Certain Songs #1509: Pearl Jam – “Better Man”

Album: Vitalogy
Year: 1994

Written by a teenaged Eddie Vedder sitting alone in his San Diego bedroom, “Better Man” is almost a perfect encapsulation of the struggles that Pearl Jam were having with themselves over their stardom.

With a universally-accessible lyric and a melody line cribbed from the immortal “Save It For Later,” there was no doubt that “Better Man” was a great pop song. Which, apparently, was the problem: it was a bit too pop for what they wanted to do with Vs.

So while they recorded it for Vs., it apparently didn’t come out too well, so when they got a version they liked, they stuck it on the back half of Vitalogy, in the middle of all of the weird experiments like “Bugs” and “Aye Davanita,” in order to … fuck, I don’t know what. Vitalogy was sometimes incredibly frustrating, because it clearly had the best set of songs they’d ever written, and while the pisstake experimental tracks is a grand tradition going back to The Beatles, I’m not sure they needed to sabotage themselves with four on side two.

On the other hand, maybe it just made the great songs seem that much greater. Not that “Better Man” needed a lot of help to seem great.

“Better Man” starts off slowly: no drums, just a quiet guitar and a floating organ, and Eddie quietly singing from the perspective of a woman who feels trapped in a relationship with a dude who is obviously shitty, but not the shittiest.

Waitin’, watchin’ the clock,
It’s four o’clock, it’s got to stop
Tell him, take no more, she practices her speech
As he opens the door, she rolls over
Pretends to sleep as he looks her over
She lies and says she’s in love with him
Can’t find a better man
She dreams in colour, she dreams in red,
Can’t find a better man
Can’t find a better man
Can’t find a better man
Oh

Naturally, there is not a whole hell lot of hope or redemption for the song’s protagonist, not even after the drums and guitars come smashing in after a couple of minutes, but the power ballad structure does allow the tiniest bit of catharsis, especially when there’s a call-and-response of “can’t find a better man.” But not even that or Eddie’s shouts of “ooooooooh” can take away the straightforward tragedy at the center of the song.

But “Better Man” struck a chord, nonetheless: while not released as a single, it got enough airplay to make it to #2 on the Modern Rock charts and #1 on the Mainstream Rock charts, and remains a fan favorite to this day.

“Better Man”

“Better Man” at the Bridge School Concert, 1996

“Better Man” live at Pinkpop, 2000

“Better Man” live at MSG, 2003

“Better Man” performed at MSG, 2010

“Better Man” performed at the Rock n Roll HOF in 2017

“Better Man” live in 2018

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