When Pearl Jam released Vitalogy in December, 1994, nobody quite knew what to make of the album. In his largely positive Rolling Stone review, Al Weisel was quick to point out that “Interspersed among the stronger tracks . . . are throwaways and strange experiments that don't always work,” before going so far as to suggest that, though Vitalogy isn’t contemptuous of its audience, it is “a portrait of an artist in crisis, a man who hasn't yet decided what direction to take next.” Such sentiments weren’t uncommon. Ira Robbins, in his review of the album for Newsday, saw aspects of Vitalogy as an improvement on Pearl Jam’s sound, but still points to the album’s “missteps,” and dings the album for Vedder’s “usual bad poetry and vein-popping vocalizations.” Perhaps more troubling than the critical evaluation of Vitalogy, though, were critics’ attempts to read the album. Depending on who was writing, Vitalogy was an album about Kurt Cobain, an album about fame, an album about Pearl Jam almost breaking up, an album about the growing influence and pervasiveness of media in the nineties and its effects on celebrity culture, and/or an album designed to alienate popular audiences. The narrative surrounding Vitalogy was muddy. After a series of delays, Vitalogy finally arrived during Pearl Jam’s increasingly pronounced and tumultuous struggles to free themselves from the nefarious expectations of popular culture: MTV, Ticketmaster, Fans. All of this made it easy for fans and critics alike to read Vitalogy as an album about a band at war, with themselves and the culture surrounding them.
Evidence of such themes is present in many of the songs that make up Vitalogy. But Vitalogy isn’t really about those things—these themes are the symptoms, not the sickness. And while my metaphor might sound heavy-handed in a 90’s high-school-journal-keeper sort of way, it is a useful way for thinking about an album that names itself after the study of life. So what is the disease at the center of Vitalogy? What is it that makes this album tick? That’s what I want to uncover. Vitalogy is a difficult album, a willful album, but perhaps most of all, Vitalogy is a terrified album. But what is Vitalogy terrified of?
Spoiler alert: At the center of Vitalogy is a very real, very raw fear of death. This is the album’s unstable core, its disease, if you will.
And now that, that is out of the way…
For close to two years, Pearl Jam was my second favorite band of all time. They were never my first. That honor then belonged (and still belongs) to R.E.M. But Pearl Jam, they were second from about 1994, through 1997. I still listened to Pearl Jam for a few years beyond that. I kept current through Yield, Binaural, and Riot Act before throwing in the towel. But 1997 was the year that I started listening to Guided by Voices, Pavement, The Pixies, and Sonic Youth. After those bands, Pearl Jam sounded self-absorbed, immature—less like serious poets, and more like high school kids trying to be deep. This isn’t to say Guided by Voices or Pavement were particularly “deep” either, but they weren’t staking their careers on the idea of being “serious.” Because of Pearl Jam’s ham-fisted desire to be a band with something to say, the further I grew from being a high school kid trying to be deep, the less relevant Pearl Jam felt. From about 2001 until 2010, I probably didn’t listen to a single Pearl Jam album straight through, with most of my Pearl Jam exposure coming via incidental music from bar jukeboxes or karaoke nights.
But now, for some reason, Vitalogy has wormed its way back under my skin. And I’m not the only one. Stereogum recently named the album Pearl Jam’s best. When Vitalogy was reissued in 2011, Pitchfork gave the album a robust 8.3. I’m not sure how either of the publications felt about Vitalogy in the intervening seventeen years, but I suspect their narratives aren’t much different from my own. It’s not like anyone has been describing Vitalogy as underrated, or placing the album on their “best albums of the 90’s” lists.
So why is Vitalogy experiencing this resurgence? And perhaps more pointedly, what changed about the way I was listening to Vitalogy?
I wasn’t the only one who thought Vedder took himself too seriously. There was a Comedy Central ad that ran in the mid 90’s in which Janeane Garafalo shows a magazine picture of Vedder to a group of children, and warns them about the dangers of men like Vedder who complain about their fame and success. As the commercial ends, a young girl says that she thinks Vedder is cute, much to Garafalo’s dismay.
