Grunge was always a place and time, never a style of music. Pearl Jam began as all the rest of its contemporaries ended: in death. Death is inextricable from Grunge music, part of the fabric and a measure of the high cost. The story is folk legend by now: when Andrew Wood, the lead singer of Mother Love Bone, overdosed in 1990, the other members of the band sought to rebuild themselves into a new musical entity. They sent a tape to someone that sent a tape to an obscure San Diego based singer who listened to it while surfing and wrote a partially-autobiographical trilogy of songs about a boy who loses the father they never knew and takes up an incestuous relationship with his mother (“Alive”), goes on a killing spree (“Once”) and awaits the ultimate punishment for his crimes on death row (“Footsteps”).
Vedder grew into himself incrementally even as Pearl Jam exploded. Whether they wanted to or not, Vedder’s soaring, rage-soaked vocals made Ten a smash hit. Suddenly, they were one of the biggest bands in the middle of the biggest musical movement in the world. They were looped in with their contemporaries, who included Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains more out of convenience than to denote a true stylistic similarity. That’s not to say the acts had nothing in common: the rage and the anti-establishment youthful angst characterized just about every band in the movement (to be fair, it characterizes just about every band in any movement). But “Black,” a soaring, melancholic examination of unrequited love remains the best and most lasting song of that era, even if “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the most important. And Vedder’s rich baritone was always most at home when he sang ballads like “Daughter,” a song infinitely sweeter and more thoughtful than anything Kurt Cobain would ever write on his most saccharine day.
I came to Pearl Jam by ordinary means: as an angsty, acne-riddled adolescent who found a kindred spirit in their early work. But any Pearl Jam fan knows that the band really started to find their stride even as their place in the zeitgeist dwindled. Grunge music died in 1994, snuffed out as abruptly as it had captured the public consciousness a few years before. You know what came next – a wave of imitators ranging from the good-if-derivative (Stone Temple Pilots) to inoffensive mainstream schlock (3 Doors Down) to downright awful (Creed). You can understand looking at Eddie Vedder, the consummate everyman, and thinking to yourself, Hey, I can do that. No one ever went to a Soundgarden show and had that thought about Chris Cornell. But Vedder’s legacy lies less in the pale imitators that came after him and more in the sustained, consistent success that he continued to push his band towards.
The band grappled with the consequences and burdens of fame after their chart-topping first album. They spurned the usual dog and pony shows that every other band did, declining to do music videos and waging an ill-fated (if well intentioned) war on the ticket sales service Ticketmaster. By the time they recorded their third album, Vitalogy, the band was in danger of imploding. The album proved to be their most polarizing yet, a mix of manic energy and the discovery of their affinity for weird, jagged tracks. It’s a good album, it’s just not one you make if you want to remain the biggest rock act in the world.
Once the Grunge era began to subside, Pearl Jam began to find its voice with No Code. Then came Yield, a precise and underrated work that never tries to color outside of its own lines. Binaural and Riot Act followed thereafter, and by this point their new identity was forged. Unconcerned with their post-grunge imitators dominating the charts, Pearl Jam tinkered with their sound, experimenting and finding their voice even as the material grew darker. Their self-titled album marks something of a convergence of styles, an accessible rock album with mainstream sensibilities (even if they came about those sensibilities accidentally). And their last two albums have been gravy, enjoyably happy works of a band in their latter years. (Backspacer holds up really, really well but a lot of fans of the band didn’t know what to do with it when it was released). Pearl Jam aged with their audience: they went from angsty, manic teens to righteously angry young adults to dorky dads who love baseball and enjoy what they do. No band stays in the zeitgeist forever – they either burn out brightly (The Beatles, Nirvana) or they stick around for a long career of playing the hits (The Rolling Stones, U2). Pearl Jam lies somewhere in the middle: an enduring rock band with a long, illustrious career and a legacy of quality and virtue.
Maybe I’m reading into it a bit, but I rather think that the song “Alive” is a pivotal moment in Pearl Jam’s finding of their identity. The chorus is soaring, dare I say inspirational, but it’s clearly, in the context of the rest of the song, intended to be an angry lament. But hearing the audience chant it back to him, Vedder reflected upon the chorus. I’m still alive. As Vedder told MTV in 2006, “It was a curse—’I’m still alive’….They lifted the curse. The audience changed the meaning for me.” Like every other grunge band, Pearl Jam was defined in its early years by its rage but, whether by happy accident or not, they turned into a mature, dynamic, life-affirming band before long. And they are, and you’ll have to pardon a bit of corniness here, very much still alive.