and thoughts” from the treeline as a curling finger beckons us back into the dangerous understorey of the remaining B-Side.
It is well-worth brooding over the album’s lyrical choices as they are easily up there with their only older release Ten and both are charming masterclasses in effective song-writing. The messaging in this album is mostly unambiguous and leaves just enough room for interpretation for our own commentaries to add value. The rage however, is out in plain-ear for all to hear and this undeviating ferocity is why I believe Vs. was an album that steered grunge from an unnatural trajectory. Where many bands at the time were utilising obscurity in reaction to fame and popularity (think Nirvana’s ‘in-Utero’), Pearl Jam were ‘forgetting’ to turn up to press interviews. Where Nirvana’s ‘Heart Shaped Box’ or Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’ music videos embellished apocalyptic scripture in their ambivalence, Pearl Jam actively refused to create any videos whatsoever. All this, in defiance of the corporate agenda. The plans for new-topia were blueprinted and brick-by-brick it was eminently building, but where other bands were laying down flimsy scaffolding centre stage, Pearl Jam and Vs. were casting solid stone and without a shred of shame to hide behind. The same could also be argued for the album’s accompanying artwork, understated and yet a prominent exposé of difficult truths. The leading image on the front of the vinyl sleeve features an angora goat, caged and presumably exploited for husbandry or worse… slaughtered. In-keeping with the lines taken from the second song ‘animal’, Pearl Jam ask “why would you want to hurt me?” and bellow “Five, five, five, five, five against one”. The volatile nature of this is apparently in reaction to the invasion of Pearl Jam’s privacy from mass-media; appropriately summarised on the inside of the open gate cover where amongst the doodles there is one that simply says “I will never trust anybody again.” There is further commitment to the cause found in a lyric page written for W.M.A. It includes a small newspaper trimming from the case of Malice Green, a victim of police brutality killed just 2 years before the album was released. The farrago of cut-out pictures and scribblings seem purposefully chaotic but just like the music they compliment; the visuals are not random but specifically chosen to demand attention. There is a cultist mask in the broken loam surrounding a cut down tree. There is a scene of deforestation against grey storm-clouds. These unnatural events are set against a backdrop of dismal black and white photography and it is a very visceral reminder of the horrors inflicted around us. So we’re left with the same destruction described superbly in the words – and again.. there is no fanfare to be found. Pearl Jam know full well that this is a sufficient bounty for modern day life.
I mention all of this because the conscious directness seen or heard in this album is a refreshing abstinence from what was expected of bands in this era of music. The result may be that the album has fallen considerably under the radar with age when compared to other material but in reality, there are probably one too many intricacies in Vs. for it be a true generational icon anyway. It is also this discredit that I personally think heralds it a triumph and after all things considered, I’d argue this is why it is probably the best grunge album of all time. Grunge had become the epitome of the new youth who have grown old enough by now to see itself become just another dusty year-book photo; another generation with a luggage of punctuated interests lagging behind and occasionally throwing out the odd fond memory. AND yet truthfully this album hasn’t aged a bit. It’s soft-pedalled and yet widely understood. It’s both selfish and selfless. It’s proudly shared and yet sacred. It frequently brims with attitude and reeks of disdain for others. It’s pent up and not at all dressed up. It’s a broken thing bent perfectly into place… and then wielded. It’s a fantastic revival of the 1990’s and yet it addresses issues unfortunately ever-present in our societies today. The literary comparisons I used earlier were always very damming. Like Bradbury’s classic, Vs. was as much a prediction of the future as a commentary on the present and just as ascribed in Conrad’s nightmarish narration of an African voyage – prosperity will always be and has always been over the hill or round the bend.
Explosions. Destruction. Wins Vs Defeats. Youth Vs Ageing. Building the New Vs Tearing Down the Old. Beginnings Vs Endings. These are the type of transitions that often form from music when it begins to say something different and births a new drastic and ‘woke’ way of thinking. So back to where it started for me. As a 90’s kid, I think if someone were to ask me then what my favourite Pearl Ja…– I would have said ‘Ten!’ before you even finished your sentence. It is where my love for the band began and I admire the sheer song quality even if it’s a record I don’t dig out all that much these days. Having said that, I’m also aware that as I’m getting older, I’m beginning to recognise that the significance of certain albums and the spirit of those that listened to it at the time often compliment (and occasionally transcend) the sound. If I’m completely honest, I say something different every time anyway… depending on what wins… my Heart Vs my Head. So I’m probably somewhere in that vague in-between; the young boy listening to his iPod in 2000 Vs. the near-enough 30-year-old me that avidly collects his vinyls and writes this review now. I don’t really know what that makes me. Maybe just another confused teenager. Another rebellious soul kicking up dust in his head. Perfect.
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