Janeane Garafalo was right. Eddie Vedder was an asshole to complain about his success. How dare the wealthy man adored by scores of fans complain—whine, even—about his good fortune.
But maybe Eddie Vedder wasn’t really just complaining about his good fortune. Maybe these complaints had more to do with something else.
Support for Garafalo’s stance: Vedder’s lyrics on Vitalogy are filled with complaints. On the second verse of “Not For You,” an angry Vedder wails:
Small my table. Sits just two.
Got so crowded. I can’t make room.
Where did they come from? Stormed my room.
And you dare say it belongs to you.
What is Vedder protecting here? Himself? Toward whom is Vedder channeling this song’s anger? The traditional reading of the song argues that it is an assault on those who would commodify youth culture. The result of such commodification, however, is an influx of young people to Vedder’s table. In essence, then, it is Vedder’s fans who are storming his room, crowding him out. The sentiment is echoed on the paranoid “Bugs,” where Vedder rambles through an alcoholic-in-withdrawal’s nightmare of being swarmed by bugs. When Vedder sings, “Bugs on my ceiling, crowded the floor,” his delivery echoes the above lyrics from “Not For You,” the fans of that previous song replaced with insects, “always taking over,” deciding Vedder’s fate. This paranoia appears, again, in the slight “Pry, To,” which consists entirely of a woozy rhythmic vamp and the lyric, “P-r-i-v-a-c-y is priceless to me.” Of course, Vedder wasn’t just paranoid on Vitalogy. There was also self-righteous pleading, as on “Corduroy,” arguably the best song on Vitalogy. Here, Vedder defiantly addresses fans, telling them, “I don’t want to be held in your debt,” before proclaiming that he is already “cut up and half dead.”
Garafalo had a point. Across Vitalogy Vedder is paranoid, alienated, condescending. More than once, Vedder sounds angry at his fans. Such outbursts from Vedder are what made it easy for me to walk away from Pearl Jam for a decade. Vedder’s stance was ugly and childish, selfish and arrogant.
In a May, 1994 Melody Maker interview—just two months after Kurt Cobain killed himself, just six months before Pearl Jam released Vitalogy—Eddie Vedder was quoted as saying:
It's just so fuckin' weird. You write about this shit, and you're suddenly the spokesman for a fuckin' generation . . . Think about it, man . . . Any generation that would pick Kurt or me as its spokesman -- that must be a pretty fucked up generation, don't you think? I mean, that generation must be really fucked up, man, really fuckin' fucked up...
At one point, buried within this extended quote, Allan Jones, the man conducting the interview, tells us that Vedder laughed. Jones describes that laugh as a “bitter, scary laugh, nothing funny about it at all.”
On April 8, 1994, shortly before that Melody Maker published that interview, Kurt Cobain’s body was discovered at his house in Lake Washington. That night, at a show in Fairfax Virginia, Vedder delivered an impromptu speech between performances of “Alive,” and “Porch.” On bootlegs of the concert, we can hear Vedder, in his foggy, lazy voice talk about the literal space between the band and the audience, the elevation of the stage. Vedder says, “We’re not only kind of far, we’re kind of elevated, I noticed—a little more than usual.” He goes on, “But I don’t think it’s very good to elevate yourself. I think that can be very dangerous. Sometimes whether you like it or not, people elevate you—whether you like or not.” Vedder adds, “It’s real easy to fall.” After stammering on a bit more, mixing up a couple of clichés about being the bearer of bad news and killing the messenger, the singer finally manages to say what he’s been building to all along: “I don’t think any of us would be in this room tonight if it weren’t for Kurt Cobain.” Vedder’s voice trails off at the end as if he’s uncertain about saying Cobain’s name, as if to even speak the dead man’s name, Vedder might somehow conjure his own end.
Three days after that Fairfax gig, three days after Cobain was found, Pearl Jam debuted “Immortality,” at Boston Garden. The lyrics were vague, non-descript, more like place holders than actual lyrics. The line about the “cigar box on the floor,” a detail from Cobain’s death scene, was not yet present. In fact, the only noteworthy lyric that survived the transition from debut to record is “I die just to live.” The recorded version shifts the lyric slightly, makes it less personal, “Some die just to live.”
