|A Guided Tour of Vs.
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|Author:||stip [ Fri December 28, 2012 12:16 pm ]|
|Post subject:||A Guided Tour of Vs.|
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A Guided Tour of Vs.
In honor of the Vs./Vitalogy box set it seems like as good a time as any to put together a walkthrough of Vs. Let me start by making the disclaimer that this is entirely an interpretative work. These are my own thoughts on what I think these songs are about and how they fit together, both as a record and as a chapter in the larger story that is told throughout the catalog. I make no claims to this being definitive.
In a lot of ways Vs. is the most simplistic of all of Pearl Jam’s records. For all the straight ahead bombast in its sound Ten grapples with feelings of betrayal in a pretty nuanced way. Albums like Riot Act and Binaural deal with a loss of agency. Yield and No Code look for transcendence. Backspacer is a nuanced exploration of one particular moment. Vs., on the other hand, is anger and self-righteous aggression, but devoid of the context found on S/T or the synthesis on Vitalogy. It is a record that spends its time lashing out, desperate for a target, before finally exhausting itself. It’s a wounded, cornered animal, which is pretty much the shape the band was in at the time.
Vs., more than any other Pearl Jam album, feels like a collection of songs. They all fit, but few of them are essential to the record, since its story is the cataloging of essentially interchangeable moments of judgment. At least in the record’s first half. Towards the end of the album they try to process the anger to turn it into something productive. Whether or not it is effective remains to be seen.
So as always, thank you to everyone who reads, participates (my posts are hopefully where discussion begins, rather than ends), and watches me try to come up with 20 pages of synonyms for being pissed off.
Go has, bar none, the most bad ass intro of any song in Pearl Jam’s catalog, with its ominous rumbling and skittering guitars setting the scene before exploding into the gut punch of the song proper. The music bores into you, barreling along with an inexorable power that will not be denied, punctuated by Mike’s blistering solos and the siren of the guitars. The music slams you down right into the middle of a riot in full swing, the mob surging forward and the authorities pushing back, committing acts of violence against a force that refuses to yield, until they both destroy themselves. The banshee backing vocals add to the overall affect, the sense that Eddie is singing for many, who all come together for that one desperate Please. There may not be a song in their entire catalog that hits as hard as this one.
Eddie strikes the perfect mix of pleading intensity and primal fury, the sound of someone who knows their desire is just but somehow tainted, and in the heat of the moment, can no longer quite articulate the reasons why. The song begins with him sounding regretful, standing over the bed (or slab) of someone he has grievously wrong, perhaps unintentionally, but the innocence through which we create the structures that poison us makes it even worse (this is what they cover so effectively in Comatose).
We don’t know what precisely happened (I used to imagine, perhaps arbitrarily, this was a song about aids or some kind of STD ‘I swear I never took it for granted, just thought of it now/Suppose I abused you, just passing it on’), nor do we know who his nemesis is (it could be someone else, it could be his reflection in the mirror) but this is all deliberately vague, either because Eddie doesn’t know or he’s reluctant to fill in the blanks. He’s losing something—it could be a person, it could be something inside himself, it could be something external, but in either case it is something he is desperate to keep. This is why half of what Eddies screams in the second half of the song is so hard to understand. The substance is irrelevant. This song is force of nature, and commits the listener on the basis of its power and immediacy and the absolute conviction with which Eddie sings about something even he doesn’t understand.
Animal and Go are sister songs, two sides of the same coin. There is probably no 1-2 combo in the catalog that connect in quite the same way that these do. Go is slightly more ferocious, while Animal is, in a curious way, somehow more melodic and gentle despite its aggression and anger. As befitting the title, the music practically growls at the listener, with the songs empty spaces and hanging notes giving the listener a chance to catch their breath, only to be attacked again (fitting given the rape overtones in the lyrics). It makes the song as relentless as Go even with its shifting moods.
Though the song is riddled with pauses there is no real reflection in Animal—Animal (like go) is an open wound too raw to heal. The questions it asks are practically howled ‘why would you want to hurt me? So frightened of your pain?’ but the song immediately retreats back into the doubled over, clenched hurt of the song. In a scary way, there is almost a sense of relief in that retreat. There is a wry, sardonic, almost dismissive tone that flits in and out of the main vocal where the subject almost seems to welcome the pain. It’s a drug, and they’re seeking it out even as they resent the need for it.
Where Go is a song about an abuser, Animal is a song about being abused, and it is easy to read rape into the song’s vague lyrical themes of assault and violation. Like Rats, the song claims that the worst excesses in human nature, the things we do to each other to escape from ourselves make us less than human, worse than animals—something more akin to a monster. Like Go Eddie’s vocal performance is surprisingly nuanced for such a (superficially) thematically simple song. We have the same compelling mixture of anger and desperation, but it’s mixed with undertones of judgment (not surprising, given the subject matter—and Mike’s soloing in this song sounds accusatory), even pity for attackers—for the loss of humanity that drives them to do what they do.
That may be the most interesting thing about the Go/Animal combination. We have a song about abusing and being abused, each largely devoid of context and substance (Go more than Animal). What matters in each song is the intensity of the experience. But the experiential difference between the two songs breaks down. It’s almost like there is no difference between being the aggressor and the victim. In either case you have a person whose life becomes defined by a sense of violation and betrayal, no matter which side of the exchange they are on. In neither case can the people involved see past the way the experience. It cuts them off, leaves them lost and diminished and unable to imagine life any other way. Thomas Jefferson once argued that slavery was just as devastating to whites as it was to blacks. The cost to blacks was obvious, but the damage being a master did to the characters of whites was just as harmful. Bracketing whether or not that’s actually the case there are still elements of that observation in these first two songs. These two songs might be about the same event, or even the same person. The difference between the two collapses into itself and we’re left with the realization that we’re trapped in a world frightened of its own pain, one that lashes out in violence rather than confront and contest the cause. It is just easier, and we risk less by killing off the part of us that wants more. Vs. is an inarticulate howl of protest against that all too human tendency to retreat, or revel in, everything that’s wrong. Despite the surface social critiques on the record, this record does not chronicle an individual’s war with society. Instead it is about our war with ourselves.
So Go and Animal set up the damaged emotional space that fills the first 2/3rds of the record. Going forward Vs. tries to diagnose our ills, or failing that at least find a more concrete target—someone or something we can blame— but every one of the songs running from Daughter through Blood (the missequenced Rats as well) starts from this same place. There is no real reflection in any of these songs—just the same heady combination of anger, frustration, judgment, and reactionary pain.
