Sophomore slump? Never heard of it. In fact, on Oct. 19, 1993, Pearl Jam released Vs., one of the most successful sophomore albums in rock history. Vs. set the all-time record for first-week album sales at the time with 950,000 copies sold (back when SoundScan only counted the first 5 days instead of the full week), and spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Coming off the success of their breakout album Ten, there was a certain amount of pressure on the band, but the group quickly took control of their circumstances and established themselves as an act who did things their own way.
After becoming MTV megastars thanks to the “Jeremy” video, the group decided to take a step back from the spotlight by not releasing any videos from the album. Despite the huge amount of attention heaped upon them by the press, the group opted to take a more low key approach overall in an attempt to avoid the inevitable over saturation.
Pearl Jam, “Animal”
For a good portion of recording, the album was going to be titled Five Against One, referencing a lyric from their song “Animal,” but toward of the end of their sessions with producer Brendan O’Brien, the title changed to Vs.
“For me, that title represented a lot of the struggles that you go through to make a record,” revealed guitarist Stone Gossard to Rolling Stone. “Your own independence — your own soul — versus everybody else’s. In this band, and I think in rock in general, the art of compromise is almost as important as the art of individual expression. You might have five great artists in the band, but if they can’t compromise and work together, you don’t have a great band. It might mean something completely different to Eddie [Vedder]. But when I heard that lyric, it made a lot of sense to me.”
Vedder revealed that the title also dealt with the media scrutiny the band was under, stating, “They were writing all these articles … Our band against somebody else’s band. What they hell are they talking about? You know, don’t try to separate the powers that be. We’re all in this together.”
Speaking of the struggles, the band had a few en route to completing the disc. As the new guy coming in on Ten, Vedder had a bit of a blueprint to work from, but relocating to remote location in California to record Vs. didn’t exactly sit well with the singer, who struggled with writing during the sessions.
Bassist Jeff Ament recalled, “Recording Vs., there was a lot more pressure on Ed. The whole follow-up. I thought we were playing so well as a band that it would take care of itself. … He was having a hard time finishing up the songs, the pressure, and not being comfortable in such a nice place.” Vedder himself told Spin, “The second record, that was the one I enjoyed making the least … I just didn’t feel comfortable in that place we were at because it was very comfortable. I didn’t like that at all.”
However, one positive from the album sessions was the band’s newfound relationship with producer Brendan O’Brien, who would go on to oversee many of the band’s albums after this first experience. During the sessions, O’Brien had the band line up as though they were playing live. Gossard recalls, “I think we allowed things to develop in a more natural, band-oriented sort of way, rather than me bringing in a bunch of stuff that was already arranged.”
Pearl Jam, “Go”
A sign of this being a more collaborative effort was the fact that the first song that people heard off the album was “Go,” a track that originated via the band’s drummer Dave Abbruzzese, who actually penned the cut on guitar. “He’s a hell of a guitar player,” stated guitarist Mike McCready to Guitar World. “I remember he wrote ‘Go’ on an acoustic, without a pick. Stone put in that melodic bit that sounds like a siren.”
Gossard added, “That song went through a cool evolution that goes back to what we were saying about creative input. Dave played us the two main parts, that BAM-BAM-BAM groovy chordal riff bit and then the main ascending riff in more of an acoustic vein. Then, when he got behind the drums, everyone turned up real loud and it evolved into something else, a little more hardcore.”
“Go,” released in late October of 1993, would go on to peak at No. 3 on the Mainstream Rock chart and No. 8 on the Modern Rock chart.
Pearl Jam, “Daughter”
The second single, “Daughter,” would become the album’s biggest hit, topping the Mainstream Rock Chart for 8 weeks and also spending time at No. 1 on the Modern Rock chart. “Daughter” would also crack the Billboard Top 40 chart, topping out at No. 28.
Vedder stated to Melody Maker, “The child in that song obviously has a learning difficulty. And it’s only in the last few years that they’ve actually been able to diagnose these learning disabilities that before were looked at as misbehavior, as just outright rebelliousness. But no one knew what it was. And these kids, because they seemed unable or reluctant to learn, they’d end up getting the shit beaten outta them. The song ends, you know, with this idea of the shades going down — so that the neighbors can’t see what happens next. What hurts about shit like that is that it ends up defining people’s lives. They have to live with that abuse for the rest of their lives. Good, creative people are just fucking destroyed.”
In April 1994, Pearl Jam changed the pace with a more chaotic single “Animal.” The song was a holdover from Stone Gossard’s initial Pearl Jam ideas, initially formed as an instrumental demo called “Weird A” back in 1990.
McCready stated of the track, “I like the lead on that. George Webb, a guy who takes care of all our guitars and amps, was sitting there and I told him I’d do a solo for him. It ended up being the one we used on the record. I did it on a Gibson 335, too. That’s a fun song to play.”
As for the lyrical content, Vedder confirmed to Melody Maker that the song was penned in a moment of anger. He revealed, “I don’t wanna talk about [who the anger is directed at]. It’s not so much personal, it’s just, some person at the record company said the other day that they wanted the vocals turned up. He wanted people to understand exactly what I was singing. So I told him what it was about and he said, ‘You’re right. Let’s leave the vocals as they are. Maybe we don’t really want people to understand it.”
Pearl Jam, “Dissident”
Finishing out the singles on the album, Pearl Jam released “Dissident” in May 1994, with the song eventually topping out at No. 3 on the Mainstream Rock start.
Vedder stated on the track, “In ‘Dissident,’ I’m actually talking about a woman who takes in someone who’s being sought after by the authorities for political reasons. He’s on the run, and she offers him a refuge. But she just can’t handle the responsibility. She turns him in, then she has to live with the guilt and the realization that she’s betrayed the one thing that gave her life meaning. It made her life difficult. It made her life hell. But it gave her a reason to be. But she couldn’t hold on. She folded. That’s the tragedy of the song.”
Though not released as singles, Pearl Jam had several other tracks from Vs. that have gone on to become some of their most requested and played songs.
The upbeat-yet-dark “Rearviewmirror,” a song Vedder penned about the desire to leave a bad situation, “Glorified G,” a track that went through a series of changes before landing on the album, and the melodic and contemplative “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” have all carved out their place in Pearl Jam history.
Pearl Jam, “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town“
By the time all was said and done, Pearl Jam’s Vs. was a huge success, further establishing the band as one of the top acts in the rock scene. The album has been certified 7 times platinum, and as previously stated, has generated a number of songs that remain constants in the band’s live set to this day. Even with all the monster success, the band also stayed grounded.
As Gossard told Rolling Stone, “I think we’re doing fine. I think we made a great record. Nobody’s out there buying limos and thinking they’re the most amazing thing on earth. There’s a natural balance in the band where we need each other. Everybody sees things from their own angle, and all those angles are archetypes of the things you need to really cover your ass. It’s what makes the band to me.”