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It's fitting that the opening seconds of Pearl Jam's third album feature the tentative, squeaking sounds of musicians tuning up. In the context of this work--a major advance over the group's first two albums--the sound serves as the teasing first notes of a band coming alive artistically.
The first breakthrough in "Vitalogy" is the music. The themes on the band's first two albums may have reflected some of the anger and fury of '90s rock, but the music itself, however forceful, seemed distractingly stiff and predictable. No longer.
On most of "Vitalogy," the playing is spontaneous and fresh, sometimes spectacularly so. You get the sense of musicians--especially guitarists Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard--finally comfortable with themselves. The band roars through songs like "Spin the Black Circle" and "Satan's Bed" with the melodic fury of hard rock and the reckless abandon of punk.
Eddie Vedder, the band's most passionate element, demonstrates equal growth as a writer. In the album's best moments--from the angry, anthem-like snarl of "Not for You" to the unsettling "Immortality"--his lyrics are more unguarded and personal, yet more universal.
In the tradition of the Who's "My Generation," "Not for You" is a defiant attack on anyone who would try to corrupt the idealism of youth. Where Pete Townshend aimed "My Generation" at parents and authorities, Vedder focuses more closely on commercial forces--from the music industry to the media--that exploit youth culture.
"Nothingman" and "Better Man" are both about relationships but from vastly different perspectives--the first looking at the isolation of a man who fouled things up, the latter at a woman who won't leave a bad one.
"Immortality," the album's darkest moment, will be seen as a reflection on Kurt Cobain's suicide, but it was written before his death and stands as the story of anyone who is overwhelmed by forces beyond his control.
Not everything lives up to the album's highlights, but there is a triumphant sense of daring in "Vitalogy." This isn't just the best Pearl Jam album but a better album than the band once even seemed capable of making.