The most striking thing about Daughter is perhaps how inviting it is after the hurricane openers. The music warmly envelopes you at the start, and the song is a blank slate that Eddie slowly fills in during its initial moments with simple, but evocative images that set the scene for the familial psychodrama of the lyrics. There’s an immediate contrast between the music and the desolation of the scene. “Alone, listless, breakfast table in an otherwise empty room”. The imagery throughout the song is of family and home, places of peace, serenity, security. But something is clearly wrong. The violins(ence) lyric is artfully done, as on first blush it adds to the domestic tranquility of the scene (either the classical music playing in the background, or the child practicing her instrument like a dutiful daughter), but it hints at a deeper, American Beauty style undercurrent of fractured dysfunction, to say nothing of the song’s intimations that the subject is perhaps living out their fantasy from the confines of an institution, abandoned by anyone and everyone but herself. More than any other song on Vs. except perhaps RVM, Daughter returns to the theme of intimate betrayal and the struggle for survival in its aftermath.
There is a physical, emotional, even spiritual emptiness here. Whatever connectivity she feels to the world around her and the people in it is all illusory (it’s in her head) made more devastating by the subject’s desire for love, the eagerness to please. There’s no shelter from the earlier songs, although she keeps looking throughout Daughter, hoping to uncover it somewhere even as she refuses to surrender to the loneliness. The message is of course one of defiance—that even if the illusions of family and belonging aren’t real, the desire to find it, to rise above the broken world that makes it an illusion, is there. The song climaxes with the ‘She holds the hand that hold’s her down…she will rise above’ declaration, punctuated by a brief but cathartic solo that promises to cast aside the chains held in the hand. The final chorus follows with its “I don’t need you, I don’t need anyone, I can do this by myself’ mantra repeated with conviction over and over again.
But Daughter doesn’t end there. Instead you have the transition into the oturo that dials back the resistance. It’s much more tentative, nervous, less sure of its self. While Eddie whispers’ the shades go down’ the music starts to fade out and the listener is put in mind of someone walking down a long hall, away from the light of the small room that contains her spark, away from the hopes articulated during the climax into a dark, cold, uncertain future. You don’t hear the door slamming at the very end, but it may be that we’re just too far away to hear it. That might be even worse.
The key lyric here is the ‘shades go down.’ A shade keeps out the light. It traps us in darkness. It prevents us from seeing, whether it is the world around us, the people around us, or even ourselves. It traps us within our own ignorance, and speaks to a loss of agency that the record is railing against—the fact that the subject didn’t lower them herself, and would love to let the light in, if only she could figure out how.
There is an attempt after Glorified G (arguably even after Daughter) to really turn the thrust of the record outward and to transform Vs. into a record of social commentary. Other than W.M.A. the songs are only marginally successful on that front, largely because the songs are more an attempt to vent the band’s own frustrations rather than any real effort to sympathize with the victims (other than themselves) or really understand what is happening in the world around them. The songs often lack the moment of reflection needed to say something interesting, and so the middle sequence of the record ends up being the least effective, in part because they don’t know quite what they want to be. This is perhaps truer of Glorified G than any other song on Vs.
Musically Glorified G is a fun firecracker of a song. It sounds like a party with its good time classic rock vibe. There’s no cowbell here, but it would fit right in. This song makes me want to have a BBQ. There’s a casual ‘who gives a fuck’ feel to the music that makes the song oddly contagious, and Mike’s solos sound almost festive. It’s an odd backdrop, to say the least, for Eddie’s sneering indictment of gun culture and red state (even though we weren’t using that term when this song was written) America.
Maybe that was deliberate and the contrast is a statement, highlighting how irresponsibly we approach important social issues. Certainly from Eddie’s perspective, a gun is a tool for murder, and that’s it. They’re not toys, and their owners are not sportsmen. These things are dangerous, yet we live in a society that celebrates them, that can’t have enough of them (Got a gun, ‘fact I got two), and that refuses to confront the harm they do: (never shot at a living thing). Eddie is railing against the inability of Americans to see a world outside their immediate horizons and interests, our inability to imagine that an action might have implications outside of how it affects myself. If I personally can trust myself to use my gun responsibly then there’s no problem. The larger societal perspective drops out, and this loss of perspective is a theme that runs through much of the record, both as personal tragedy and social critique. One of the things that Vs. is attacking is this personal and public blindness, and regaining our sight is the key to the redemptive moments on the record.
But most of us are blind, and that suits us just fine. In fact, we applaud ourselves for refusing to confront our lack of vision, turning our stubborn blindness into a badge of honor and mark of freedom, which Eddie addresses with his 1984 allusion (double think/dumb is strength). From the dumb American’s perspective there’s no need to ever think anything through. ‘that’s oaky man, cuz I love god.’ That statement is pregnant with meaning and judgment (Glorified G is an incredibly judgmental song) and addresses itself to both the self-righteous self-importance of god fearing Americans and our faith that whatever we want to do will always work out okay for us since we’re Americans and God is on our side (we're glorified). The end of the song stalks its prey, confident in the justness of its cause and secure in its right to be the master of life and death, ignoring the ghosts of past victims singing underneath Eddie.
Unfortunately, the sentiment is perhaps more interesting than the execution, since Glorified G is basically just one long cheap shot, nowhere moreso than in the chorus (glorified version of a pellet gun/feel so manly when armed) reducing all the complicated questions the song is raising at the margins to a ‘guns=compensation for some kind of inadequacy’. He’s practically begging for all gun owners to shoot themselves as he howls ‘always keep it loaded’ during the bridge. Eddie doesn’t do sarcasm nearly as well as he does sympathy or empathy. Had Glorified G been a song about a victim of gun violence I bet it could have been wonderful. Instead Glorified G is Soon Forget with more beers in its system. Rather than really trying to say something interesting he’s lashing out without subtlety. Appropriately enough for a song about guns, Glorified G is an exercise in self defense. He’s looking to wound since he feels wounded. On a song like Go or Animal, where he refuses to provide the listener with any real target, it works. He’s exorcising a demon, and the result is frightening at times, but compelling. But Glorified G wants to be concrete, which means its success is measured by a different standard. If you want a catchy riff and fun solos to be the backdrop for a middle finger it works. But you’re also left with a song that can’t aim very high either.
Dissident follows with Glorified G in its surface attempt to lighten the feel of the record. There are some crunchy twisted guitars underneath, but the part of Dissident that people remember musically is the arms to the sky soloing. It sounds cathartic and liberating, although since this begins the song it isn’t quite clear what we’re being liberated from. The music slows its pace and gathers strength during the verses, providing background for what is hopefully a weighty struggle justifying the freedom found during the chorus. Musically the verses actually do a pretty excellent job prepping the chorus. You can hear the musical muscles drawing in breath and waiting to elevate the chorus and outro that dominate the song. Really every other part of the song feels like an afterthought. Dissident, ½ Full, and Red Mosquito always struck me as musically similar, although ½ Full and especially Red Mosquito sound like more involved songs with more independent moments. Even the bridge here, perhaps the best part of the song in terms of its music, spends its time clenching its teeth and exorcising its ghosts to justify revisiting the chorus one final time. It seems pretty clear that everything in Dissident is designed to take the listener back to Mike’s ringing notes and their promise of clarity, of a better world being born.