Clearly, Cobain’s death weighed heavily on Eddie Vedder. As such, it is difficult to deny that the Nirvana frontman’s suicide makes up a significant portion of the thematic tissue of Vitalogy. But just as bodies are more than the sum of their various tissues, so too was Vitalogy.
When Vitalogy was released, Vedder balked at the idea that the album dealt with Cobain’s suicide. The cigar box of “Immortality,” Vedder explained, to Robert Hilburn, had nothing to do with the cigar box found next to Cobain’s body—it was a different cigar box entirely, a cigar box in which Vedder kept his tapes. In that same interview, when Hillburn asked whether or not “Immortality” was about Cobain, Vedder answered that the song “was written when we were on tour in Atlanta. It's not about Kurt. Nothing on the album was written directly about Kurt, and I don't feel like talking about him, because it [might be seen] as exploitation.” Vedder went on to say, “I think there might be some things in the lyrics that you could read into and maybe will answer some questions or help you understand the pressures on someone who is on a parallel train.”
If Vedder is being truthful about the genesis of “Immortality,” the song would have been written roughly two days before Cobain’s suicide. But there is something alarming in Vedder’s comment that, while none of the songs on Vitalogy are about Cobain, they are about someone “who is on a parallel train.” Here, of course, Vedders makes a thinly veiled comparison between his and Cobain’s presumably frayed emotional states. Reading his excerpt about parallel trains, it is difficult not to think of that Melody Maker interview in which Vedder seemed unsettled by, angry at the prospect of being a spokesperson for his generation (and it probably stung, as well, that Vedder was the runner-up spokesperson).
Also, even though “Immortality” was allegedly written before Cobain’s death, the song’s lyrics were heavily rewritten between the debut performance just days after Cobain’s death and the release of Vitalogy. The finished version included the lyric about the “cigar box on the floor,” and another about a character who “cannot find the comfort in this world.”
So there—Vitalogy is about Kurt Cobain, but only because Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were on parallel trains and because Kurt Cobain was famous and “tortured,” and Eddie Vedder was famous and “tortured,” and Kurt Cobain killed himself and that terrified Eddie Vedder.
Let’s pause for a moment, take a step back from the conversation of Vitalogy’s “aboutness.” When I showed a rough draft of this essay to fellow Fiddleback music editor and resident Pearl Jam expert Andrew Terhune, he pointed out that, despite the tensions surrounding the production of Vitalogy—both within the band and without—and despite the charges from some that Vitalogy was a willfully difficult album, that the album actually contains some of Pearl Jam’s strongest and most accessible songs. “Nothingman” is quiet and devastating. “Better Man” feels resigned and exhausted, but is also huge-hearted and catchy-as-hell. The song was so catchy in fact, that the band resisted its release for years, and Vedder insisted it be re-recorded several times before he was willing to include it on Vitalogy. That these two songs are grounded in domesticity and very real characters with very relatable circumstances and concerns provides insight into an Eddie Vedder that wasn’t just obsessed with defending himself from his fans. “Nothingman” functions as a veritable cry into the existential wilderness, a lament at the transience of existence and the ease of regret —“ Caught a bolt of lightning/Cursed the day he let it go”—making it one of Vitalogy’s finest, most poignant songs about death. Or, more precisely, the song is about the awareness of our own mortality. So, essentially, it is a song about death. But then, I said we were going to step back from our discussion of the album’s “aboutness.” Perhaps that isn’t as easy as it sounds.
But why even bother worrying ourselves with what an album is about? Vitalogy is a rock album, not a book or a film. Rock albums aren’t about anything, right? Rock albums can progress narratives about bands, but if they are going to tell a story or be about anything, they’re treated as concept albums. At least that’s how music criticism rolled in 1994. In 1994, rock critics didn’t think that, or care if Vitalogy was about death. The only review I’ve found that addresses the album’s overt fear of death is Al Weisel’s, which focuses briefly on the most overt occurrences of the theme—“Last Exit,” “Immortality,” and “Hey, Foxymophandlemama That’s Me”—despite primarily focusing on the album’s treatment of fame and the way that “success has left [Vedder] disaffected and no longer in control of his destiny.” As for those songs about death, Weisel is spot on. “Last Exit” finds Vedder imagining his own decay. “Immortality” finds a young, alienated person who may or may not be Kurt Cobain, dying, “just to live,” and “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” features a mental patient stating that, if she thought about it “real deep” she believed she would kill herself. Sure, he misses “Nothingman,” but that song’s obsession with death isn’t quite as obvious.
