Aches and growing pains
The Pearl Jam heard on Vitalogy, ultimately, is an above-average rock and roll band--far better than the one heard on Ten, further along than the one on Vs., interesting enough to split camps between those who passionately believe and those who vehemently dislike. Yet it peddles a classic-rock sound bound to the arena, its clichd bombast often reducing Eddie Vedder's already fragile words to rubble; without their frontman, they are indistinguishable from a thousand other bands claiming to be indie when, in fact, they are just this side of Kansas. In the end, the most popular band in the world is just that--a suitable and convenient product till something better comes along.
Indeed, it's Vedder upon whom the success of this band has always depended; he's perhaps rock's most charismatic performer, a man who keeps his distance but whose lyrics hint at some deep, great pain (or so they say), and whose delivery shatters any pretense. He's the voice of degeneration, a devil unleashed inside his puppy-dog exterior, and it's little wonder that children by the millions hang upon his every word.
Vitalogy is allegedly his masterpiece, a record that links the personal traumas of Ten (see: "Black," "Jeremy," "Alive") with a further-reaching plea for understanding; he is now fixated upon the time-honored subjects of death (often his own) and relationships (between man and woman, between the individual and society, between the heart and the mind). In the very first cut, he wonders "if one cannot control his life, will he be driven to death," chanting repeatedly this is his "Last Exit"; on the last, he prays for "Immortality" through death, leaving us with the reminder that "some die just to live." And in between he lays out something resembling a last will and testament, leaving us a dozen or so songs that are his attempt to make some sense of life and its corruption by outside forces (love, regret, failure, old people).
But, as with every other Pearl Jam record, Vitalogy's resolutions are two-dimensional because its conflicts are inherently facile: people make mistakes, old folks don't understand young people, and, sure, we all think about killing ourselves sometimes but don't have the courage. If Vedder is indeed the man most likely to assume the mantle of Generation Why Me?'s hero of the moment, it's only because he reiterates the obvious and recycles it anew. Eddie says what we already know, and so he must be reading our collective mind, one of us.
In his review of Vitalogy, Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn compared the torpid "Not For You," the record's centerpiece, to the Who's "My Generation"--"a defiant attack on anyone who would try to corrupt the idealism of youth," Hilburn wrote. But he missed the point, and misled the reader: "My Generation" was written by a kid just into his 20s, by someone for whom the frustration of youth was a daily experience. "My Generation" wasn't merely an anthem, but a statement of intent. "Hope I die before I get old," wrote Vedder's hero Pete Townshend, the music at such a furious pace it sounded like the Who might die before they got done.
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For the 29-year-old Eddie Vedder to tell an audience that's predominantly in its early 20s or late teens to "enjoy your youth" and "all that's sacred comes from youth" is a bit like Roger Daltrey still performing "My Generation"--the aging performer clinging to the vestiges of youth, staking claim to and identifying with an audience of which he's no longer a member. If, indeed, all that is sacred comes from youth, then Vedder's words are the profanity spoken by a man who mouths the words without providing the wisdom.
"Nothingman" and "Better Man," for instance, are two sides of a familiar story: in the first song, the subject is destined to live out his mistakes in a lonely and miserable life, "slow and sinking in the past." "Better Man" is told from the point of view of the woman who kids herself into believing she can love such a man and who can't quite wrest herself away from such a painful relationship. But, like the rest of Vitalogy's songs, they are stories we've heard a thousand times over, shallow aphorisms and frayed images strung together ("he who forgets will be destined to remember," "empty stares from each corner of a shared prison cell") till they only sound profound.
At best, Vedder's obfuscation could be said to read like the jumbled thoughts inside a confused mind, but more often they come off as slogans wrapped inside art-school poetry bundled within catchy enough melodies. Occasionally, the record wanders into areas too precious and pretentious even for Vedder (the ridiculous "Bugs," about bugs in his head and room--as a metaphor for madness, get it?). "I'll never suck Satan's dick," Vedder proclaims (?!) on the bristling "Satan's Bed," but I'll bet they shook hands on the deal.