Lyrically this song is telling a different story, however, and like Glorified G the listener has to decide whether or not the contrast between musical and lyrical themes is intentional, or just poor writing. Like Glorified G I think it is intentional and like Glorified G I think the final product doesn’t quite match up to its ambitions. The problem with Glorified G is that Eddie rarely does sarcasm all that well. Some people exude too much good will to pull it off. It seems beneath him---almost inappropriate. Eddie’s pain sounds so raw on these early records precisely because he’s both made himself vulnerable and open in his desire for love and meaning, and some of it hits so hard because there is a warmth to his voice that generates so much sympathy and empathy. Glorified G seems almost unbecoming.
The problem with Dissident is similar to the problem with Alive. If Eddie is actually telling the story he claims to be telling it is far too thin to be effective. A first glance at the lyrics make this a story of regret and betrayal. Some nameless political protester (a dissident) shows up, hunted and wounded, at a nameless woman’s house. She takes him in although she’s conflicted. She wants to help. She’s looking for meaning and a part of her almost certainly agrees with whatever this unknown cause is. But at a critical moment she panics. She fears commitment, and the risk and vulnerability involved, and she turns him in. She lives the rest of her life regretting it. Eddie’s tone is interesting. Although the woman is a coward, he refuses to judge her for her weakness. Dissident is tragic, but it is tragic because it recognizes human weakness, not human wickedness. Eddie’s vocal performance reflects that. Although he has ample opportunities to sneer, his voice is full of forgiveness and tinged with a recognition of the inevitability he rages against. The main character is a woman is in some ways somewhat surprising since it conforms to gender stereotypes (a woman is nurturing but irresolute), although this is softened by Eddie’s sympathy for our all too human limitation, our inability to put ourselves at risk to do the right thing. There’s also no reason to think that a male character in this song would have done the right thing, so perhaps it is a woman because he thinks the listener is less likely to judge, and unlike Glorified G, Dissident is looking to mourn something lost, not judge something present.
Still, as far as stories go this has almost no details, no reason to really care for any of the people involved. There’s nothing very concrete here. No jukebox details like we get in insignificance that suddenly make the people involved real and make you worry about what’s happening to them. Eddie is normally quite good at that, which means either Dissident is lazy songwriting or there’s something else going on here.
Instead , like so much of Vs., this is a song about himself, and by extension all of us. Do we have the courage of our convictions? Will we rise when we’re called upon? Most of us won’t. Escape is never the safest path but it’s the one we all choose. Safety over risk, Concession over confrontation. In the interests of security we risk the chance to live a life of meaning. This is the great insight of Thomas Hobbes—that all our other ambitions, dreams, and values play second fiddle to our desire to just be safe. But there is warning here. Once the moment passes we regret it. The life we’ve preserved loses its flavor. Although there are ghosts in the bridge of Dissident these ghosts are just as likely ghosts of our own making—the spirits of missed opportunities and lingering regrets.
And so Dissident sounds the way it sounds because it’s meant to inspire, to help us steel ourselves so the next time we are forced to choose between our principles and our security we will have the strength to do the right thing, to recognize that what seems safe and easy now comes at too high a price, and the security that it brings is an illusion because it costs us the very thing we’re concerned about losing in the first place—our integrity, our sense of self, our souls. If you look at the song this way it is easy to see the past battles about videos and self-promotion and the upcoming struggle with Ticketmaster. Dissident is Vs. anticipating the themes of Vitalogy refracted through the music of Ten. It’s potentially a very interesting song in that regard. Unfortunately the music is just a little too repetitive, and other than the intriguing ‘escape is never the safest path/place’ few striking lyrics to give the song the depth and substance it needs to really make its point effectively.
W.M.A. is one of Pearl Jam’s first real serious attempts at atmospheric songwriting, and with the caveat that I don’t necessarily think this is where they’re at their best, W.M.A. is a strong effort. There is a real compelling mixture of anger, plaintive sadness, and tragedy swirling in the background. This is music well suited to chronicling injustice. Eddie’s background vocalizations give W.M.A. a tribal, ritualized character. W.M.A. feels ceremonial in a way that no other pearl jam song really does—almost like this is a communal attempt to purge the soul, to purify something unclean., and this effect is only enhanced when the ‘police stop’ backing vocals from the rest of the background come in at the 3:30 mark. That the last two and a half minutes of the song are basically wordless chanting in between the ‘all my pieces set me free/human devices set me free’ mantra really crystallize this sensation, and the fade out gives the song an ageless quality. We’ve been trying to purge ourselves for a long long time.
Racism is America’s original sin, we’ve been stained with it since the very beginning. We’ve fought a war over it, we’ve defined our early understanding of freedom in opposition to it, and even after emancipation we managed to perpetuate the institution informally for well over 100 years. Even today, after the civil rights reformers of the sixties and a black president we still have yet to fully confront the legacy of institutionalized racism, the fact that blacks were largely denied access to the GI Bill welfare benefits that made the middle class, and that they are still underrepresented in government, in business, in positions of power. Blacks are still far more likely to be convicted of the same crime than a white person, and go to jail for longer. Newspaper captions of whites struggling to find supplies in the ruins of New Orleans were captioned in pictures as foraging. Blacks were looting.
1993 was even worse. The Rodney King riots in LA are recent history. There have been no reforms to the crack/cocaine laws that devastated black communities in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan’s apocryphal addition of the ‘welfare queen’ to America’s symbolic vocabulary destroyed the legitimacy of the welfare state that still benefited whites more than blacks, but benefitted blacks nevertheless. Police brutality towards minorities is certainly not the norm, but it seems to happen with alarming frequency, and given the profound sense of alienation that blacks felt towards white mainstream society each incident only seemed to reconfirm that blacks remained second class citizens, powerless in their own homes. This was an existential as much as it was a physical sense of violation. Given the liner notes of W.M.A. this is clearly on Eddie’s mind. The song seems to be inspired by police brutaltiy—of white power committing violence against blacks and being able to do so with impunity because of their race, because when the public closes their eyes and thinks of a criminal they think of a black person. There is a concrete reference to the summer 1993 case of Malice Green, an unemployed black steel worker who was allegedly pulled from his car and beaten to death by 3 Detroit police officers. What actually happened seems to be uncertain, but the fact that we are prepared to entertain as a realistic possibility the premise of racially motivated violence speaks volumes about where we were as a society in 1993.
Eddie is reprising some of the themes he raised in Glorified G. Both the sense of obliviousness and entitlement that forms the core of mainstream (read: white and conservative) American life in the early 1990s. Starting from the wonderful opening lyric ‘he won the lottery by being born’ we have an indictment of white privilege---the sense that being white confers all sorts of unearned institutional advantages that simply reflect what John Stuart Mill called the accident of birth. If you were fortunate enough to be born white, male, and American (the only major sociological divisions he is missing here are wealth and sexual orientation but W.M.R.S.A doesn’t roll off the tongue in quite the same way) it meant never having to say you’re sorry (or better, saying you’re sorry is your only punishment). It meant knowing that world existed to serve you. The imagery here is some of the most sophisticated in Eddie’s early writing. ‘Big hand slapped a white male American/Took his mother’s white breast to his tongue’. These advantages, these privileges, knowing your exalted place in the world (Jesus greets me/Looks just like me) are hardwired into the way we look at the world from the very beginning—so deeply embedded as to be invisible (I can say from experience that the hardest concept to teach to students is this notion of white privilege and male privilege, in part because it is obscured by class disadvantages that can cut across race and gender—although it’s usually worse for women/minorities, and in part because it is so deeply encoded into every aspect of our lives. It’s like asking someone to notice breathing.)
