Pearl Jam: Vs. - Album Of The Week Club review

Working with producer Brendan O’Brien for the first time, Pearl Jam's Vs. has a ferocity and bite which leaves the more stately Ten in the dust

Pearl Jam - Vs. cover art
(Image: © Epic Records)

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The Doors - Other Voices

Pearl Jam - Vs. cover art

(Image credit: Epic Records)

Go
Animal
Daughter
Glorified G
Dissident
W.M.A.
Blood
Rearviewmirror
Rats
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Leash
Indifference

Success blind-sided Pearl Jam. As the title indicated, Vs. was the sound of band of who wanted to kick against fame. “When our record started to sell too, it was weird, and really stressful,” guitarist Stone Gossard said. “Everybody was insecure and tense, it was such an odd time.

On Vs. they dialled down the grand emoting. The album clanked and rattled to life with opener Go, and Blood was a blast of petulant fury that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Nirvana album. The sound was rawer, looser and more in-your-face, exactly what band leader Gossard - who considered Ten “over-thought, over-played and over-rocked” - wanted. 

Working with producer Brendan O’Brien for the first time, the quintet determined to capture this new-found aggression on the record, and the album has a ferocity and bite which leaves the more stately Ten in the dust, sounding like the work of a hardcore punk band rather than a classic rock outfit.

Yet they couldn’t quite throw the baby out with the bath water. Rearviewmirror and the plaintive Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town gave lie to the notion that Pearl Jam were anything other than an arena rock band, and a classy one at that.

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Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in October 1993

  • Thirteen - Teenage Fanclub
  • Wolverine Blues - Entombed
  • Anodyne - Uncle Tupelo
  • Gentlemen - The Afghan Whigs
  • Mezcal Head - Swervedriver
  • Phaseshifter - Redd Kross
  • Shame + A Sin - Robert Cray
  • Come On Feel The Lemonheads - The Lemonheads
  • A Real Dead One - Iron Maiden
  • Heartwork - Carcass
  • Silhouette in Red - Bonnie Tyler
  • Together Alone - Crowded House
  • Counterparts - Rush
  • Inhaler - Tad
  • Mexican Moon - Concrete Blonde
  • Five Dollar Bob's Mock Cooter Stew - Mudhoney
  • God Shuffled His Feet - Crash Test Dummies
  • Try Anything Once - Alan Parsons
  • World Gone Wron - Bob Dylan

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What they said...

"It's a much rawer, looser record than Ten, feeling like a live performance; Vedder practically screams himself hoarse on a few songs. The band consciously strives for spontaneity, admirably pushing itself into new territory -- some numbers are decidedly punky, and there are also a couple of acoustic-driven ballads, which are well suited to Vedder's sonorous low register." (AllMusic (opens in new tab)

"Few American bands have arrived more clearly talented than this one did with Ten and Vs. tops even that debut. Terrific players with catholic tastes, they also serve up singer-lyricist Eddie Vedder. With his Brando brooding and complicated, tortured masculinity, he's something we haven't seen in a while ­ a heroic figure. Better still, he's a big force without bullshit; he bellows doubt." (Rolling Stone (opens in new tab))

"The Seattle quintet remains rock’s voice of dysfunction, tapping a deep reservoir of pain and rage. It’s a pressure cooker heated by personal and societal wrongs--incest, child abuse, cops beating blacks. No wonder they called it Vs. But the turmoil is balanced by occasional moments of reflection, efforts to make sense of a confusing panorama – most notably, the R.E.M.-like Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town. (Los Angeles Times (opens in new tab))

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What you said...

Michael Noble: I loved Ten. It still can draw me in (Black is a favourite). When I heard Vs. I thought to myself "wtf?"

But it's one of those albums that keeps wanting you to put it on again, like it knows you missed something...and you had. Now it's one of my favourite albums, because that damn Alpaca kept calling my name.

Iain Macaulay: The only Pearl Jam album I still listen to. Far superior to the debut, and everything that followed.

Chris Downie: The fabled 'sophomore slump' is a peril that has befallen many talented bands throughout the history of recorded music and even derailed many a promising career. Many have wondered what might have been, had the likes of Montrose, Asia, The Stone Roses and many others capitalised on their legendary debuts. In Pearl Jam's case, there was no such concern and, like many before them, from Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath to Metallica and Alice in Chains, they produced a second album that would not only match their debut, but would cement their legacy as one of the greatest rock bands of the decade.

