Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Guided Tour of Vs.: Go

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.


(A Guided Tour: Vs.)
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.

Glorified G
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town