He moves pretty deftly to the issue of police brutality (trained like dogs, color and smell, walk by me to get to him), highlighting the pavlovian nature of institutional racism. Given how in your face a song like Glorified G is, this is, for a song with such an expansive and controversial message, a surprisingly delicate and subtle presentation, and the understated music , which manages to provide a sense of uneasy urgency and deep rooted injustice while still pillowing Eddie’s vocals to make everything seem simultaneously abstract and concrete, does a great job enhancing all this. Compared to the in your face nature of Rats, Glorified G and Blood this is a mature bit of songwriting from a band still discovering its identity, although the ‘police stopped the brother again’ chorus spoils the effect somewhat—a little too self-righteous and like Glorified G, takes something nuanced and complicated and turns it into a morality play.
The outgoing coda is intriguing, and I’m not sure I have a full sense of what it means ‘all my pieces set me free/human devices set me free’ although it seems to point to the longing for community and collective action, the way in which love for each other is where we find salvation, that is at the core of their music.
W.M.A. is probably longer than it needs to be. The song would have even more of an impact if it was at least a minute shorter. It spends too long hovering in the same space, which causes the emotional impact of the song to plateau, rather than peak. Still, of all the political songs on the record this one does the best job hitting its mark. Eddie sympathizes more than he judges. It’s infused with the sense of opposition and defiance that gives the record its character, but here Eddie observes and tries to understand. There is empathy, and Eddie sees some of himself in the song, his own sense of alienation and injustice, but he doesn’t let his own hurt overwhelm the story he wants to tell. A record like Vs. needs these moments to give the listener a chance to catch their breath before the next song wounds the listener again.
Blood crackles like few Pearl Jam songs do. Even the moments when it’s churning along (like Jeff’s bass part going into the bridge) the song still vibrates. Blood is a seizure, a musical electrocution that leaves you twitching even after the connection breaks at the end of the song.
Musically the song is a lot of fun, one of several necessary playful interludes on an otherwise overburdened record (which makes Vs. the easiest listen of the first three records. There is a sense of humor on a number of these songs that, if not always effectively executed, at least tries to lighten the mood). The humor is mostly in the music, but it’s there. The opening notes are a little too slick and shiny to take excessively seriously, and the 70s funk guitar in the verses lightens the mood. That’s not to say it’s a lightweight song. It’s too angry for that. But if Blood is not meant to be tongue in cheek, it’s at least able to smile while it screams (compare it musically to Habit, another very heavy song, one that may even be winking at the listener, but feels much more serious).
Eddie has written about drugs on a few songs (Habit, Severed Hand), but just as often it seems like he’s using drugs as a metaphor for something else (STBC, Gonna See My Friend), and that begins with Blood. The song is filled with the same heroin imagery as STBC, and the pictures in the liner notes make it clear for people not paying attention to the lyrics. But the dominant image in the booklet is the syringe next to the ball point pen, with their fluids dripping out and intermingling in the puddle below. So something else is going on here.
Blood is a song about feeling violated—if not the literal rape of Animal then an existential, spiritual rape alongside intimations of cannibalism. Blood is the cry of the sacrificial victims strapped down to the altar, the victim’s blood being spilled to please and placate the gods—in this case the entertainment media and its co-option of grunge culture and grunge artists. The reporter wielding the pen replaces the priest wielding the knife or the junkie wielding the needle. The ‘fucking circus’ lyric is a reference to the media circus and probably to a specific publication. His life fills their pages. He and his friends, his scene, his art, need to bleed in order to give them content and substance, to give them life. That he has become involuntarily complicit in feeding a machine that he hates makes this whole process even more perverse, and there’s a quiet moment in the bridge where Eddie acknowledges the irony before railing against it.
Eddie will deal with the same themes in a more sophisticated way on Vitalogy. Blood feels like a primal scream anticipating the more nuanced considerations these ideas get in songs like Last Exit, Not For You, Corduroy, Satan’s Bed, and Immortality. Ed’s throat shredding screams throughout the song, especially transitioning into the bridge, are intentionally abrasive---almost self destructive, as if he’s thinking ‘If I ruin myself, if there’s nothing left of me, there’s nothing more for you to take from me’.
All the component parts of Blood are pretty strong. Eddie screams with an elemental fury, the lyrics are pretty good, the music is fun without feeling like fluff. But, like Glorified G, I’m not sure they fit together as effectively as they could. This is a much stronger song than Glorified G because each of the component parts are better, but the playfulness in the music doesn’t mesh effectively with the soul ripping intensity of Eddie’s vocals. It feels almost like you’re listening to two separate songs. They’ll strike this balance a little more effectively in STBC and perfect it with Gonna See My Friend. Still, after the trance of W.M.A. Blood does an effective job ratcheting up the stakes of the record, and primes the listener for Rearview Mirror, arguably the most critical moment on the record.
After the uncertain, flailing anger or brooding bitterness of the first seven songs, Rearview Mirror marks the first real moment of revelation on Vs. It is not quite sure what to make of this new perspective, this restoration of sight –we know what the subject sees behind himself, but not what’s in front of him. He sees who he was, not who he might become. That will come later, in the final three songs on the record. Rearview Mirror documents the moment of release, not the aftermath. It is an experience of pure, unencumbered emancipation, and its power is found in the breathless appreciation of that moment.
The power of the song is amplified because it feels earned. The best songs will (usually) not just document the moment of liberation. They will also chronicle the journey (Alive and Given to Fly also do this particularly well). The music tells much of the story. There is a stubborn grittiness to the main riff that also manages to feel quite fluid and convey a sense of movement, a promise of freedom. The rest of the surrounding music burdens the riff in an unobtrusive way, adding drama to the song without calling attention to it. Prior to the bridge the song keeps getting heavier. Experience piles on experience. Life piles on life. Some moments are more traumatic than others. There is more drama in the crashing accents of the chorus than the fuzzy guitar that mirrors the main riff in the first verse, but in either case the music presses down. In the second verse the track the riff is running is strewn with the obstacles the music keeps placing in front of and underneath it but the subject plows on, unbowed, defiant, refusing to give in.
