They wanted to call it “Life,” and by the time Pearl Jam began recording their third album, their lives seemed pretty charmed. Despite ignoring nearly every dictate of the music business, they had sold millions of copies of Ten and Vs. Creatively, Pearl Jam were on such fire that they began cutting their follow-up to Vs. while they were still on the road to promote it. “It’s kind of amazing when you look back,” bassist Jeff Ament told Cameron Crowe later, “but we really didn’t have more than a couple of weeks off for the first four or five years of the band.”
Yet for all their overnight success – in many ways because of it – Pearl Jam were on the verge of collapse when recording sessions began in Atlanta, New Orleans and Seattle, their hometown. Eddie Vedder was increasingly frustrated by the corporate appropriation of grunge, exemplified by the introduction of a Vedder-like character on the TV soap opera General Hospital, played by future pop star Ricky Martin. Vedder and drummer Dave Abbruzzese, who was happy to revel in the band’s success, had stopped talking to each other. Meanwhile, the drug and alcohol abuse that was afflicting some of their peers had started seeping into the band. “I was drunk and making an ass out of myself,” recalled guitarist Mike McCready. “I didn’t know how to relate to Eddie, and after the band really took off, I went off in my own world.”
Vedder’s desire for creative control also caused tension. In addition to his lead-singer duties, he had begun playing guitar, turning Pearl Jam into a three-ax army – “which wasn’t an easy transition,” says producer Brendan O’Brien. “How do you squeeze everybody in?” By 1994, Vedder had almost fully taken charge of the band’s musical direction – writing more of the songs himself rather than working in collaboration with his bandmates. “It wasn’t a hostile takeover,” Vedder told Crowe later. “To be honest, I think that I felt that anything we put out was highly representative of me and because I was kind of becoming the most recognizable guy in the group, I needed to be more represented musically. And if that meant me creating the songs that were going to accomplish that, then I had to do it.”
For other members of the band, the new approach was jarring. “I still don’t know if he was consciously exerting wanting to take over the band or take the reins or the power,” said Ament. Guitarist Stone Gossard sensed the change when he brought in a song he’d recorded on a microcassette. Vedder listened quietly and returned the next day with the same tape, but sped up to a tempo that sounded like a nonstop flyswatter attack. “He was like, ‘Now listen to it, and see if you like that,'” Gossard said. “When I wrote that song, it was probably much more of a midtempo stomp, and it ended up being sort of a tear-your-head-off uptempo number.”
The eventual product, a tribute to vinyl records called “Spin the Black Circle,” was a revved-up thrasher that omitted another Pearl Jam mainstay: a guitar solo. “We just broke it down to its bare essentials,” Gossard said. “We’d just made Vs., and I was like, ‘This is it, this is the prototype of how we’re going to be as a band. I understand how this is supposed to work.’ And suddenly Vitalogy was very different from that. I was worried about that.”
In such a fraught atmosphere (McCready checked himself into the Hazelden rehab clinic in Minnesota a few months before Vitalogy‘s release), it’s startling that the band didn’t fall apart. But even at that early stage of their career, Pearl Jam were steeped in self-perseverance, and an album that threatened to derail their career wound up lending them a renewed sense of purpose.
The stress that had overtaken the group in light of its fame was evident from the start. “Lives opened and trashed/Look, Ma, watch me crash,” Vedder sang on Vitalogy‘s unrelenting first track, “Last Exit.” It was far from the only song that found him grappling with his magazine-cover-idol status. Feelings of being overwhelmed fueled “Tremor Christ,” and the one-minute-and-one-second “Pry, To” featured Vedder taunting “P-R-I-V-A-C-Y is priceless to me” four straight times.
Inspired by seeing a replica of one of his favorite jackets selling for hundreds of dollars in a fashion store, “Corduroy” lashed out at the exploitation of Pearl Jam’s alt-rock community. As Vedder said, “The music was getting co-opted at every turn. At the time, that freaked me out.” A brooding slow-burner with a crashing-waves chorus, “Immortality” was interpreted as a comment on Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide during the album’s sessions. “It’s not about Kurt,” Vedder said at the time. “But 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.”
Even more ferociously defiant was “Not for You,” which the band premiered on Saturday Night Live months before its release. Vedder’s voice reached new levels of roared disgust, and the song embodied the band’s aversion to the entertainment ma chinery: “I felt like establishing something in that song,” Vedder said. “‘This music doesn’t belong to you. You don’t feel it like we do. You don’t even know what’s really going on here. You’ve never stood in line for a show.'” On the version cut for Vitalogy, McCready played a Rickenbacker given to him by Tom Petty, another believer in sticking with one’s principles.
Along with its coiled intensity, Vitalogy also found Pearl Jam stretched out in ways they hadn’t on their first two albums. Almost a grunge lullaby, “Nothingman” was a collaboration between Ament, who wrote the music, and Vedder, who supplied the lyrics about a relationship coming undone. “Aye Davanita” is nearly three minutes of chanted mumbling and back-porch strumming. Inspired by Vedder’s recent bout with poison oak, “Bugs” could have been a lost track on a Tom Waits album: Strapping on an accordion, Vedder sings in an increasingly freaked-out voice about insects crawling over him. “We just decided to do something that was fun to listen to and wasn’t bombastic and wasn’t everything that the band had become,” Vedder said.
Vedder also exposed some of his private life in “Better Man,” about his mother and stepfather and their troubled marriage. Although the song has an inherently strong verse-chorus structure, it came to symbolize the second-guessing that permeated Pearl Jam at the time. Originally intended for Vs., “Better Man” was dropped from that album. Later, when the band played it onstage in Atlanta, O’Brien was so stunned by the power of the performance that he used parts of that recording for a new version of the song. Even then, Vedder almost yanked it off Vitalogy, feeling the chorus was “too happy.” A new, quieter intro, with Vedder on guitar and O’Brien on organ, was quickly recorded. “I, personally, was stressed out almost the whole time,” said O’Brien. “I was trying my best to keep it positive, but it was a stressful time. … They were sort of imploding a little bit internally.”
Late in the sessions, Abbruzzese was fired in what he later called an “unceremonious and disrespectful way,” and the band brought on a new drummer, former Red Hot Chili Pepper Jack Irons. Irons’ first task was contributing to the band’s strangest recording ever. Stretching out past seven minutes, the track called either “Stupid Mop” or “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” (depending on where one looked in the credits) blended voices of mental-hospital patients – which Vedder had taped off his TV when he was a teenager – with an improvised backing track. Vedder called it “our most emotional and moving song,” but the head-scratching sound collage, the album’s closing cut, became one of the most debated moments in the band’s history.
This eccentric impulse extended to their late-game decision to change the album title from “Life” to Vitalogy, a name taken from a health care manual published in 1899. At a cost of $2 million, the group packaged the CD in an imitation of the century-old book, complete with a table of contents, an open letter to then-President Bill Clinton about the shooting death of an abortion doctor, and reproductions of illustrations and a glossary from the original Vitalogy book.
“At first I didn’t think it had any continuity,” McCready said of the finished LP. “It was weird. When I heard the final album, I didn’t really like it, which may have been because I was so fucked up when we recorded it.” Gossard said he felt “kind of disappointed” hearing it.
Eccentric or not, Vitalogy sold nearly 900,000
copies in its first week. By dismantling their sound and wandering a new
artistic path, Pearl Jam were reborn and more confident than ever. “In
retrospect,” Gossard said, “thank God that we made a record that all
of a sudden had this different energy.”