In a new 33 1/3 book, author Clint Brownlee gives the definitive account of Pearl Jam’s second album, Vs. The follow-up to Ten sold a jaw-dropping 950,000 copies in its first week of release in October 1993. The grunge classic spawned the hit singles “Daughter,” “Go,” “Animal,” and “Dissident.”
Brownlee, who works as a copywriter, has lived in the Seattle area for more than 20 years and has written about music for a number of publications, including Seattle Weekly, Sound Magazine, and Northwest Music Scene. 360°Sound recently spoke with Brownlee about his book, which is out now on Bloomsbury Academic.
360°: You write in the book about being part of the grunge generation and seeing Pearl Jam live for the first time on the Vs. tour in 1993. Please start by telling us about your fandom and why you chose Vs. as the album to write a book about.
Clint Brownlee: [Pearl Jam] was kind of the music that got me into music. I was a teenager and, interestingly, had gone through a Christian phase, and that sort of shaped my early exposure to music. I did not really get into other things until a little bit later than probably most kids would. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and all the Seattle bands started happening, and seeing that on TV, and just becoming part of the culture, I instantly took to that. I’ve always felt fortunate that the band I gravitated toward is the one that has survived. They became my band at the time, and I’ve followed them ever since.
Vs. was a fairly straightforward choice to me. A lot of people might choose Ten because that’s the obvious one. They came out of nowhere and were huge suddenly. There’s a lot of feeling out there that the next record, Vitalogy, was really the one that showed the band is in a bad place and may break up. The highest drama of maybe their career was with that record. I thought Vs. was the one where they started making their own decisions and steering their own ship. I felt like it set them up to survive the times getting harder with the next one. Plus, it’s just a super solid record.
Please talk a little bit about how the massive success of Ten set the stage for Vs.
Ten was such a huge success that I think they were all sort of taken aback. There were sort of differing opinions within the band. Stone [Gossard] and Jeff [Ament] had been in Mother Love Bone prior to Pearl Jam. Mother Love Bone could have been big, but then their singer, Andy Wood, died. I think Stone and Jeff were ready to take on that adventure toward being more well known, but I don’t know that Vedder was ready to do that. When everything blew up and it was crazy, Vedder was really the one to take the reins and say, ‘I don’t really wanna be a part of this.’ I don’t think he wanted to be the face of the band, and that caused some internal strife.
To make the second record, they tried to distance themselves from Seattle, the epicenter of grunge craziness. They went down to California to record. It turns out that it’s in this super fancy high-end studio that’s had all these legendary artists in the past. It was exactly the wrong setting for Vedder and exactly the right setting for the drummer Dave Abbruzzese. He loved it. They were getting the special treatment. They had a chef in the studio. I think the setting itself divided the two and maybe contributed to how the record was made.
You’ve got Vedder getting his fill of the place and just leaving everybody, driving off in his truck and kind of having his internal songwriting stuff happening on his own while the rest of the guys are working on mainly music for the tracks. It’s interesting to me that they were still able to put together such a great record, even though they were not on the same page at the time. Stone maybe would have been the primary decision-maker in the band if there was no Vedder or if the front man was different somehow. I think he and Vedder had to figure out their dynamic as well.
It all contributed to an interesting outlook where they were making a specific musical decision to try to avoid songs that were so catchy and poppy. That’s just fascinating. And you could argue they completely failed at that because so many songs on the record are really solid and stick in your head immediately.
What were some of the ways in which the band’s disagreements, particularly Vedder’s conflict with Abbruzzese, influence the songwriting on the record?
The first thing that comes to mind is the song “Glorified G.” I wanted to talk with Vedder and/or the other members about that. How did Abbruzzese saying that he bought two guns turn into song lyrics? And not just song lyrics, but the whole gist of the song. It’s sort of a joke on him. How did he agree to be cool with that? That’s one example of how their interplay with each other ended up on the record.
The ultimate final example was the story about finishing “Rearviewmirrow.” That was the last song that they worked on in the studio, and it was not easy. By the end of it, Abbruzzese is pissed, and you can literally hear the drumsticks hitting the wall. That’s just a cool detail that they decided to leave that in. At the same time that they’re sort of making fun of Abbruzzese for being more amenable to fame, he’s also contributing guitar ideas to other songs. There were definitely issues, but they made it work.
The album has some of the more political and socially conscious songs in the Pearl Jam catalog. “Glorified G” is an anti-gun song, and “W.M.A.” is about white privilege and police brutality.
I’m still fascinated with “W.M.A.” Part of that comes from my own minor example of ignorance when I went to the first show that I saw them at and bought the W.M.A. T-shirt. It says “POLICE” in big white letters on the back. I just thought it was a cool shirt. I had no idea really what the song meant or where it came from until much later. That was a heavy and pointed subject that they addressed, and it amazes me.
I could find nothing that there was any kind of controversy stirred related to the song. It feels like if a song like that was released nowadays, you would at least hear more about it. At the time, it was like nobody cares they’re writing about police brutality, white privilege, family abuse of children, mental abuse, gun rights, and all this heavy stuff. Nobody talked about that. They just talked about grunge and how popular it was. It was all kind of surface level.
This is the first album producer Brendan O’Brien worked on with Pearl Jam. Why do you think he clicked with the band?
I think his sensibility as a musician himself was probably something that aligned him closely with the bandmates. The guy must have had extreme confidence. It wasn’t like he came out of nowhere; he’d worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Black Crowes. But this was a much more high-profile, front-and-center role given the timing and the fact that this is the follow-up to their huge debut. That’s pretty impressive that he was not intimidated.
It’s cool that he kind of established this daily routine where we got a schedule where we’re going to lead ourselves into the creative part of the day. I thought it was interesting that he’s got them doing unrelated things like playing basketball and softball. In my roles as a writer in the past, I found that brainstorming is not often thinking about what you want to create; it’s thinking about something else altogether, so it can sort of free your brain up.
What was something you learned about Vs. from your research that you found particularly fascinating?
The things that fascinate me are the things that I still don’t have an answer for. “Dissident” is an interesting song. It’s had a couple of different reported meanings in the past. I don’t know that Vedder has ever really explained what the song is about. I really wanted to talk to him about it and didn’t get to do that. Is the dissident a literal meaning? Is it a metaphorical thing? Stuff like that makes me curious.
What’s your favorite song on the album?
I think “Go” is up there. I love the way it kicks things off. I’ve always been drawn to it.
Click here to purchase the 33 1/3 book on Pearl Jam’s Vs.