Vs. is the sound of a band on fire. The same confluence of talent, passion, timing, and fate that made “grunge” the world’s soundtrack also lit a short fuse beneath Pearl Jam. The band combusted between late 1992 and mid-1994, the span during which they planned, recorded, and supported their sophomore record. The spotlight, the pressure, the pace-it all nearly turned the thriving act to ash.
Eddie Vedder, the reluctant public face of the band, responded by lashing out lyrically. Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, and Stone Gossard, who beheld success with varying degrees of anxious satisfaction, attacked their instruments in solidarity. Dave Abbruzzese welcomed the rock-star lifestyle, and left his mark on the record with more than just potent percussion.
Vs. roils with fury-and at times, gently steams-over the trappings of fame, human faults, and societal injustice. The record is a thrashing testament to Pearl Jam’s urgent creativity and greater-good interests, and the band’s logistical calculations behind it drew a career-defining line in the sand. It promised the world that Pearl Jam would neither burn out nor fade away. This book weaves research, little-known details, and band members’ memories into a definitive account of how Vs. set them on a path toward enduring integrity and relevance.
I have been enjoying the 33 ⅓ books for a while now, most all of them about albums I barely know anything about. I like to pick titles of music that has been on my radar but not on my playlist. This gives me the reason and opportunity to explore different great albums and listen to new artists and genres. Pearl Jam’s Vs. is not one of them.
When Vs., Pearl Jam’s sophomore album came out, I was sixteen. I had listened to Ten a little over six hundred and thirty nine thousand times by then (only a slight exaggeration), and so I was interested in this album before it even came out. I was a teenager filled with new hormones and angst, and the only thing that helped was hours and hours of music. I bought Vs. close to the release date and listened to it nonstop. I am reading this book with an intimate knowledge of the album, the time period, and I remember some of the details when they were brought up by Clint Brownlee, like the (media exaggerated) “feud” between Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, how they released the album on vinyl a week before it was on compact disc (My teenage self actually made fun of this at the time because who will ever listen to vinyl again?), and of course the boycott of Ticketmaster. I knew these things but did not know the deeper meaning behind these events. Brownlee does a great job getting to the bottom of the emotion and pressure on the band to make an album greater than Ten and how they did not let it destroy them, even though it came very close. The entire book brought up so many memories and also enlightened me on some of the turmoil around recording it that makes me have a better understanding and appreciation of this album.
I like the structure of this book, the way that Brownlee lumps the songs into chapters by theme or meaning. I also like the exploration of the more political songs, like “Rats” and “W.M.A”, which I always knew was a major statement about racism, but I did not think much about how they were a mainstream act using their popularity to talk about justice and the unfair disparity between white and black men. I knew that I liked these songs and that they were important, but I did not know how important they were to the band, to be able to use their platform to address issues that are important to them.
There are some interesting stories filtered through the book about Vedder’s attitude and behavior, about the dynamics of the band, and about the reception of the album. I listened to Vs. a few times while reading this, and I will say that reading about it opened my eyes to how much depth Eddie Vedder’s lyrics are, and I felt like I was learning new things about an old friend. This is a great addition to the 33 ⅓ books.
I received this as an ARC from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.