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Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana

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Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana

On the 20th anniversary of Nevermind, we settle things once and for all.

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"

 

Nirvana is better than Pearl Jam
By Peter Smith, Nerve editor

…and I'm not even sure that's a slam against Pearl Jam. Look at the band they're up against! In only a handful of albums, Nirvana changed the entire direction of popular music. Risky though it is to prognosticate, I think people will be listening to Nirvana decades and maybe even centuries from now, and I think Pearl Jam will be forgotten, because they're a little dull.

Listen: "Drain You"

 

Here's the concession part: I used to really hate Pearl Jam, and I don't anymore. Part of it was Eddie Vedder's throaty "hunger-dunger-dang" voice, and the other part was the message-laden earnestness of it all. Oh, and I thought that Eddie Vedder was a "poser." This is because I was fourteen.

Now that I am older than Kurt Cobain ever got, things look a little different. Vedder seems, honestly, like a really nice guy, who cares sincerely about music and holds sensible, progressive political views and works generously on behalf of both. Kurt Cobain, who once seemed like a searing icon of everything Real, now seems like a scrawny, sad kid — at best — and a self-aggrandizing, often mean-spirited artiste at worst. (As Alex points out, people often think Eddie Vedder was the grandiose one, but shooting yourself at twenty-seven is pretty damn grandiose.)

But. If I have to listen to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "Jeremy," I'm going with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" every time. Musically, it's propulsive where "Jeremy" is leaden — listen to that Dave Grohl break-beat. Lyrically, it's oblique and evocative where "Jeremy" is blunt and witless. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" means many things, while "Jeremy" means one thing (school shootings = bad).

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a self-contradictory generational anthem from a guy who seemed to hate both anthems and his generation; "Jeremy," by contrast, feels like an after-school special. It's not about who's a "poser" — Nirvana's just more interesting.

Listen: "All Apologies"

 

And that's where the question of "everything Real" comes back in, actually. There's probably not much I can say about Unplugged in New York that hasn't been said, but Cobain's performance on that record — scathing, angular, wry, mournful, the sound of a human being almost seeming to disappear right in front of you — feels more real to me than any of Pearl Jam's reliable modern-rock albums. I no longer think that Eddie Vedder "didn't really mean it," but Kurt Cobain made and makes me feel it, and that's an act of craft that goes far beyond Pearl Jam's agreeable competence.