photo & text by nacrowe
i heard PEARL JAM's early catalogue haphazardly and completely and out of order. it makes sense because i was very young when those first few releases came out and wasn't conscious of music or CULTURE in general at the time. in fact, i was seven when their debut TEN (EPIC, 1991) came out, although i didnt obtain that album until late 1995. i received PEARL JAM's third album VITALOGY (EPIC, 1994) as a gift from my parents, along with SOUNDGARDEN's SUPERUNKNOWN (A&M, 1994), for either christmas or my birthday in late 1994 or early 1995. both of those two records were the first i ever owned and are still PRECIOUS to me. it wasnt until i moved to NIGERIA in and learned in early 1996 from an AMERICAN classmate that there was, in fact, another in-between album called VS. (EPIC, 1993) that i should check out. so my order went VITALOGY, TEN, and the VS. with PEARL JAM.
irrespective of my own IDIOSYNCRATIC exposure to their material, VITALOGY was a pivotal record in their discography as it marked the effective CREATIVE takeover of the band by vocalist EDDIE VEDDER. in comparison, on TEN the outlines of songs were mostly written by the time of his arrival, so his input was purely lyrical. on VS. the band was still very much effectively helmed by guitarist STONE GOSSARD and bassist JEFF AMENT, who started PEARL JAM in the wake the dissolution of MOTHER LOVE BONE due to the TRAGIC passing of frontman ANDEW WOOD from a heroin overdose. what transpired and altered between VS. and VITALOGY was a massive wave of unmitigated commercial success. surreally, VEDDER in october 1993 was even put on the cover of TIME magazine as the poster boy of sorts for his GENERATION, getting the BOB DYLAN / BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN treatment. by the time of production for VITALOGY there was a power shift where VEDDER asserted his songwriting and AESTHETIC INFLUENCES on the product, figuring that if he was going to be selling his likeness to the public he should at least not be PASSIVE in creating the product itself. VITALOGY is sonically and thematically EXPANSIVE and an ARTISTIC departure from the previous two releases. VITALOGY is OBSCURE, SELF-EFFACING and even HUMOROUS whereas the first two albums are more EARNEST, TRANSPARENT and somewhat DOWN-THE-MIDDLE ROCK AND ROLL. there is a through-line though with songs like "CORDUROY" and "BETTER MAN" off of VITALOGY seeming to come from a similar sonic and lyrical place as "DAUGHTER" and "ELDERLY WOMAN BEHIND THE COUNTER IN A SMALL TOWN" off VS. or "BLACK" and "OCEANS" off of TEN.
this is all incredibly long prologue to bring up how CONTROVERSIAL PEARL JAM's fourth album NO CODE (EPIC, 1996) was upon release. the record came in the wake of a DISASTROUS tour in support of VITALOGY in which the band boycotted TICKETMASTER for financially exploiting its FANBASE. at this point also the band had long since stop making promotional music videos in the wake of "JEREMY" off of TEN. my impression of it was that it was meant as a palette cleanser a la NIRVANA's IN UTERO (DGC, 1993) or more drastically LOU REED's METAL MACHINE MUSIC (RCA VICTOR, 1975). it felt like a NONCOMMERCIAL album that was purposely OPAQUE to try to wean off the more FICKLE elements of its rabid FANBASE and create something more INSULAR, ARTFUL and entirely SELF-AWARE. its almost as if they made a CHALLENGING album for another fictional band that didnt have this OVERWHELMING corporate apparatus on its back chomping at the bit for more product to satisfy their INSATIABLE shareholders. i remember the only tracks i really took to were the UPTEMPO, HARD-CHARGING "HAIL, HAIL" and the decidedly SUBDUED "THERE HE GOES" both of which were SOLID songs but not ICONIC singles like those from the first three records.
my opinion now is that this type of relative retreat from the spotlight was INEVITABLE given the PERSONALITY and ETHOS of VEDDER and his bandmates. there was also this palpable sense with the passing of KURT COBAIN years before that having control over your product and putting out into the public something that is AUTHENTIC is really all that matters. COBAIN years earlier commented on their early work being DERIVATIVE of CLASSIC ROCK cliches, which was somewhat ACCURATE and completely BITING. PEARL JAM took such to heart and their career trajectory since has been a conscious attempt at staying true to themselves and their COMMUNITY come what may. this even means reversing course, as PEARL JAM did with the CELEBRATED follow-up to NO CODE, titled YIELD (EPIC, 1998) which was heralded as largely a return to form (even complete with an AWARD-WINNING TODD MCFARLANE-directed animated music video).
but NO CODE lived up to its title, its not really meant to be understood. its an INTERESTING curiosity in their catalogue, but NOT ESSENTIAL in my opinion. i would recommend first-time listeners check any of their first three records with a slight preference to VITALOGY, which is undoubtedly one of my FAVORITE albums from my childhood.