Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
A couple of years ago, Pearl Jam released a remastered copy of their first album, Ten. It was cleaner than the mixes for the original, and sounded more akin to albums like Vs., and I hated it. Ten is a muddy grunge album that was perfect for the birth of international acknowledgment of the Seattle sound from the late 80s / early 90s. But from their second album onward, Pearl Jam was no longer really a grunge band, they were just an arena rock band. The engineering and production needed to sound different because they were trying to be different. The whole album wasn't locked into Vedder's trauma. Sure, there were some remnants, but it was mostly time to grow as a band, and that meant rinsing off the Wishkah.
Vs is a great shedding of Ten's skin. It doesn't sound like it was recorded underwater. The heavy songs crunch, the acoustic songs feel lighter. It just breathes easier, sounding more like a successful rock band than a home recording. A bunch of us in my dorm at school got this album the day it came out, and we all assumed "Go" was about Kurt Cobain, who died within days of the song's first live performance, which Vedder had dedicated to him. It felt very visceral and real, even though the band claimed it was actually about Eddie Vedder's truck.
I also love this album because Verses is the name of a great album by Mission Of Burma. FOr the better part of a year, I lived with one of their guitarists and his family, and when he first heard me play this he started laughing about how Mission Of Burma was SO MAD that Pearl Jam was using "their" album title until one of them saw it in a store and realized that they were using one of the many other definitions and spellings of the word.
As much as I love the crashing intro of the original album, for my reimagining, I like starting with the steady drums, and the strumming guitar of Daughter. This is Not The Previous Album. Sure, the lyrics are in-line with "Jeremy" and "Why Go", but there is a lilt that would make no sense on Ten. Even Vedder's voice is smoother, even when he's screeching riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiise above.
Vedder's voice starts to go down a long hallway at the end of the previous track, and the drums kick in louder. The bass line gets more staccato. The vocals start to circle in the background. The music gets super intense before Vedder kicks in with He won the lottery / when he was born / Took his mother's white breat to his tongue. WMA (White Male American) about white police violence would have been controversial in the 21st century, when fragile White America was wringing their hands about supporting crooked police officers. In the 90s, skittish parents were too worried about Ice-T and Body Count's "Cop Killer" to notice the message in this track. There's a whirling dervish quality to the back end of this song where Vedder and the background vocals keep echoing wordless chants that is so far beyond what the band seemed capable of with Ten that it took Teenage Me a while to really get into this song.
The bass gets all kind of heavy before everything else explodes around Go. Whether it's about Cobain, another friend, a truck, whatever, it's an intense plead of what one of my teachers could call "Chant Rock". There is a wicked guitar solo before Vedder goes into a violent almost scat mode in his vocals before returning to the four word chorus, and the song crescendoes into the first space on this album for an intake of breath.
That breath is a sharp inhale before we get to Glorified G, an anti-gun rocker based on the band discussing their drummer's recent decision to buy a gun in fact /I got two. The guitars howl. Eddie screeches, and just when the song lulls,
Animal climbs out of a potential pause. Still screechy and raw both vocally and guitar-wise. This is the studio track that most sounds like Pearl Jam playing live, as we will discover in a few tracks. It's not really a surprise that this was the two in the one-two punch opening of the actual album, after "Go".
Early nineties bands got a lot of flack for mumbling their way through lyrics, and Vedder was no exception. For many years, I thought this song was dealing with drinking and driving because I thought Vedder was not about to give thanks for a bottle dry but it turns our he was not about to give thanks or apologize. The lyrics are just so much clearer now that I see them in my Rearview Mirror.
I love the echoey twang on the guitar as Eddie Vedder schools us on Rats. They are, according to Vedder, so much better than humans. And he may not be wrong. I also enjoy that the concluding lyric to this song is actually the opening line of Michael Jackson's "Ben". That's a crossover one would not expect based on the content of the two albums.
My first digression from the contents of the actual album is probably their most famous non-album track. Their cover of Crazy Mary from the Sweet Relief album made to help artist Victoria Williams, who provides spooky background vocals, pay medical bills after she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. This is a haunting, gorgeous song, and I appreciate that the production on this track is on par with Pearl Jam's actual albums, and doesn't sound thrown together. The breakdown near the climax before Vedder sings over a barely strummed guitar before the rest of the instruments come in is so far from the technique used on Ten, that this seems like an entirely different band.
A drum beat pounds through the close of "Crazy Mary". Vedder chants around an occasional guitar strum, and Neil Young playing a pump piano. The Long Road is the b-side to "I've Got ID", the single from Neil Young and Peral Jam's collaboration Merkinball. This is one of the few tracks that will show up on a discography twice, as there is a much different version coming on a future album, but I really love the way the guitars seem to tide in on the latter half of the track. Also, pump organ on a Pearl Jam album? Sure.
Another non-album track, Face Of Love, featuring Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, is from the Dead Man Walking Soundtrack. It's another large musical departure from any previous track as it contains sitar and Ali Khan's soaring vocals, which mesh really well with Vedder's.
