Certain Songs #1507: Pearl Jam – “Nothingman”

Album: Vitalogy
Year: 1994

One of my favorite jokes in This is Spinal Tap comes when filmmaker Marty DeBergi points out to manager Ian Faith that while previously the Tap had been playing 10,000-15,000 seat arenas, on the Smell The Glove tour, they were playing venues 1/10 of that size. So he naturally wondered if that meant that their popularity was waning.

Faith takes a second, and then replies: “No. No, no, no, no, no. Not at all. I-I-I just think that their appeal is, uh, becoming more selective.”

I would argue that few artists worked harder on making their appeal more selective than Pearl Jam in the mid-1990s. I mean, obviously plenty of artists sabotaged their careers by making shitty records. But in the case of Pearl Jam, their music was just getting better. Instead, they it was all integrity moves: choosing to make no videos and fighting with Ticketmaster were just the beginning, because with Vitalogy — their best album yet — they also chose to put weird experiments on the back half and didn’t release any of the best songs as singles.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: both “Spin The Black Circle” and “Not For You” are perfectly fine songs, but I don’t think they’re what elevated Vitalogy above the previous two albums. Instead, both fans and radio jumped on a different trio of songs, the first of which is the gorgeous waltz-time ballad, “Nothingman.”

Once divided, nothing left to subtract
Some words when spoken can’t be taken back
Walks on his own with thoughts he can’t help thinking
Future’s above, but in the past he’s slow and sinking
Caught a bolt of lightning, cursed the day he let it go

“Nothingman” was different from the other slow songs Pearl Jam had done previously: it started out slow and sparse, and pretty much stayed that way: there wasn’t a big ending where they piled on instrument after instrument. Instead, they trusted both the lyrics, melody, and of course Eddie Vedder’s lead vocals to be big enough.

Which, of course, it is: the verses tell a story of a relationship going wrong, leading a chorus that tells us how he feels.

Nothingman
Isn’t it something, nothingman

So incredibly simple. So incredibly potent. Especially when you realize that Nothingman probably has that exact response whenever people ask him what’s wrong: “nothing, man.” Lying to everyone else, but not to himself.

“Nothingman”

“Nothingman” live at the Bridge School, 1996

“Nothingman” live in Seattle, 2000

“Nothingman” live at Lollapalooza, Chicago, 2007

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