What is it?
The third studio album from a small four-piece combo founded in the early 1990s called Pearl Jam.
Why is it underrated?
In the early 1990s, flannel was king. And unless you were singing dark, moody tunes with a lot of volume, you weren’t really making any noise. The music was called grunge (because the people singing it were grungy) and the epicenter of this movement was Seattle, WA, a town known prior to that for lots of people leaving it and a billboard that said, “Will the last person out of Seattle please turn out the lights?” Eventually, two band emerged and waged a Beatles/Rolling Stones-like battle for supremacy. There was Nirvana (led by the movement’s messiah, Kurt Cobain) and there was Pearl Jam (with front man Eddie Vedder and his war on Ticketmaster fees). With these two titans fighting it out, it seemed as though it would all last forever.
But Cobain’s death in 1994, combined with the multitude of grunge superstar wannabes with zero connection to the Pacific Northwest or lumberjacks completely watering down the talent pool, caused the buildup to Pearl Jam’s third release to hit the point of completely unreachable. Many people thought that Cobain’s death had signaled the death knell. In fact, it seemed the whole of the grunge movement was hinging on the album. Would grunge survive or would music move on? On Dec. 6, 1994, Pearl Jam released Vitalogy to mixed reviews and nowhere near the sales of their prior two albums.
Now, let’s put this into perspective a little bit: Vitalogy didn’t completely tank. As of 2007, it had sold 4.7 MM copies, so by now it’s probably certified 5x platinum. The album did spawn three ubiquitous singles: "Betterman," "Nothingman," and "Corduroy," which dominated the airwaves for a few months. But still, the reaction was disappointing.
The common complaint about Vitalogy (he confidently said after reading way too many Amazon.com reviews of the album) is that it’s an uneven effort, with some spectacular songs and some really bad ones. Apparently, the album (because it aims to tell a story from the first to last track, with some odd filler tracks that aim to connect the narrative of the album) has been compared to the Beatles’ White Album. Seriously? The White Album? Why not pile on the pressure? This is like every time you have sex with your wife: she wants it to be awesome, because she knows she’s not going to be doing it for a while (her fault, not yours), and you’re sitting there thinking, “How am I supposed to live up to that?”
Strip away the context of Pearl Jam’s first two albums and the ridiculous comparison to the Beatles, and what you find is a really amazing, ambitious album that can completely stand on its own. The album is at once loose and intense; stripped down and melodic, but also well-produced and discordant. It’s everything that you’d think a Pearl Jam album should be. Essentially, not at all what we were expecting. And you’d think that would be a positive.
Aside from the singles (which weren’t actually released as singles, they merely found their way to radio with no backing from Epic Records), there are some really kick ass songs on here. They pay tribute to Cobain with "Immorality." The song doesn't attempt to idolize or make Cobain out to be a martyr or infallible, but rather acts as a beautiful tribute that tries to explain the tragic suicide. The song depicts Cobain (although not by name) to be a deeply troubled man, seeking solace and a release from pain.
Looking back, between the hype and the changing musical tastes, Vitalogy didn’t stand a chance. In fact, if Pearl Jam released Ten in 1994, it probably wouldn’t have performed nearly as well as it did three years prior. It just wasn’t the right time. Moving forward, Pearl Jam was no longer a must buy when their albums were released. Their subsequent two albums didn’t reach the total sales of Vitalogy, let alone Ten or Vs.
Some rock heroes die by self-inflicted gunshot wound. Some die by overdose. Others simply watch time pass them by. And while Pearl Jam remains a great band and a top concert draw, they’re nothing like they were back then. Vitalogy turned out to be the beginning of the end.
By The Numbers: Pearl Jam Vs. Nirvana
According to SoundScan, Nielsen’s product for tracking record sales, Pearl Jam has outsold Nirvana in the U.S. 19.1 MM to 14.2 MM (through 2007).
1) SoundScan only counts numbers post-1991, so Nirvana might be getting undercounted a bit in their numbers for Bleach.
2) This counts only studio albums.
3) Nirvana obviously stopped recording albums in 1994
More specifically, regarding their major label debuts (Ten vs. Nevermind), Pearl Jam also outsold Nirvana 9.5 to 8.5.
Now, there was obviously something of a coattail effect here. Nirvana paved the way for Pearl Jam, which has to count for something, but these numbers are pretty striking.