Most bands welcome fame. As Vs. proved, Pearl Jam is not one of those bands. When Ten hit it big, they opted to retrench. Instead of building on the messianic sonic cathedrals constructed by Ten producer Rick Parashar, the group went with Brendan O’Brien. While the future Bruce Springsteen collaborator was best known at the time for making Stone Temple Pilots sound very PJ-esque, O’Brien gave Vs. a more immediate and rootsy sound that would make him Pearl Jam’s go-to producer for many albums to come. Affable acoustic ballads like “Daughter” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” went a long way towards establishing that vibe, as well as giving Pearl Jam’s commercial viability some legs in a world that was about ready to move on from grunge. (Coincidentally, the best of the three bonus tracks on this reissue — an acoustic version of B-side “Hold On,” and a cover of Victoria Williams’s “Crazy Mary” from a 1993 tribute compilation, are kissing cousins of these kinder, gentler Pearl Jam tracks. “Cready Stomp,” the third bonus track, is a decent enough grunge-funk instrumental.)
The results were decidedly more mixed when Pearl Jam decided to kick out the jams. In between future setlist staples like “Rearviewmirror,” “Go” and “Dissident” were all sorts of left-turns and dead ends: the primal-scream rage of “Blood” and “Animal,” the condescending Public Service Announcements of “W.M.A.” and “Glorified G,” and the society-scolding Michael-Jackson-quoting I-really-hope-they’re-joking “Rats.” No member of the group was more affected by Pearl Jam’s newfound popularity than Eddie Vedder, and the scattershot nature of his lyrics on Vs. certainly reflects that. For better or worse, Vs. proved that Pearl Jam was a group willing to follow the beat of its own drum.