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Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana
On the 20th anniversary of Nevermind, we settle things once and for all.
By Alex Heigl and Peter Smith
Pearl Jam is better than Nirvana
by Alex Heigl, Nerve writer
Chuck Klosterman makes a great point about Pearl Jam in his book Killing Yourself to Live: "Pearl Jam was seen as the people's band; Nirvana was seen as the band that hated its own people." And that's really the best distillation of the difference between those two bands, and why Pearl Jam, despite not having the cult of personality that Nirvana does, is ultimately a better band.
Pearl Jam always trafficked in raw, soaring emotion: you can point out all the people that took Eddie Vedder's vocal style to the bank (as I have), but the fact remains that he's a marvelously emotive singer whose grandiosity is only bearable because God love him, he really seems to mean it. Kurt Cobain, meanwhile, drew much of his power from abrasiveness — I would never suggest that he didn't mean what he was singing, but his voice is ultimately alienating and rejecting, where Vedder's is warm, embracing. "Oceans" from Ten is the perfect example of this — his falsetto on and worldless vocals on "Oceans" are touching and affecting in a way that raw power and rage can't touch.
I'm also of the opinion that Vedder was a much better lyricist than Cobain, something that comes across particularly well on Vs., which often loses out to In Utero in the great revisionist fawning that people have attached to Nirvana in the wake of Cobain's suicide. By way of an example, Cobain was writing lyrics like "What else could I say/everyone is gay" on In Utero's "All Apologies" (which I do happen to think is a stellar song) — regardless of the emotive quality of that song, those lyrics are juvenile, simplistic and the kind of eighth-grade reasoning that you could say Cobain was probably lampooning, even though he wasn't. Meanwhile, Vedder was writing "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," a beautifully specific character study both broad and nuanced, an incredibly difficult trick to pull off in a song: "I swear I recognize your breath/memories like fingerprints are slowly raising."
Listen: "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,"
Pearl Jam also continued to take chances with their recordings that their radio singles rarely touched on. Case in point: "All Those Yesterdays/Hummus" from Yield, a track that careens from a sparse power-trio arrangement to a horn-augmented, harmony-laden gem of a song that recalls perennial Vedder favorites The Who's work on The Who by Numbers. My point here is that Pearl Jam are often tagged as workmanlike, classicist-leaning rockers, but they've got a back catalog filled with odd gems that defy such easy categorization.
Finally, Pearl Jam is still out there, doing it. I'm not going to disparage Kurt Cobain's mental state, but even if he hadn't killed himself, I don't think it's that much of a stretch to speculate that Nirvana wouldn't have lasted. That's not to say he wouldn't still be making music, but I think that he was too uncomfortable with the fame the band had achieved by 1994 — we likely would have been treated to an awkward retreat from success, sporadic output, not to mention whatever would have happened had Courtney Love kept her claws in him. Pearl Jam, meanwhile, has survived their own forms of self-sabotage (a battle with Ticketmaster that effectively barred them from playing a wide swath of venues across the U.S.) to emerge hardened but still kicking ass. Their live shows are still catarthic blasts of rock, and their albums haven't fallen off either — 2009's Backspacer showed a band still able to kick out the jams like it was 1994 — fifteen years later, "Got Some" still rages as hard as songs the group cut as young men.
Listen: "Got Some"