The determination is rewarded in the musical breakthrough in the bridge. For seems to largely be a bunch of held notes and feedback the music takes on an ethereal, dreamlike quality. The burdens recede and fade. There is space to breath, to reflect. The past finally becomes past, rather than present. And the song takes a deep breath and starts to run again (jeff’s bass tells an important part of this story), but this time it breaks through. Rather than weigh the song down, the music is a long, exultant scream of triumph. There is anger here, and hate, a vanquishing of enemies as much as a personal victory. It is a complicated finale, one that doesn’t quite leave the trenches, one that reminds the listener that the journey isn’t quite over. But the end at least begins.
The music perfectly mirrors the story Eddie is telling. In fact, one of the things that really struck me sitting down to write this was how unnecessary Eddie is, and RVM has one of the strongest set of lyrics and vocal performances in the catalog. The song’s power comes in part from the fact that we get told the same story in a few different ways—intellectually through the words and elementally through the music (and vocals).
Eddie’s voice is grim and weathered, but there is a powerful inexorable quality to it—the sound of someone beaten down but not beaten. He practically sighs the last word in each lyric in the verse (and the end of the chorus), but it’s the sigh of someone who is prepared to fight, and keep fighting, even if it is forever, punctuated by moments of rising urgency. Above all else, Eddie invests the song with a sense of potential, planting seeds that ripen during the song’s second act, the two minute climax, a mixture of relief, joy, and a harsh territoriality, a willingness to fight for the newfound liberation.
Lyrically the song begins in the present, but it’s a present haunted by a past it is trying to escape. Eddie chooses (for the first time, but not the last) the car as his vehicle for escape, since the car is a symbol of aggressive protected freedom—you’re moving fast, feeling powerful, and safe at the same time, the vehicle interposing itself between you and the rest of the world. The subject is running from abuse, both mental and physical. There are references to beatings, but there’s psychological abuse too. In fact, its’ not clear if the physical beatings were always there, or if they finally served as a catalyst, a way to crystallize the mental torture, the living in fear, the blaming of the self, and shock the subject out of their passive, servile state.
The beating reference is probably the least elegant moment in the song (other than ‘I gather speed from you fucking with me’ but at that point it feels earned), almost too obvious given how subtle and effective the rest of the lyrics are, although it is offset by the intriguing ‘made me wise’ lyric. This is a song about revelation, the restoration of inner vision, and that culminates in wisdom. Still, this gift is no gift at all. It has been bought with bitter currency. It is the exclusive possession of the subject, paid for with trauma, and there is no gratitude here. The descriptions of abuse are subtle and powerful and do a wonderful job conveying a sense of being trapped and slowly suffocating, the victim of someone else’s crimes : ‘I couldn’t’ breathe, holding me down, hand on my face, pushed to the ground’. I used to think this was a song about child abuse, but it could be anything. Rearview Mirror provides an emotional context and lets the listener provide the concrete details themselves. The final lyrics in the chorus ‘united by fear, forced/tried to endure what I could not forgive’ are particularly powerful –the way in which whatever relationship this person is running away from is false, grounded in fear, rather than love, and ultimately unsustainable, despite the best misguided efforts of the subject to make it work.
The second verse really starts to emphasize the sight imagery that is at the heart of the song’s climax—looking away, visions waving, and a new perspective—that for whatever physical abuse that may have been suffered the real damage was on the inside—that the subject is escaping from the psychic harm as much as physical harm. We have the presence of physical abuse ‘fist on my plate/swallowed it down’ but there is also the sense that the bigger problem is the fact that the subject is prepared to take the abuse, to try and endure it, rather than leave it (head at your feet/fool to your crown). What does that say about them?
But, thanks to the ‘gift’ of this last round of abuse the subject finally flees, and as they get away (either literally or metaphorically) and look behind them, once they’re no longer the cornered, wounded animal we see in Go, Animal, or Blood, the subject is able to recognize that they’ve been a victim, that they did nothing wrong, that they did not ask for the abuse, that they deserve better, and that they have an opportunity to recreate themselves, to start over. We have a callback to Daughter as the shades that went down are raised alongside the revelation that someone else had pulled them down in the first place.
We don’t yet know what kind of person they’re going to be, how the subject is going to recreate himself. The final songs on the Vs. will ask that question, and fill in some of the gaps. But this is not a failure of the song. Rearview Mirror doesn’t try to answer those questions. Instead it celebrates the moment of emancipation that makes asking that question possible.
Rats is perhaps the only mistracked song on Vs. It is cast in the same broad mold of vague social commentary as the middle of the record, aiming for a target so big that the result ends up being less impressive than something more narrow, more tightly focused, less defensive and reactive. The end of Vs. is meant to be revelatory. Rearviewmirror, Small Town, Leash, and Indifference are the epiphanies that sharpen and clarify the confused and fluctuating world the previous songs attempt to define and critique. If Rats was more precise you could make the case that the newfound sense of certainty and purpose, of vision, achieved in Rearview Mirror makes the observations in Rats possible, but they’re not any more insightful than anything that’s come before. Nor is Rats necessary as a cooldown after the intensity of Rearview Mirror, since the two songs that follow are a gentle acoustic number and a joyful rave.
This isn’t to say that Rats is a bad song. It’s pretty good. It’s just that it works more effectively as a stand alone song than it does as a part of a record, given its placement. It ends up being a speed bump in the middle of an extended 4 song climax, instead of helping to pave the road that leads there.
There is a playfulness to Rats that is actually fairly charming. It’s written in the same sarcastic mold as Glorified G, but you’re left with the sense that it doesn’t take itself quite as seriously. The music helps here, but the key is Eddie. The music in Glorified G sets a light and sunny backyard bbq mood, but Eddie is so clearly out to draw blood that it undermines the fun. Rats actually starts out trying to sound more dark and foreboding, but you can almost see everyone smiling in the darkness, Eddie included, as they construct the song. Everyone’s tongues are kept much more firmly in cheek. The bassline is ever so slightly whimsical, implying deep and heavy thoughts refracted through something playful, and the accents at 9, 12, and 15 seconds give the opening a Cheshire cat grin. Eddie plays his part, growling out his verses with a survivors grit and wisdom, climaxing with an over the top melodramatic chorus and urgent, striving guitars. It would be easy to take all this as authentic if not for the playful funkiness of the music, especially the solo in the bridge. It’s playing at being bad ass while knowing that it’s not, like a child trying on its parents clothes and grinning at itself in the mirror. The song culminates with its grinding two minute outro (with what has got to be the longest fadeout on any PJ record) that once again feels like its winking at itself, almost mocking the sound and fury of the earlier songs. That’s part of Rats’ problem. Vs. is such an overserious record that it’s hard to fit in something this mischievous.
