Vitalogy (Epic)
Pearl Jam

By Mark Clark

Brilliant and bungled, irresistable and unlistenable in turns, Vitalogy is the most perplexing release of 1994.

Just ask anybody who cornered me at a party this Christmas season. Everyplace I went, people were either asking me about this album or telling me about it. Everybody seems to have an opinion on this record and nobody has the same one. lt's the best thing yet from Pearl Jam. It's the worst thing the band has ever done. The first half of the album is terrific, but the second half is a letdown. The record doesn't pick up steam until the second half. – I can't shake the idea that Eddie Vedder and friends are all having a good laugh at our expense. Vitology sounds as if it were specifically designed to drive listeners up the wall. But one thing's certain: If you're a Pearl Jam fan, this is a must-have record, despite its flaws.

In many ways, it's the formidable young group's finest, most daring effort yet. But a smattering of truly dreadful tracks makes it seem like a mild disappointment. The band's first two records, Ten and Vs. were certainly tough acts to follow.

The good material here — and there's plenty of it —is some of the finest work in the band's repertoire. "Nothingman," about the disintegration of a couple's relationship, is the best ballad the band has recorded. Vedder's lyrics are incisive, his vocals empassioned. "Corduroy" and "Better Man" are sure additions to Pearl Jam's growing collection of anthemic rockers, alongside tunes like "Alive" and "Glorified G."

But Vitalogy's bad moments are unbelievably horrid. It's hard to imagine the thought process behind "Bugs," wherein Vedder, accompanied by a wheezy accordion, screeches endlessly about bugs in his "pockets, bugs in his shoes, bugs in the way I feel about you,"' ad nauseum. Vitalogy closes with a bizarre, 7:44 collage of dialogue, sound effects and other random noises that makes The Beatles' "Revolution 9" seem perfectly sensible.

The majority of the record is reserved for punkish, riff-driven rockers like the first single, "Spin the Black Circle" — the band's love letter to vinyl. These cuts would be more enjoyable if Vedder would chill out and actually sing the lyrics, instead of barking out the words indifferently. But the riffs are catchy and these tracks improve with repeated listens. "Not for You" and "Whipping" wear especially well.

The album's lyrics are also spotty. Too often, Vedder comes off sounding whiney — bemoaning a rock star's lack of privacy ("Pry, To") or their troubles with pesky groupies ("Satan's Bed"). The problem is that Vedder's lyrics have always been deeply personal (witness"Alive" and"Jeremy"). As Pearl Jam gets bigger, Vedder becomes more insulated and less in touch with the everyyoungman persona he has crafted for himself. He probably was on the right track when he focused the band's second album, Vs., on more political themes ("Dissident,""WMA").

If Vitalogy disappoints, it's because Pearl Jam is pushing the envelope instead of playing to its strengths. And if it's harder to buy into Vedder's lyrics this time out, it's only because he isn't shying away from the introspective approach fans lauded him for in the first place.

The problem is that, on balance, Vitalogy is an easier album to respect than to eniov.