Vitalogy. What is it?
My GenX brothers and sisters, along with my own daughters, will recognize this word as the 1994 album released by Pearl Jam.
In true Pearl Jam fashion, Vitalogy was released on vinyl before it was released as a CD. The cassette release followed the vinyl. I purchased all three mediums. Until 2014, Vitalogy held the record for first-week vinyl sales. Jack White broke their record with Lazerato. I suppose that’s fine.
The Album that Changed Pearl Jam and Rock Music
The Vitalogy vinyl sales catapulted the album to mega sales. It sold 900,000 units in the first week. The album followed up their debut Ten and their sophomore release Versus. In a few short years, Pearl Jam rose to icon status.
Pearl Jam marks a historic time in the world of music. Ten, with Nirvana’s release of Nevermind, changed the way the world viewed rock music. Vulnerability, authenticity emerged as prized values. And the culture thirsted for authenticity.
Our culture has not experienced a meaningful revolution in music since the 1990s. The “grunge” (a derided term by these bands) music of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains obliterated the music norms of the veneer-laden 70s and 80s rock music.
Vitalogy plays as an eclectic blend of punk anthems, devoid of real rock solos. It also contains tender soliloquies in the form of ballads meant to depict the vulnerability and preciousness of life.
The album’s original title was Life. But the band changed it to Vitalogy based on a health care brochure from 1899.
The Frail Beauty of Life
At the time of the release, the band was experiencing intense personal and interpersonal pressures from their meteoric rise in the music industry. They felt exploited and struggled with the immensity of their fame.
Vitalogy was a proclamation about the preciousness of privacy, the desire to be normal in a world always hungry for the next celebrity.
The album was an eccentric departure from their sound established in their previous two hit albums. It was rock music suicide to produce and release a record so far off the commercial rock path. But in many ways, the record was a testimony or perhaps a foreshadowing of their grit as a band not only to walk their own path but to do the hard things to remain intact in a world where bands last maybe five years and break up or implode.
Mike McCreedy (lead guitarist) checked into rehab just before the release of Vitalogy and Eddie Vedder (lead vocals, guitar, lyrics) was disillusioned with the way the commercial music world exploited their sound and image.
They toured nonstop for five years and recorded Versus and Vitalogy during downtime. It’s a wonder they didn’t ignite and blow into oblivion.
The Vitalogy album, in light of their real-life dealings, stands as a testament to the preciousness of life juxtaposed to the glamour of a fake world.
All that is precious comes to us in the most profound moments of intimacy. This is vitalogy: the study of life, the chase for joy, the need for the beauty of one another.