Certain Songs #1504: Pearl Jam – “Rearviewmirror”

Album: Vs.
Year: 1993

People probably don’t remember this, but Vs. was a huge huge fucking deal when it came out. After all, once Ten had broken through in the summer of 1992, it had remained a steady high seller — the eight best-selling record of 1993 — which just whetted everyone’s appetite for the follow-up. To the point where Vs. sold more copies in its late October 1993 release week — 950,378 thank you Soundscan — than any record in history, debuting at the very top of the Billboard album charts.

I was one of those people, of course. As Ten had somewhat grown on me, and the press played up the so-called rivalry between Pearl Jam and Nirvana, I was dead curious as to how both bands would follow up their surprise successes. And in retrospect, both bands did exactly what you’d now expect them to do: Nirvana got more abrasive and punk and Pearl Jam got bigger and sleeker, Producer Brendan O’Brien clearing out the fuzz so you could hear them.

Which was fine by me: by that time, I’d already come up with my theory that the only real difference between Guns N’ Roses and Pearl Jam were their looks, lyrics and lead singers, but musically, both bands were influenced by 70s hard rock and stole equally from Aerosmith and The Sex Pistols.

Obviously, this is incredibly reductive, but at the same time, the music of a song like “Rearviewmirror” could easily be by either band. Vedder’s churning guitar and Dave Abbruzzese’s punishing snare were all forward motion, pushing pushing “Rearviewmirror” relentlessly and giving it tension in search of release. But there was no release in the lyrics, at least not at first, as Vedder explains what he’s trying to get away from.

I took a drive today
Time to emancipate
I guess it was the beatings, made me wise
But I’m not about to give thanks or apologize

And of course, it’s the lyrics and the vocals that make “Rearviewmirror” uniquely Pearl Jam: Vedder holding out the notes like he’s not really sure he wants to get away while at the same time knowing he wants to get away. And so “Rearviewmirror” tightens in upon itself, as Mike McCready and Stone Gossard’s circle their guitars around Vedder’s so tight that they almost break down. Like he’s stopping and looking back before he makes his final decision.

But once he does, and the song peels out in high gear, and the tension gets released.

Saw things
Saw things
Saw things
Saw things clearer, clearer
Oh, once you were in my rear-view mirror

And, of course, it’s not just release, but relief: he’s gotten away, and ain’t never coming back. And with that, they pile on guitars and vocal overdubs, as he’s now screaming and shouting with relief, almost in disbelief that it took as long as it did, but also insanely happy that he did it at all.

“Rearviewmirror”

“Rearviewmirror” performed on SNL, 1994

“Rearviewmirror” live in Seattle, 2000

“Rearviewmirror” live at Pinkpop, 2000

“Rearviewmirror” live in New York, 2003

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