Lyrically the song seems like a bit of misfire. The gimmick is clever, but Eddie doesn’t quite pull it off. Tom Waits has a similar song called Army Ants where he spends three minutes cataloging unusual characteristics of various bugs and insects. The song is strangely hypnotic, and so the songs final reveal, when Waits admits that he’s been talking about humans all along, is clever and amusingly shocking (Perhaps you've encountered some of these insects in your communities, displaying both their predatory and defense characteristics, while imbedded within the walls of flesh and passing for, what is most commonly recognized... as human.) Eddie is going for something similar here (although this song predates Army Ants). The lyrics catalog all the terrible things some awful species does to its own members (a sense of cannibalism, that it’s not just that these people do bad things, but that they do it to their own kind, pervades the song and makes everything seem even more sordid). Most of the lyrics are pretty good (‘they don’t push, don’t crowd, congregate until they’re much too loud’ flows really nicely, ‘fuck to procreate til’ they are dead, drink the blood of their so called best friend’ sounds shocking without sounding cheap. ‘Bare their gums when they moan and squeak, lick the dirt off a larger one’s feet’ sounds sufficiently pathetic, and ‘starve the poor so they can be well fed, line their holes with the dead ones bread’ comes across as a real crime. On the other hand, the nicely delivered lyric about the pack mentality in the chorus ‘they don’t’ scurry when something bigger comes their way, don’t’ pack themselves together and run as one’ is undermined by the ‘don’t shit where they’re not supposed to’ lyric which sounds more like it’s trying to shock than genuinely shocking. And the opening lyrics just don’t quite make sense. ‘They don’t eat, don’t sleep, they don’t’ feed, they don’t seethe’ seems off. Why are eating and sleeping bad, and what does seething have to do with that? These lines shouldn’t be deal breakers, and I suppose they’re not. But the rest of the song isn’t quite as clever as it has to be to support the weight of weaker lyrics.
The ‘Ben, the two of us need look no more’ reference is just odd. Ben was an early 70s horror movie (a sequel to Willard, which was about killer rats). The main character befriends Ben, the leader of a pack of telepathic rats. Ben keeps the boy company and acts as his friend while he confronts the problems of childhood bullying and illness. Eventually most of the pack is destroyed and the movie ends with the main character nursing Ben back to health. It sounds like a really weird movie (I’ve never seen it), but it’s remembered mostly for the fact that Michael Jackson wrote an incongruously sweet song about it that outlasted the film. I suppose, echoing the ‘I’d rather be with an animal’ theme from earlier in the record, that the singer needs to look for comfort in odd places since humanity is so disgusting, but this is a little too obscure to be effective.
The biggest problem is that the song doesn’t feel like it leads to any great revelation. If the song wasn’t called rats the ‘bombshell’ moment when you realize that Eddie is condemning humanity as somehow inferior to rats would have more power. The revelation at the end of Army Ants is genuinely shocking, and enjoyable for the unexpected surprise. You know precisely from the very beginning where Eddie is going with this, and since the song can’t rely on its twist ending the rest of the song needs to justify the lyrical conceit, and it can’t quite pull it off. It’s not that what comes before is bad. It’s pretty good and the song is pretty fun. But it also has no real meaningful impact. It aims at a target that’s too big, the playfulness seems slightly out of place. Rats doesn’t know quite what kind of song it wants to be, and maybe that’s how you can justify its place on the record. The band doesn’t know quite who it is yet, either.
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In A Small Town
Elderly Woman is the first mature song to appear in Pearl Jam’s catalog, at least if maturity reflects the ability to critically reflect from a great distance, and to soften the temptation for judgment with the wisdom that comes from experience. Prior to this Pearl Jam’s music was exceedingly immediate and frequently judgmental (which, when you feel like judging, is very satisfying). Eddie’s songs about other people were at least in some ways songs about himself, the working out of demons through characters. In Small Town we have something different.
The beginning of the song is startling, if only because there is, for the first time in the catalog, no prelude. There is no build. We jump right into the story. Perhaps life was the prelude. Perhaps a slow build requires time that a wasted life can no longer furnish. For a gentle acoustic song there is a strange subtle urgency to it. There is something about the music that sounds like it may burst without realizing it. This is a song about lifetimes, and that is a lot for one song to contain. The whole band deserves credit for the effect—the richness of the acoustic canvas, the subtle ways Mike colors it in—each fill reflecting a wasted opportunity or a dream revived only to fade away again-- crowding the song without drawing attention away from the story, the depth provide by jeff’s bass, the effectively understated drums from Dave, the texture provided by the keys, a novelty at this point in their career, but one they wisely avoid drawing attention to. There is a confidence to the music, as if it has already proven everything it could possibly need to prove, and so simply needs to do what the song requires without ego or aspiration.
But the real star of this piece is Eddie. Pearl Jam’s music is always written to act as a platform for his vocals, but this is one of the only times (at this point) where the band really gets out of the way to leave him in the spotlight all by himself. The evocative title sets the scene (and unlike Rats, doesn’t spoil the surprise). We have an older woman, beaten down by life, by roads not traveled, chances not taken, dreams deferred. This is a song about standing still while the rest of the world passed you by, and a chance at redemption. But rather than judge or self-identify, as he does everywhere else on the record , here he stands apart while offering sympathy and forgiveness—refusing to condemn someone for not being able to overcome what so many of us cannot. Part of the process of maturation is learning not to resent people for their inability to transcend who we are, and that happens here.
Like RVM, this is a song about vision—learning to see (or see again) what has long been hidden, and hopefully finding the courage to act on it. But RVM reflects only on its past, and even there it reflects only on its pain. It does not think about its future, as the song climaxes in the triumphal moment of release, of sight restored. It exults in the possibilities of a new future without taking the time to think about what they are. Elderly Woman is about a similar experience, reflecting on a life of static drift rather than pain, but again fixated on the moment of realization. The details are a little fuzzy, but that doesn’t matter since the song is about the experience, not the setting. In the 18 years I’ve been listening to this song I’ve imagined it as the woman spotting an old photograph of herself, confronting an old acquaintance, seeing echoes of who she was in someone younger, even hallucinations—looking into a polished countertop and seeing a youthful reflection or having herself literally confronted by the ghost of who she was—the same conceit I hate so much in Off He Goes. The power of the song comes in part from the fact that this choice doesn’t really matter. It’s a secondary detail that the listener can fill in whatever way is most moving to them.
Where RVM is an epiphany, a singular moment where everything becomes clear, Elderly Woman is hazy and uncertain. There is no thunderbolt, no eureka moment of inspiration and clarity. The song starts out trapped in gauzy recollections. The hesitantly phrased ‘I seem to recognize your face/haunting, familiar, yet I can’t seem to place it. Cannot find a candle of thought to light your name ‘--a wonderful lyric, with its intimations of light and heat, awareness and passion. It’s the experience of having a name on the tip of your tongue and being unable to access it—something that gets even more frustrating the longer it lasts, and as she quickly realizes, this has been lingering just below the surface for a lifetime. The song slides into a kind of wistful regret ‘lifetimes are catching up with me, all these changes taking place, I wish I’d see the place, but no one’s ever taken me.’ These hurts are too old to kindle immediate pain, but in some ways they’re all the sadder for it, for their passivity and sense of loss that encompasses a lifetime. That passivity is important—the feeling that this person has been a victim for her whole life, someone the world acted upon, instead of her acting upon it. She waited for someone to show her what’s there, rather than go seek it out herself, and no one ever came.