Oddly, no other reviews discuss Vedder’s preoccupation with death on Vitalogy. Ira Robbinsargued that, “With Kurt Cobain and his agonized beauty so sadly gone, down on Pearl Jam thuds the dreaded mantle: spokesmen for their generation, genre, hometown, whatever. Vitalogy is their refusal.” Nick Catucci’s recent Rolling Stone review of the Vitalogy reissue reduced it to caricature, stating that, on the album, “Vedder vented more frustrations—with fans, heroin's reach, even popular music itself.” Later, he states that “Vitalogy highlights a key element of Vedder's anger: It's always directed outward, not in.” Similarly, Jayson Greene’s Pitchfork review of the Vitalogy reissue looks at the broader context of the album in the band’s repertoire, with an emphasis on everything happening around the band at the time of the album’s release. He ultimately claims that, “The poignancy of Vitalogy, and the source of its actual weirdness, is how it veers from Vedder's impulse to hide from everyone and his instinctual desire to reach out,” citing two of the album’s standouts, “Nothingman,” and “Better Man,” as highpoints demonstrative of Vedder’s empathetic outreach. Greene is right, but his focus on Vedder’s “impulse to hide,” and the energy Pearl Jam had spent on “extra-musical fights,” ignores the possibility that Vedder’s anger and misanthropy were anything other than what they appeared to be on the surface.
So let’s review: on Vitalogy, Vedder is preoccupied with Kurt Cobain, as well as the loss of his own identity to fame. Vedder rages against the pressures of being an important artist in the 90’s, and lashes out at his fans in the process.
Put that way, Vitalogy still sounds like an ugly record. So what is it, exactly, that brought me back to Vitalogy? I’ve already spoiled part of the ending, that Vitalogy is actually an album about a profound fear of death, but where does Vitalogy exhibit that fear, outside of “Last Exit,” “Immortality,” “Stupid Mop,” “Nothingman,” and the album’s health and body-obsessed artwork, modeled after an antique guide to healthy living?
The fear is in Vedder’s anger. Vitalogy is only about Vedder’s anger and paranoia in so much as it is about his own fear of dying. The album is about Kurt Cobain, and it is about Vedder’s defiance towards his fans because Vedder saw what happened to Cobain, and recognized elements of his own story in Cobain’s—Vedder was, in his own words, on a “parallel train,” to Cobain. As such, Vedder wasn’t just whining about lost privacy or the burden placed on him by his fans—he was fighting for his life. This doesn’t make any of the lyrics any less grating or ugly (“Not For You,” in particular, is still difficult to listen to thanks to its self-righteous anger), but when we recognize that a profound fear of death is at the center of Vitalogy’s study of life,the album’s anger is transformed. Through this lens, Vitalogy isn’t just an album about a privileged white guy complaining about the source of his privilege, it’s a fragile and raw artistic statement by an insecure, frightened man. Vedder’s outbursts and willingness to lash out at his fans are still ugly, juvenile even, but they speak to the ways all of us can be ugly and juvenile when faced with our most profound fears. This isn’t to say that Vedder’s misdirected anger was justified. But, reading Vitalogy as an album about the fear of dying does make Vedder’s anger fascinating and exciting—the stakes are so much more real than simply a rock star protecting what’s his, making it easier for audiences to empathize with Vedder, even as he scorns those audiences.
I used to think that Vitalogy was an angry album. I know better, now. Vitalogy is still a gloriously messy album, and what shape it has, it takes on from an underlying fear and vulnerability. It is that fear and that vulnerability that brought me back to Vitalogy.
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