Back to traditional sounding Pearl Jam songs with their cover of The Dead Boys' Sonic Reducer. It sounds like Pearl Jam playing early punk. There's no mistaking Mcready and Ament's guitars on this track, which cement as early nineties, but the background vocals sound very late 70s punk.
If I had to pick one moment from the history of MTV's music awards show that enahnced my opinion of a band, it would be Pearl Jam's live performance of Keep On Rockin' In The Free World with the song's author, Neil Young. It's controlled chaos. It's corporate rebellion. I never thought for a moment that their equipment thrashing wasn't theatrical more than actual angst but I still loved every second. There's a studio version of this track, but saying that it pales in comparison to the live version is being incredibly polite. This album contains the MTV performance.
Returning to the actual album tracks, Blood crunches and wacka-wacka-wacka-wackas its guitars against Vedder shredding his throat to the lyrics.
Let's take it down several notches. A quietly strumming acoustic guitar, a relaxed Vedder, maybe even sitting down, crooning hearts and thoughs they fade / fade away during Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town. Memory like fingerprints are slowly raising. Much more contemplative than the other songs on the album, it's not exactly a quiet ballad, but it's a definite change of pace.
I've pointed out many of the tracks on this album that would have sounded alien on Ten. Dissident is not one of them. This is soaring vocals, muddy production Pearl Jam wailing out of the early nineties. I love it, but if it came on the radio as a new track now, I probably wouldn't love it.
We go back to Merkinball for another Neil Young collaboration, I've Got ID. Along with "The Long Road", these two tracks were cut off othe Neil Young album, Mirror Ball, which is an amazing Pearl Jam album that has Neil Young as the lead singer. It doesn't appear on this discography but will definitely be in a Neil Young discography, if I ever put one of those togehter. The jangle of guitars and the slow fade out of Vedder's voice are fantastic.
We close out this album with the closer from the actual "Vs". I played the shit out of Indifference when I was in high school. It's so self-indulgent, airy, and gloomy. It definitely fits in the same vein with "Release", which closed Ten. It's a great nineties apathy ballad, asking How much difference does it make?
I'm pretty much precisely the right age to love Pearl Jam, and understand why some others don't. I was fourteen when Ten came out, Vs seemed to come out immediately after, and had a different feel, then Vitalogy. They released three albums while I was in high school, and I loved all three, and convinced the record store I was working for that we should do a midnight opening for the release of No Code. It was not a huge success. But I still loved the band.
They faded out of my interest in the 21st century with less frequent albums, and less-focused writing. Their music sounded blander to me for a few years, returned to interesting, and then disappeared completely from my radar.
When the first track from their impening release showed up on Youtube, I was excited. I'm a little less excited with their second pre-release single, but I'm intrigued to see what they do with this album. In that spirit, I decided it was time to give a bit of a primer for people who loved the band but lost track, or people who are curious why so many GenXers still care about a grunge band in 2020.
The first album is way extended. I owned all the singles from the album, with all the B-Sides. I bought a bunch of Pearl Jam Bootlegs from record stores, including the legendarry Bad Radio Sessions of Eddie Vedder. I certainly haven't included all the material from that era. No weeping original version of "Betterman" or the Oh So 1991 "Bee Girl" song. But they had some fun non-album tracks, ad some interesting outtakes from Temple Of The Dog (which would be on my Chris Cornell discography, not Pearl Jam's).
This album is my version of a story hinted at by Vedder's lyrics. It starts from the idea of the song / video for "Jeremy" but takes it in different directions. It's not a story I would consider writing now. It's peak Angsty Teen In The 90s. But that was the album Ten. It was so suicidal. So contemplative. So what happens next. So the problems in my life aren't women's faults, and yet women and fathers are at the crux of them.
The bookending of this album is pretty essential to how I hear albums, and how I reorganize them. So I have preserved Once as the opening track, with it's slow climbing intro before the guitars crash in. If you want to read Vedder's story of the songs on this album, there are plenty of articles. That's not what I'm going to do here. This is a reimagining based on his lyrics. This opening track is our narrator, a teenager absolutely at the end of his tether. He's looking for anything to latch on to and get himself under control, but it is not happening. It's not hard to imagine the angry destructive sequences a video for this song would have.
There's a lot on this kid's mind as he gets on the bus to school, and he and his friends (not all sociopaths are loners) joke around about Dirty Frank the bus driver, saying that he's a serial killer and probably a cannibal. They don't seem to suspect what the main character of this story is up to.
State Of Love & Trust was one of the first Pearl Jam songs I heard, as it was on the Singles Soundtrack that my roommate and I each bought. It's how I was introduced to Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, The Smashing Pumpkins, Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, and Screaming Trees. The narrator is thinking of the awful things he's done, and listening to the voice inside (his) head. He's considering ending his own life instead of going through with massacring his school. And he decides to live.