The gentle decay of the chorus ‘hearts and thoughts they fade…fade away’ punctuate this. Like the rest of the song its delivery is effectively understated, more melancholy than it is angry or bitter or even sad—emotions too immediate for the song and the subject. Elderly Woman is not a crime in progress, nor are we exploring its aftermath. Eddie is filtering ages through his voice, visiting long abandoned ruins, disturbing their forgotten slumber with unwanted intrusion. If we cannot reawaken it, better perhaps to let it lie.
The second verse speaks to an increasingly determined desire to recapture what was lost, if only it could be sustained. Recognizing a face can be done at a distance, or it can be filtered through a picture or a memory. Breath is something close, something intimate, something right in front of you. There is a gradual reawakening, as what was forgotten is slowly remembered ‘memories like fingerprints are slowly raising’. There’s a gasping moment of shame, as if she could only see what she’s become by holding herself up to the mirror of past aspirations, coupled with self-pity and self-awareness that she’s at least partly authored her present condition (although she still casts herself as a victim). ‘Me you wouldn’t recall, for I’m not my former. It’s hard when you’re stuck up on the shelf. I changed by not changing at all, small town predicts my fate, perhaps that’s what no one wants to see.’
There is a moment when we think she might escape the gravity of her past and start over. ‘I just want to scream ‘Hello!’ My god it’s been so long, never dreamed you’d return. But now here you are, and here I am.’ It is certainly the emotional climax of the song, both lyrically and in terms of the delivery. The question is does she recapture what she lost, or is this just temporary? I’m inclined to think she loses the moment. She holds herself back, like she always has. She just wants to scream. She doesn’t do it. But probably more than anything how you read the song turns on whether or not you think she is alone with her memories or literally confronted by someone from her past. I think she’s alone, and that’s the key. Memories aren’t enough. There needs to be someone on this journey with you. We can rarely overcome the inertia of our habits, our small town, our passivity, our fear (see Dissident) on our own. Engaging the world around you, engaging your dreams, requires someone there with you—someone to draw on for strength when you stumble and someone to share the feast of your triumphs. Instead the song closes with the fading out repetition of the chorus, as the hearts and thoughts fade away once again. What was awoken could not be sustained, because it was alone.
Continued in the next post
|Author:||stip [ Fri December 28, 2012 12:17 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Re: A Guided Tour of Vs.|
Leash is a far more important track (that doesn’t necessarily make it a good track, mind you) on Vs. than we often give it credit for. Leash, moreso than Indifference, represents the culmination of the journey taken, the growth experienced on both Ten and Vs.. From the start Vs. is an album under siege, a sheep penned in and painfully throwing itself against the fence that confines it. Though it may not understand why it is trapped, who built the fence, what gave its captor the right to do it, or how to escape, it senses that its anger is just—somehow more righteous for the fact that its questions go unanswered. But the final quarter of the record, excepting the misplaced Rats, makes great strides both in trying to understand and escape. Rearview Mirror affirms that the subject has been a victim, and that he deserves better. Small Town confirms that they may have been victimizing themselves, that the harm we can do to ourselves through our own static lives, through fearing our dreams, is every bit as real, every bit as damning. But the judgment is softened with the sympathetic realization that we deserve more, even if we haven’t allowed ourselves to experience it. The key insight in Small Town, however, is the recognition that really living, true emancipation, is not something that can be done alone. Perhaps we can start the journey alone, as the subject does in RVM. But it can’t end that way.
That is the message of Leash, easily the most ecstatic, exuberant sounding song in the main catalog. I love how the song creeps up on the listener, starling them out of the reverie of Small Town (and in a lot of ways more artfully done that the quiet LOUD quiet LOUD approach of No Code). It’s not surprising that the first thing we hear from Eddie sounds like a startled yelp. There’s fear, but there is also catharsis, joy, and relief—like walking through a haunted house with good friends and knowing that everything you experience (the laughter and the fright) is both more intense and somehow more pure because you’re together. Little moments like this punctuate the song (like Eddie’s high pitched squeak and playful growl going into the second verse). Eddie sings like his heart is going to burst, but these are complicated screams that seem to exist in both past and present, with elements of the ragged survivor that becomes much more prominent in later songs. They release long held tension, but they celebrate the fact that he CAN scream, and that there is an audience listening that understands, that wants to scream too. The fact that it’s being done together is what matters. It’s not surprising that the Leash chorus/outro has some of the most prominent backing vocals in any Pearl Jam song.
Musically Leash sounds like a party, which makes sense that it’s largely what it is. Hearing the song live really reinforces this. Of all the early songs in the catalog this is one of the few whose meaning and feeling hasn’t changed over the last 20 years. The music is loud, crowded, grinds along, filled with playful moments (especially the transitions between verses (see the 54-60 second and 1:19-1:22 for instance) and notes that are chiming and happy for all their grit (listen to the music in the ‘drop the leash’ outro). There’s also an expansive recklessness to Leash, a looseness that isn’t present many other places on these early records. Ten and Vs. are tightly wound, coiled records. Leash feels free and sloppy, unguarded in a way that was really new for them at this point. The last lyric Eddie sings is ‘get out of my fucking face’ but he speaks it almost casually, like he knows he’s said it and more importantly , knows that others have heard, agreed, and above all else understood, so there’s no reason to scream anymore. Perhaps there isn’t even anything left to say, but that doesn’t mean we want the feeling to go away and Leash ends with the most triumphant solo this side of Alive to let us revel in this moment a little while longer. The song comes to a full stop, rather than a fade, which is significant, but we’ll get to that with Indifference.
Lyrically Leash is a mixed bag. There is an innocence to it that I find charming and appropriate for this song, but it’s easy to imagine why, especially on the surface, a lyric like ‘drop the leash, get out of my fucking face’ or ‘drop the leash, we are young’ can sound immature—especially since Ten, Vs, and Vitalogy normally handle the theme of alienation with much more subtlety and grace (compare ‘drop the leash, we are young’ to the magnificent ‘all that’s sacred comes from youth, dedications naive and true’). But the context matters (this is also why I think the lyrics for The Fixer work fine), and it would be a mistake to expect Leash to sound like Not For You. For all its energy Leash is not an angry or reflective song. It is immediate and celebratory, and even though Eddie is screaming these words, he’s not screaming them in anger. You certainly can’t call this self-parody. Eddie thinks the message is important, especially the ‘delight in our youth’ lyric. But the over the top ham fisted chorus, the black and white nature of the chorus, speaks to the purity of youth and the freedom that comes from certainty and simplicity. Leash wants us to hold onto that even as the world grows more complicated and we are forced to adapt. Even as life shackles us, even as we find ourselves bound and our movements limited, we need to hold onto what it felt like to be free, since this is what will help us navigate this much more complicated world. It is what will enable us to adapt how we live rather than change who we are, to forgive the world its imperfections without abandoning our principles, to live in the world rather than outside it, which may be the only way to resolve the adversarial alienation running through Vs.