While their seminal debut Ten is rightly regarded as one of the greatest debuts of the modern age, a vocal minority of detractors have lamented its polished sound (given credence by the fact the band remixed the tracks just over a decade later) and in many respects, Vs. was a reaction to this, displaying a slightly more raw (but no less accessible) production which really brings out the best in the songs.

When analysing the songs, what is immediate about Vs is that, with frontman Eddie Vedder taking a more central role this time, they went both harder and more melodic this time around, with the opening one-two punch of Go and Animal flying out of the starting blocks, while the acoustic driven sounds of Daughter and Elderly Woman... saw them in more contemplative, Neil Young-inspired territory.

Like its predecessor, from a songwriting perspective there isn't a weak moment on here. It is, however, food for thought that while they avoided the sophomore slump, they would in many peoples' eyes succumb to the 'difficult third album' on the divisive and disjointed Vitalogy, from which they would never regain the universal acclaim they had on these iconic opening two statements. While they continue to provoke disparate views with their subsequent releases, it is to their great credit that they have endured to become the elder statesmen of the grunge movement. 10/10.

Uli Hassinger: Seems that I'm the only one not digging the album.

First, I have to mention that I'm a big fan of the grunge movement. In my opinion grunge saved real rock. After amazing and influential records in the first half of the 80s the period from 85-90 was hard to stand. Of cause their were a few exceptions, but most of the bands and albums of this period suffer of a poor production with Moog synth and drum computers and bands with teased hair and stupid outfits. The best example is Hysteria from Def Leppard. With grunge the true rockers came back on stage. Worn out clothes, greasy hair and often slightly psychopathic behaviour. It was just like in the late 60s, early 70s.

But this album doesn't belong to the best albums of grunge. Ten was way better and is still an iconic album of this period. I guess the group itself was surprised by the great success of their debut album and tried to get out of focus. As part of that they created a very bulky and little pleasing album. Most of the songs are missing real melodies and it's more like a jamming along in the studio, but the jamming is sometimes not bad, I have to admit.

Of cause, they are all good musicians but the songwriting is not very good. There are only a few remarkable songs (Glorified G, Dissident). The only real good song is the calm and slow last song Indifference (with a real melody!). So it's just a 6/10 to me.

Evan Sanders: I like Pearl Jam's Vs. much more now than when I first listened to it, perhaps a sign of an album that has aged well when considered across the arc of their career. Back in the 90's, I was disappointed that they didn't repeat the anthemic grunge from their debut album. The band's decision to be less commercial in this release, while still including memorable songs such as Daughter and Elderly Woman..., was an early sign that Pearl Jam was more interested in putting out music rather than being chart toppers. I think Pearl Jam continues to be successful due to albums like Vs., where they are trying out different sounds and maintaining integrity. 8/10

Greg Schwepe: So, after discovering Pearl Jam’s Ten via massive MTV airplay or my local FM radio station, I eagerly awaited the follow up. Part of a new genre thought up by the record companies. “Grunge”, they called it. Hmmm… was grunge a music genre or fashion style from the Northwest U.S.? Maybe both? Anyway, a cool new band whose sophomore album I played over and over, until I didn’t. I hadn’t listened to this in ages. More about that later.

As I’ve mentioned in other Album of The Week reviews, if you grab me at the first track, I’ll usually stick around for the whole show. And Vs. does not disappoint at the start. Go kicks off this album and BAM, I’m hooked.

Animal follows” with more kickin’ rock. The guitars of McCready and Gossard scream, and I mean a good scream. Weaving around this tune with Eddie Vedder showing his “distinct” vocal style.

And I say “distinct” because it’s unique and different and totally fits the style of the band. And to this day I can’t listen to Pearl Jam without hearing Adam Sandler do his imitation of Vedder that he did in an SNL skit. Seriously, I can’t.

But a good album does not live by electric guitar riffing only. Daughter brings a heavy strumming acoustic vibe to the party here. And then we get a ripping electric solo that fades into another acoustic section.

Glorified G lets us know that Pearl Jam doesn’t like guns. W.M.A gives us a nice frenetic drumbeat that builds, and builds, and leads to more “distinct” Vedder vocals.

Elderly Woman Behind… brings another acoustic nugget. “Hey, we aren’t some one dimensional flannel wearing band” they seem to say.

Leash might be my favourite song on the album. And I’m pretty sure that wah-wah pedal got put out to pasture after the workout it got on this song.

