Vs. Label: Sony
Every band has a debut album. For many, that seed sprouts momentarily before wilting under the pressure of a follow-up release. For others, a stem may develop over time but, afraid of alienating both fans and critics, they refuse to venture beyond the secure shadow of that initial success. And then there are bands that mature past those early stages of development, continually budding and then branching off with each offering of new songs, creating lush leaves and sturdy limbs, and firmly rooting themselves into the musical landscape. For Pearl Jam, that stem was Ten, a 1991 debut that sold more than $10 million copies in the United States. Two years later, the first branch was formed with the arrival of Vs., just a slight diversion from the early development but a distinct sign that even more vegetation was on the way.
The buzz surrounding Pearl Jam's sophomore effort was so deafening that Vs. sold nearly one million copies in the first five days of its release. Fans had hoped for more of the same from the grunge icons and, for the most part, they got what they wanted. Eddie Vedder grunted, growled and shrieked throughout much of the 12-song set, Mike McCready's guitar solos were once again astounding and the rest of the gang sounded nearly as uncompromising as they had on Ten. But something was a little different. The lingering bitterness from disagreements with MTV and Ticketmaster seeped into Eddie's songwriting, spawning rants like "Blood" and "Rats." And then there was the hint of experimentation on "Glorified G" and "W.M.A.," an understated urge to explore the musical terrain that waited outside the boundaries previously established just two years earlier.
But while Vs. isn't a carbon copy of its ancestor, there certainly are some familiar moments in the lineup. To this day, "Go" stands as perhaps Pearl Jam's best opening track, reaching an intensity level that not even Ten can match. Actually, Vs. gnashes its teeth more so than any other PJ album, with "Go" giving way to the frenzied "Animal." The unforgettable "Rearviewmirror" gallops along at a relentless pace, and then there's "Leash," the rebellious three-minute slam on authority that swirls around Vedder's demands to, "Drop the leash, drop the leash / Get outta my fuckin' face!" It's here that the lead singer also sheds his celebrity skin, declaring that he's just one of us when he admits, "I am lost, I'm no guide / But I'm by your side / I am right by your side."
Of course, Vs. doesn't have adrenaline coursing through all of its veins. In fact, Vedder, McCready, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Dave Abbruzzese most notably flaunt their growth as musicians during their tamer moments. "Daughter" likely has received the most airtime of any Pearl Jam track past or present, although "Dissident" also found itself in heavy rotation as the album's second single. "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," dubbed as the "longest title in the Pearl Jam catalogue" by Vedder on 1998's Live on Two Legs, may also be the simplest yet most memorable song in the band's collection, and to this day it remains one of the sing-along highlights of any Pearl Jam concert. It also stands as a launching pad for much of the band's future material, essentially giving life to later ballads like "Nothingman," "Off He Goes," "Low Light" and even "Indifference," this album's final track.
Vedder and his bandmates succeeded where so many other artists have failed: They followed up a remarkable debut release with an equally impressive sequel. But they also dared to experiment on Vs., dared to be dissatisfied, and dared to challenge their fans with an album that refused to reach new heights by merely standing on its predecessor's lofty shoulders. The Pearl Jam tree had its first branch, and many more would soon follow.