That’s not to say there aren’t bad lyrics here. The second verse is unnecessarily vague ’Young lover I stand/It was their idea, I proved to be a man/Take my fucking hand/It was their idea, I proved to be a man’ could be about anything and is so seems to be about nothing. The liner notes seem to indicate that this is about getting someone pregnant, but that makes no sense in the context of the rest of the song. And as I said above ‘delight in our youth’ and ‘drop the leash we are young get out of my fucking face’ is perhaps excusable given the context, but that doesn’t make them well written. But Leash also features some of my favorite moments in the early catalog appearing in Leash. The bridge ‘Will myself to find a home, a home within myself, we will find a way, we will find our place’ is well done, and encapsulates both the themes of the song, the record, and the band itself. We author our own salvation (will myself to find a home, we will find a way), that what we’re really looking for is peace, some kind of stable ground where we can make a life for ourselves and discover who we are (a home within myself, we will find our place) but at the same time it’s a We that is doing this. If the only person occupying that space within yourself is yourself it’ll never be a home. It’ll be a prison. There is no peace without love. If there is one consistent message running throughout Pearl Jam’s music that’s it. The promise of Leash, the promise if of the music, is that if we search we will find it, and that we do not have to search alone. And while ‘drop the leash, we are young’ might be a bit cringeworthy, I am more than willing to forgive a song that gives us the magnificent ‘I am lost, I am no guide, but I’m by your side. I am right by your side.’ There are other songs that define the band: Alive, Rearview Mirror, Corduroy, Given to Fly, I Am Mine—but there are no other lyrics that better capture who they are, and why the music is so important.
I said earlier that it is significant that Leash ends with a full stop rather than a fadeout. A full stop implies the end of a thought. One idea is finished and we are ready to move on to the next one. A fade out implies either a lack of resolution or a permanent horizon—that whatever issues are raids and themes are addressed are likely to continue playing themselves out with no end in sight. Leash represents a celebratory moment, but it ends. This isn’t surprising. The revelations in Leash, Small Town, and Rearview Mirror, their attempts at resolving the anger and sense of being under siege that permeates the rest of the record are too great to be reconciled by the realization that we are in part the authors of our own fate, and that we can’t find peace alone. Knowing where to look, and how to look, does not guarantee that you’ll find any answers, and the world has no lack of obstacles to throw in your way.
Indifference is Vs.’ sleepless night, when the rage is spent, when the promise of redemption that seemed so real starts to fade in the late, lonely, quiet hours, when both the world and ourselves are still enough to ask whether or not anything we do matters, whether the struggle has meaning, and how much difference does it make? As always, the music sets the scene, and I’m not sure Pearl Jam has ever reproduced a quiet, meditative atmosphere this gripping. The gentle rain of cymbals against the keys transports the listener into the space where we cannot hide from ourselves, the veil is lifted and are forced to confront the reality of the world. The song spends its time taking in what it finds, a slow and careful study that is reluctant to draw any conclusions. Jeff’s bass slowly carries us across a world without illusions, with the guitar accents acting as flashes of light that reveal what we find without judging what we see. The song moves the listener while keeping them in one place—questing across the landscape o f the mind without leaving his room. Eddie’s vocals match the pace and mood. Where a song like Release rails against uncertainty, and All or None surrenders the need and privilege of asking questions, here Eddie probes. There are moments of rising urgency and careful retreat, but what really characterizes the performance here is how careful it is, almost like Eddie is unwilling to touch anything for fear of breaking the spell. Even as he gathers confidence he quickly pulls it back, as if he’s afraid to commit to anything. The world is too complex to claim any kind of certainty, and given what he’s gone through on the record, he’s seen too much to pretend that there is clarity. Indifference explores a graying world, but one simultaneously cold and warm, near and distant, barren and lush. What you end up seeing really depends on how you answer the song’s question.
It is to Indifference’s credit that it lets the listener try and answer it for themselves. It simply poses the question—and that, alongside a series of striking images, is what makes this one of Eddie’s most effective set of lyrics.
I will light the match this morning, so I won't be alone
Watch as she lies silent, for soon light will be gone
Oh I will stand arms outstretched, pretend I'm free to roam
Oh I will make my way, through, one more day in...hell
You can almost hear in the opening notes the sound of the match striking, the quick burst of light and then the shadowy illumination of a lone match keeping away the darkness. There is someone next to him, a source of comfort, but tenuous and uncertain—he needs to see her to know that she’s there, and worries how fragile human connections are, preserved by something as fleeting as match light, and likely as not to disappear when the light is gone. But he turns his thoughts away from her and contemplates the illusion of freedom, arms outstretched into a welcoming world with no limits and no boundaries—but when the light goes out, when he’s on his own, the promise is revealed for the lie that it is, and what seemed like a boundless horizon becomes a cage, a prison, a personal hell made all the more damning for the seductive illusion of freedom. The one more day in…hell lyric is perhaps a little too over the top, but the rest of the images are powerful and the music perfect so that it doesn’t matter.
I will hold the candle, till it burns up my arm
I'll keep takin' punches, until their will grows tired
Oh I will stare the sun down, until my eyes go blind
I won't change direction, and I won't change my mind
I'll swallow poison, until I grow immune
I will scream my lungs out till it fills this room
Here the singer sounds more assertive. He may be in hell, we may all be damned, the world may conspire against us, but that’s no reason to give up or give in. The rest of the song is a litany of stubborn defiance and refusal. To hold onto the light no matter the pain, to exhaust the world through force of will, to grasp the truth no matter the cost (the sun is a traditional metaphor for that), to demand that the world listens. Defiance feeds defiance and there is a sad beauty in the martyrdom. But he seems to pull back a bit when he again asks himself whether it is all worth it. Whereas Release reaches its climax in its chorus, Indifference calls everything that came before into question. Is the struggle worth it? Is the sacrifice worth it? Is he strong enough to pay the cost? And as always, does the struggle itself have meaning?
There’s no easy answer here (you could easily argue that the next 7 albums go back and forth on the question), and the song is more powerful for not giving one. The listener needs to answer it for itself. Vs. documents both what is at stake and what lies in the way. The instinct to lash out against uncertainty is natural, and seductive, and easy, but it isn’t satisfying. It is a response, not a solution. But the album also points to a way forward. The fight does make a difference, or better, it can. There is a sort of narcissism and cowardice in refusing to act without certainty of success or reward. Life is struggle, and struggle involves risk. What matters is how you look at the mixed, gray world in front of you. Are you able to find the warmth, light, and life amidst the cold, dark, desolation? Vs. argues that there is more to life than injustice, that the struggle has meaning, but we cannot struggle alone. We can’t find or maintain the light by ourselves. The truth of this is gets revealed in the live experience as much as anywhere, when thousands cry out ‘I will scream my lungs out until it fills this room’ and you know that, at least as long as we can keep singing, it does make a difference.
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