Pearl Jam hasn’t been cool since the early 90s, and even then they weren’t talked about so favorably. As The Lawrence Arms’ Brendan Kelly so succinctly put it for Noisey in 2015, Pearl Jam was “the lame-ass number two of grunge.” The dichotomy between Pearl Jam and Nirvana was in place in 1992, as Nevermind snagged the top spot on the Billboard charts, whereas Ten only ever made it to number two. Pair this with Kurt Cobain saying “I’ve always hated their band” when asked about Pearl Jam, and the lines were clearly drawn, even if it was largely a media-driven feud. This rivalry has always hampered Pearl Jam’s legacy, but that wasn’t the only thing, as the denizens of truly awful bands they inspired didn’t help matters either.
Vocalist Eddie Vedder’s distinctive growl was Pearl Jam’s calling card in the early 90s, becoming the affectation every post-grunge band would gleefully steal less than a decade later. Vedder’s overly enunciated vocal approach was run into the ground by second-rate rock singers to the point where it became hard to dissociate Pearl Jam from what followed in their wake. But what if, against all odds, Pearl Jam was actually good? It sounds impossible given the information presented, but once you let those biases melt away, Pearl Jam’s catalog becomes incredibly rewarding.
Since their commercial heyday, the band has effectively become the grunge sect’s Grateful Dead—a designation that, to be clear, is also not cool. Starting with 1994’s Vitalogy, Pearl Jam started making less consumer-friendly albums, outright refusing to make music videos or do interviews. But it was their protracted lawsuit against Ticketmaster that took them out of the spotlight entirely, making it all but impossible to see one of the biggest bands in America during their most successful period. It’s hard to imagine a band that’s sold over 32 million albums in the United States, and an estimated 60 million worldwide, functioning as a cult act, but since the mid 90s, that’s what Pearl Jam has been.
Through their own doing, Pearl Jam shunted themselves into their own world, allowing themselves to be seen as the de facto dad rock band by not actively courting any new listeners. But that’s exactly why they are so worth exploring: They’ve existed in this space for so long, they’ve all but forced themselves into creating something that’s now their own. Through sheer force of will, Pearl Jam has endured, proving that, in the long run, there are some advantages to being in second place.
Pearl Jam as Grunge’s Classic Rock Band
1991’s Ten put Pearl Jam on the map, so much so that including all of their big hits here is a little foolish. You already know them, and you’ve already decided whether or not you like them. But even if you’ve been averse to Ten your whole life, know that the band has felt the same way. They famously hated the album’s production from the very start, and while the 2009 remix known as Ten Redux improved the sound, it didn’t fully make up for the material. The writing of Ten was largely driven by guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, the pair that spun Pearl Jam out of their glam-inspired band Mother Love Bone. While that glam influence always clouded Ten, the Ten Redux versions of “Once” and “Release” showed that they were slowly shaking off the remnants of their 80s hard rock ambitions, and with less cheesy production, the songs truly shined.
The first signs that Pearl Jam were establishing their own voice came by way of “State of Love and Trust,” a song the band gave to Cameron Crowe for the soundtrack to his movie Singles. It balanced the angsty chorus primed for alt-rock radio with the classic rock riffing that Gossard and guitarist Mike McCready so freely gave themselves to. They expanded on this sound with Vs., an album full of lean compositions and primal performances that felt like a pointed response to anyone who doubted the band’s authenticity. “Leash” was one such showcase, as the band took those wanky lead guitar parts and put them to good use, turning them into a melodic counterpoint to Vedder’s constant bellowing of “Get out of my fucking face.” But for all its gut-level rock songs, Vs. would also see Pearl Jam mute themselves in a way that would come to define them. “Daughter” showed the band’s ability to cut out their bombastic tendencies, allowing Vedder the space to show his versatility as a vocalist.
Vitalogy was the last Pearl Jam album to be part of the zeitgeist, and probably their last to have bona fide hits. The record lent more space for Vedder to show his vocal chops, and the band ebbed toward a sound that blurred the line between their nimble rock songs and the tender, weepy ballads, with “Last Exit” and “Corduroy” establishing a template the band would expand upon in the next few years. It was a deliberate attempt to move outside the framework of grunge, into something less defined by the scene they’d helped establish.
In the years that followed, the band would make it a point to stop offering easily digestible songs. It’s noticeable on No Code, and even the somewhat return-to-form of Yield, but even on their most difficult records, no album was bereft of crowd pleasers. Songs like “Given to Fly,” “Insignificance,” and even “The Fixer” from 2009’s Backspacer, feel like lost gems, songs that never got absorbed into the radio rotation the way the band’s pre-1995 material did. Even though Pearl Jam spent a solid decade wandering, they were still capable of writing songs that were always meant to be performed inside baseball stadiums.
