It’s a sad paradox of these times that the artists who most successfully express our fears and anxieties are the ones who are least able to cope with the burdens of fame. Whether it’s Sinéad O’Connor, who masochistically invites humiliation with public displays of emotional nakedness, or Kurt Cobain, who finally just gave up, it’s sometimes tempting to say what Frank Sinatra once told George Michael — that is, “Stop complaining and enjoy the ride.” But then, Frank is not exactly the most sensitive guy himself.
No one regrets that he’s too famous now to be Ian MacKaye of Fugazi more than Eddie Vedder does. As it was for Cobain, it’s difficult for Vedder to adjust to the fact that the people who used to beat him up in school are now among his biggest fans. While Vitalogy is not the calculatedly anti-commercial album that In Utero was rumored to be (but really wasn’t) before it was released, the one designed to alienate all the fans Vedder doesn’t like, it is a wildly uneven and difficult record, sometimes maddening, sometimes ridiculous, often powerful.
“As privileged as a whore” is how Vedder sums up his fame in “Immortality.” “Victims in demand for public show.” In “Corduroy,” success has left him disaffected and no longer in control of his destiny: “I’m already cut off like I feared/I’ll end up alone like I began,” he sings before concluding: “All the things that others want for me/Can’t buy what I want because it’s free.” Ironically nostalgic for the desperately troubled youth that inspired his best and most tormented songs, he sings on “Not for You”: “All that’s sacred comes from youth/Naive and true with no power/Nothing to do/I still remember/Why don’t you?” Like Pete Townshend, whose Quadrophenia was the soundtrack of Vedder’s adolescence, Vedder seems afraid that while once he was the Punk, he’s now the Godfather.
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Vedder is also more haunted by intimations of mortality than ever before — not exactly a new theme for him but a chilling one for a record whose title means “the study of life.” The album opens with a death-obsessed song called “Last Exit,” and its final track, “Stupid-mop,” concludes with a meditation on suicide. On “Immortality,” Vedder acknowledges, “Cannot stay long/Some die just too young.”
Vitalogy has a number of gripping songs that match the soaring anthems of Ten, the extended grooves of Vs. or the poetry of either record. The first three tracks are a promising start: “Last Exit,” “Not for You” and especially “Spin the Black Circle,” a revvedup thrash tribute to vinyl, rock harder than anything Pearl Jam have ever done. “Whipping” and “Corduroy” are also hard edged and catchy. “Better Man” is a haunting ballad about a woman trapped in a bad relationship; it recalls the character study “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” on Vs. As on “Daughter,” also from Vs., Vedder’s empathy for and identification with women throughout Vitalogy is remarkably affecting and unforced.
Interspersed among the stronger tracks, though, are throwaways and strange experiments that don’t always work. The demented polka “Bugs,” which features Vedder, backed by a discordant accordion, ranting paranoiacally about insects, makes an uncharacteristic stab at humor but ends up being more silly than funny. “Pry, To” is a one-minute doodle that consists of Vedder spelling out the word privacy over and over until we get the point already.
But the most bizarre cut on the record is the last one, “Stupidmop,” a seven-minute hommage to the Beatles’ “Revolution 9.” Consisting of tape loops of distressed voices over banshee guitar howls, the song begs the question, “Is anyone still listening out there?” It opens with a young girl repeating “My spanking, that’s the only thing I want so much.” “Why is that better than a hug?” a woman asks her. “Because you get closer to the person,” the girl replies. The cut closes with a dialogue that is even more disturbing than it might ordinarily be in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death. A man asks a woman, “Do you ever think that you actually would kill yourself?” “Well, if I thought about it real deep, I believe I would,” she answers. They’re the last words on the album.
Bart Simpson once daydreamed that he was a rock star with a phony British accent, singing, “Me Fans Are Stupid Pigs.” Some may think Vedder has reached the point where he thinks his efforts are just Pearl Jam before swine; they’ll dismiss this record as swerving dangerously close to being contemptuous of his audience. But Vitalogy isn’t Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, nor does it seem like a tossed-off interlude like Zooropa. It’s more a portrait of an artist in crisis, a man who hasn’t yet decided what direction to take next.