Listening to this again after many years, I was surprised how good this album is. As I listened to each song I thought “Dang, that one’s good too…” And then a few albums after this I totally lost interest in Pearl Jam. Hence this totally falling off my radar. 9 out of 10 for this one. Whatever genre this may be called, it's loud, urgent rock!

Chris Elliott: I loved Ten - at the time this was a crashing disappointment. Probably haven't played again in nearly 30 years. 

It's not half as bad as I remembered - it has its highs although it drags on a bit and I get really bored with the over emotional vocals. Then I played Ten again for the first time in a few years, and I'm back where I began. In comparison Ten was a great album - this isn't great.

David Downs: The grunge bands more or less killed their own scene. Nirvana and Pearl Jam released the most un-mainstream follow-ups to their breakthrough albums as they possibly could get their labels to release. Then Kurt took his own life, Alice In Chains fell apart because of Layne's addiction issues, and Brit Pop blowing up basically put it out of its misery. That's what happens when guys that don't want to be rock stars suddenly become that overnight.

Neil Immerz: A great album for its time. Even now, the songs sound like they haven’t lost any feeling or power. One of their best.

Steve Ballinger: Just couldn’t get on with the whole grunge thing back then. Now I’m on a kinda reverse discovery voyage. Enjoying the ride this time.

Adam McCann: Great album that lives in the shadow of Ten. It shows Pearl Jam stretching out and finding their own identity

Brian Hart: Much like Guns N' Roses, Pearl Jam faced the monumental task of trying to top their debut album Ten. Ten, along with Nirvana’s Nevermind, was a game changer that ushered in grunge and drove a stake thru the heart of 80’s hard rock. Vs. is an excellent follow up but does not match the aggression of Ten. However, it’s still a great record. 

Vs. is more radio friendly with the likes of Daughter, Glorified G, and Dissident. Songs like Go and WMA tries to capture the intensity and anger of Ten but fall a little short. But let me clarify, they are great songs! Vs. also contains the beautiful Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town - my favourite Pearl Jam song. Vs. is an excellent album and in my opinion their second best album behind Ten.

John Davidson: Vs. is an outstanding second album. Harder and more aggressive than Ten it nonetheless retains the core of melodic melancholy that worked so well the first time out.

This is a band working under the pressure of riding on top of the biggest cultural wave since punk killed disco and coming out with an album that says, yes we are worth the hype.

Not that they’d have put it that way themselves. They were by all accounts already struggling with the fame and attention that success brought them.

It has more guitar leads than a Nirvana album, and it’s more melodic than Soundgarden or Alice In Chains, but it’s a long way from commercial sellout.

Vs., Ten, Nevermind, Superunkown and Metallica’s black album pretty much defined the early 90s for me. It still sounds great today. A rare 10.

Michael Peter Clarence: When I was teacher training in the early 90s I listened to this album every morning as I walked the couple of miles to college

Phil Wise: Unbelievable! Speechless now as this is such a classic. Takes me back to the 90's. Every track is excellent, say no more!

Eric Walker: A very good disc, but the last thing they’ve done that interests me. I invested up through Riot Act trying to recapture that cherry high, but nothing. Did get the self-titled avocado album, and it bored me to tears.

Matt Hoggard: This was one of my study albums in college. I’d let it play beginning to end for hours while getting ready for exams. Great record!

Richard Cardenas: For me, grunge was always, and still is, difficult to listen to because of my tinnitus. Having said that, I’ve always liked this record.

Philip Qvist: What happens when a band or artist releases a superb debut album - how do you follow up on that?

Boston almost matched it with Don't Look Back, Iron Maiden just about did it with Killers, while Guns N' Roses never even got close to matching Appetite for Destruction. Fortunately for Pearl Jam they managed to follow up on the classic Ten with an equally great Vs.

Simply put, Vs. is a terrific record - it starts off with the high energy Go, and the album flows from there - with tracks like Animal, Daughter, my favourite track Rearviewmirror before it slows down for about three minutes with Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town.

A bit more aggressive than Ten but just as good, with everybody all contributing to the songwriting. Eddie Vedder is on top form, Mike McCready and Stone Gossard's guitar playing is top notch, while the rhythm section of Jeff Ament and drummer Dave Abbruzzese (the latter is my album Man of the Match) is more than solid.

If you liked Ten then you will probably like Vs. Vitalogy was a decent third album, but the band was never able to match the magic of their first two albums. A 9 for me.

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Final score: 8.08 (70 votes cast, total score 566)

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