Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Vill ranks and reflects on three albums he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.
3. Pearl Jam: Vitalogy
Personal Favorite: “Not For You”
Summarizing Lyric: “victims in demand for public show” (“Immortal”)
On “Not For You,” a frustrated Eddie Vedder growls “Small my table, a-sets just two/Got so crowded, I can't make room/Oh, where did they come from?/Stormed my room!” It's his delivery that paints the scene of fame's psychological colonialism as horrid, but a singer today might deliver those lyrics with a smile and finish the verse with “This is all for you!” instead of “not for you!” Why? Because privacy to the more modern singer is no longer valuable. In fact, privacy can be seen as inhuman. Technology has driven people to wonder: If you’re not sharing your life online, do you even exist? Vitalogy and tons of documentaries on artist’s gone too soon that warn of fame’s negative effects on the human psyche would argue yes, you exist if your private, and your existence is better for not sharing it because then the need to please others with your existence is absent. Problem is this lesson is difficult to learn without making the mistake of getting famous. “The waiting drove me mad/you're finally here and I'm a mess,” sings Vedder during one of “Corduroy”’s deceptively smiley sounding verses, and the lines feel like a warning call–
We strive for viral, wait for fame, but when it arrives the journey would have already driven us mad and the extra layer of madness brought along with fame will push our made-of-glass bodies over the edge. Pearl Jam, however close they were, didn't fall over that edge–"I take your entrance back... can't let you roam inside my head.” They maintained their value of privacy; they purged their feelings of being as huge as they were after Ten and Vs. onto this record; they gave fans a look into the insanity going on in their heads with “Stupidmop” (“Do you ever think that you actually would kill yourself?... Yes, I believe I would.”); they turned their art into therapy, and that therapy might have bought them the years they’ve thrived since Ten.
Why #3?: I'm all for experimentation and weirdness on albums, in fact I really like "Red Bar" on Yield, but I feel like Pearl Jam was a little too self-indulgent with some of their weirder tracks on Vitalogy, specifically the 2:54 long "Aya Davanita" and the slightly excessive 7:22 "Stupidmop." The length of the tracks was probably the point of them, driving fans mad like the fans drove them mad, but maybe the point could've been made a little better with a more even dispersal and reasonable track length.
2. P.J. Harvey: Rid of Me
Personal Favorite: “Missed”
Summarizing Lyric: “”I’m going to twist your head off, see”
Oohh’s and aahh’s are a lot of fun; they are often the crux of a good pop song. People can sing along without knowing the lyrics because oohh’s and aahh’s grind music down to its most basic form–a melody. The problem (well, mostly my problem) with most pop songs, however, is they seek out the pretty melodies exclusively. If the sounds of music are a funhouse mirror reflecting the sounds of nature, then not every sound is going to be pretty or even digestible. I like going for runs and on the route I take there is a row of trees and underneath one of these trees is a raccoon carcass on a mound of dirt that’s been decaying for months. Pop songs ignore such images, leave it without a soundtrack, and I would like it if more modern pop artists took the sounds that could match such an image and put it on tape for people to face, but I get it. Pop is pop for a reason, so thank god for punk.
The deformed oohh’s and aahh’s at the start of the “Legs” give the dead raccoon a soundtrack, treats the ugly scenes of life with respect by deeming them worthy of being put to music, but P.J. Harvey never outwardly calls the scenes she depicts on Rid of Me as ugly. She participates with, explores, becomes the “50 Ft. Queenie,” the psychotic ex-girlfriend fixed on cutting off your “Legs,” the mother who “Missed” her son’s childhood, Eve being tempted by the “Snake,” the woman gone “Dry,” everything we restrain ourselves from becoming by sedating the demons with prettier melodies. We judge before we become and that’s definitely the safer bet because the characters portrayed by Harvey are not exactly the most stable of people, but I’d argue those characters are within stable people and instead of muting them all the time, maybe it’d be good to let them speak, hear what they have to say, and then put them away. Rid of Me, P.J. Harvey’s personal exploration of the insanity within her, gives us a chance to do that, to see the dead raccoon and vocalize an understanding “Oh,” instead of a horrified “Eww!”
Why #2?: P.J. Harvey knew what this record was and maintained its horror movie sound throughout with the help of producer Steve Albini. No second of time is wasted, every lyric and noise adds to the theme, and her more experimental track, "Man-Sized Sextet," comes in at the middle of the record, standing as a pillar that holds up all surrounding sounds, instead of at the end like Vitalogy where the decision to push all the weird tracks towards the end do get a point across (mind driven to insanity), but it does so at the cost of the album's tone.
1. The Who: Who's Next
Personal Favorite: “Behind Blue Eyes”
Summarizing Lyric: “But my dreams/They aren't as empty/As my conscience seems to be” (“Behind Blue Eyes”)
I’m far from the first and will not be the last to say that every member of 1971 The Who was a master of their instrument. In capturing these perfect musicians at their peak, Who's Next sounds about as perfect as any studio album can get in terms of musicality, but a look at the song titles and a peak at the lyrics reveals that The Who might’ve been struggling with the choice of either committing to the otherworldly perfection or being raw and real, and thank god that struggle is on the record or else the perfection would have bored my ears to sleep.
Every song could have been as conventional in lyrical theme as “Bargain,” but they aren’t because that would have been too easy. The Who challenged themselves by building punchlines into the album. For example, “Bargain,” a usual depiction of a guy willing to give everything up for a girl, is a set-up to “Love Ain’t For Keeping,” a slightly off key depiction of love ending when the weather gets pretty, and “Love Ain’t For Keeping” is the final set-up to the big punchline–“My Wife,” a 3:40 long joke that you can’t help but chuckle at. The next track, “Song Is Over,” is the sigh of ecstasy released after a belly laugh, a sigh that says “[that] song is over/Except for one note, pure and easy/Playing so free, like a breath rippling by.” The character whose wife went crazy after he got drunk now realizes he’s free. The love he had is gone and now he’s untethered, free to sing whatever he wants and that’s the overarching theme of the album–being untethered.
By being untethered you are free from caring, free from being disappointed when love ends or revolutions fail (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”). Of course, being untethered makes you the guy behind the blue eyes who is really only hiding his disappointment by singing songs like “My Wife,” but nobody really knows about the guy behind the blue eyes, so who cares? 1971 The Who seemed to be a group of guys behind those blue eyes. They made a seemingly untethered record with some silly lyrics and song titles, but the musicality, the proof that they cared, is undeniable.
Why #1?: Like Rid of Me, the album sticks to its tone and thesis, but it also provides the variety of emotions seen in Vitalogy. The push and pull between serious artists and a bunch of dudes playing some songs also provided a tension that kept the technically perfect arrangements interesting and the album manages to be funny without really sacrificing any tracks for the sake of a punchline ("My Wife" is a legitimately fun song) which is a rare feat.