Playlist: “Once” / “Release” / “Leash” / “Daughter” / “I Got Id” / “Last Exit” / “Corduroy” / “Hail, Hail” / “Smile” / “Given to Fly” / “In Hiding” / “Insignificance” / “The Fixer”
Pearl Jam as a Folk Band
One of the chief complaints people have with Pearl Jam is that they’re overly earnest, and while Vedder’s lyrics have always had an angst-fueled sentimentality to them, it’s something he learned from the king of heart-on-sleeve songwriting: Bruce Springsteen. While Pearl Jam always had a classic rock influence, it was Vedder’s adoration of the Boss—as well as Neil Young—that made so much of the band’s softer, folky songs possible. And more importantly, it added another dimension to the band, one that would serve them well as the years wore on.
These songs first came to the fore on Vs., with “Elderly Woman Behind a Counter in a Small Town” seeing the band drop their hard rock auspices and going for something that could have played to both disaffected teens as well as their parents. “Better Man” was no different, and though a little more rock-oriented, still bellied the band’s willingness to express their sensitivity. It’s something that Vedder would become increasingly taken with as the years passed, always finding ways to drop songs like “Off He Goes” or “Thumbing My Way” into an album without it feeling out of place.
Playlist: “Elderly Woman Behind a Counter in a Small Town” / “Better Man” / “Off He Goes” / “Around the Bend” / “Soon Forget” / “Thumbing My Way” / “Just Breathe”
Pearl Jam as a Punk Band
In the 90s, Vedder spent a good amount of time talking about how much he loved Fugazi, even if his admiration was detrimental to the band he was actually in. Their outright refusal to play by the music industry’s rules in the mid 90s hurt the band dramatically, in part because they were less visible, but also because it put Vedder in the driver’s seat, usurping power from Gossard and Ament and sowing discord internally. And while Pearl Jam never fully pivoted into an out-and-out punk band, Vedder’s pushing certainly showed their interest in the genre.
“Spin the Black Circle” was a prime example, which saw Gossard and McCready grab a handful of chords and wail on them. It wasn’t just one of the fastest songs in Pearl Jam’s discography, it was one of the few that felt like it could have been a B-side from an early Dead Boys record. But before that, Vedder was already flirting with his own interpretation of punk. “Rearviewmirror” told a Springsteen-esque story of leaving everything behind in search of something more, and while the song didn’t start all that aggressively, the last two minutes were all incline, furiously unfurling in the final seconds.
If Pearl Jam was always a place for Vedder to unpack his dirty laundry, a song like “Lukin,” written about a stalker that drove their car into his home, felt as simple and direct as he ever got. He shredded his vocals in the verses, sounding so unsustainable that it makes sense it quickly flames out after a single run-through of the chorus. In the past 15 years, Pearl Jam’s continually dashed off songs that could have just as easily fit on a Menzingers record, like “Comatose” or “Got Some,” which were simple three-chord tracks without an ounce of fat on them.
Playlist: “Spin the Black Circle” / “Rearviewmirror” / “Habit” / “Lukin” / “Grievance” / “Green Disease” / “Comatose” / “Got Some” / “Mind Your Manners”
Pearl Jam as an Art-Rock Band
Starting with Vitalogy, Pearl Jam began writing records for themselves, or maybe they just wanted to test the mettle of the people coming to their concerts. Whatever the case may have been, the band began inserting songs that felt, at times, like inside jokes. That was the case for “Bugs,” which saw Vedder playing an accordion and tunelessly rambling about the titular pest. On the other end, there was the album closer "Hey Foxymophandlemama, That's Me," a nearly eight-minute sound collage that was an amalgam of guitar noodling, drum fills, and recordings of patients at a psychiatric hospital. These were the kinds of songs fans listened to maybe once a year, but they served an important function for newcomers, contextualizing the arc the band would follow on the next few albums.
1996’s No Code saw the band dive headfirst into their obtuse tendencies, taking the divisive moments of Vitalogy and attempting to make them into an album-length piece. While nothing on No Code felt as tossed off as “Bugs,” it showed what the band was capable of when they committed themselves to making something intimate and awkward. “Sometimes” was a perfect encapsulation of that, as Vedder’s performance was one of the best in his entire career. The song was deliberately tense, hinting at an explosion that never actually came.
Those more muted compositions would be explored in depth with the band’s pair of albums in the early 2000s, Binaural and Riot Act. Each album featured distinctly measured compositions and more ambitious recordings, effectively removing the band’s boilerplate anthems. While both are positioned as failures, in hindsight, they seemed more like test runs for a sound that was not yet codified. Songs like “Light Years,” “Sleight of Hand,” and “Help Help” each hinted at the kind of music that would come into vogue within the next few years, almost sounding like a template for music The National would be making by the decade’s end. And while neither Binaural or Riot Act work in full, they have some compelling moments, achieving a sound that the band was well suited for but quickly moved away from, as Pearl Jam was always so prone to do.
Playlist: “Bugs” / “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That's Me" / “Sometimes” / “Do the Evolution” / “Light Years” / “Of the Girl” / “Sleight of Hand” / “Grievance” / “Can’t Keep” / “Help Help”
David Anthony is on Twitter.