One of the voices that helps him get through the situation is from a girl he met when he was briefly institutionalized. He doesn't even know what her name is. They talked once. She told him about being abused by her father, and how when she lashed out, her mother had her committed. How her mother wants her to "get better" and go home, but Why Go back, knowing she'l just be abused again? She decides her version of "getting better" will be different. Neither he nor we ever find out what happens to her. But he loved her, and imagines being with her again, and that keeps him moving forward.
"Why Go" fades beautifully into Black on both the original album, and this reimagining. Here the narrator imagines a romantic encounter with the girl from "Why Go", and gets flustered. So he goes outside to get some fresh air to clear his head. But it doesn't quite work, as he remembers that the second time he saw her, she didn't acknowledge him, and he doesn't know why.
Wash is still walking outside. Still thinking. Still wishing. Still will he. Still won't he. Still hormonal response to girl he doesn't really know, and yet knows her most intimate secret. Still isn't sure anything he's ever done is right. Still. Still.
Still walking. He reaches the school's Garden. How has he not run into everyone on his little walk around the school? How is he still thinking about this girl who probably hasn't thought of him in months? He decides the way back to her is violence. And he heads back towards the school.
He reaches the Porch and uses a payphone (Hey, it's 1991 here), and checks the messages on his machine (ibid). There are none. He decides he's going to go for it. Go into the school and make the news.
But he doesn't. The crux of this idea. The crux of the album. The video that changed how seriously kids myage watched videos was Jeremy, and in that video an abused kid decides to bring weapons to school and ends up killing himself in front of his horrified class. Things happen differently there. Our narrator isn't Jeremy, but he's in class with him. And they're not friends. But they're similar people. Only this Jeremy doesn't kill himself, but reads a story about killing himself in front of his class. I can't imagine that won't, at least, end up with him in the guidance counselor's office. He's not our concern, though. Jeremy goes off to live his best life. Meanwhile, the teen we've been following decides not to do anything. Today. Tomorrow is not a promise. But today, everybody lives. Nobody has to know what he never quite planned.
The kid goes back to the porch after class, debates whether it would be worth getting in trouble if he smoked a cigarette, and decides against it. He's thinking about that girl again. He's imagining them meeting outside of the hospital. A beach would be great. Yellow Ledbetter has him pndering whether (he's) the boxer or the bag.
He writes her off. In his head, of course. In real life, there's no real way to write off someone who probably hasn't thought of him. He grabs a bus, not a school bus, a city bus, to the beach to blow off some steam, and to Not Be Home. He needs to be on the beach so he can't hear her voice or her Footsteps in his head anymore. Instead, he ends up with the voice of his hospital assigned therapist talking to him. He confessed things to her that he wishes he hadn't but she'd been kinder than anyone else in the hospital. Still, she'd reported some things back to his family that he wishes she hadn't.
He walks into The Ocean to be dramatic. Not suicide dramatic. Floating in the ocean dramatic. Thinking about her again dramatic. But it's deliberate now. It's not voices. It's not hoping for any actualization. He's just drifting, and letting his mind unravel.
When I was in high school, my roommate had a mixtape from a friend called Windowsills. It was songs to listen to while being melodramatic and dreaming out a window. There were many references to suicide. And, while not being suicidal at all myself, I asked a bunch of people on my floor, what song made them think of suicide. That this didn't get me sent to a therpaist myself is remarkable. Deep was on my mix because it even references windowsills. For the purpose of this album, the kid is still in the ocean, diving down and swimming under water for as long as his breath holds. Then gasping back up into the air.
Breath is not about the gasping in the ocean. But about going home. About having skipped the last half of school and being pretty sure his horrid parents know. It's about it now being past curfew and his not having even done anything bad. No violence. No alcohol. He didn't even smoke. Just cut classes to calm himself, and take a dip in the ocean. And then he just walked home instead of taking a bus.
We leave him at the door, and see his father's view of the day Alone. His girlfriend has left him. Just like his wife left him. Because he's awful. And he knows he's awful. And he knows he's a lousy father. And he was an awful husband. And he might just be a awful person. And he walks around the town, and the beach, the same way his son did. And he saw him cutting class. And he saw him doing nothing destructive. And he went home. And he got there first. And he's just as suicidal.
The story that the teenager told the therapist? He knows that his father is not his father. That the guy that's been poorly raising him is just some guy his mother married. Some guy that was better than his real father was. That his real father is no longer Alive, that he will never get a reconciliation there. He remembers the conversation with his mother. How she left. How she left him with the man who doesn't know how to raise him.
The album ends here as the original album ends. Though I don't like how it flows out of "Alive", Release brings us to the kid sitting on a windowsill. (Which once again gets referenced in the song.) Once agan, he's considering suicide. He's considering the legacy of his dead father. He's considering the legacy of the man who's raising him. He's considering the mother who left, the stepmother who left, the father who left, the acting father who he wishes would leave. We don't get an answer about what happens to any of these people. We fade out to credits. Because it was the nineties, and everything was edgy and ambiguous, and dark.