Uma Thurman’s character from Pulp Fiction has one scene in which she brilliantly assesses Beatles people and Elvis people. Yes, it’s quite possible for an Elvis person to love The Beatles and vice versa, but when asked, you define yourself by just one of those two and swear by them. You don’t get to be a Beatles person AND an Elvis person. The same little identification philosophy can also be applied to various other little walks of life: Are you a Super NES person or a Genesis person? Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? Coke or Pepsi? There are times when it’s actually very easy to love both, but when it comes to direct comparisons between them, you play up the greatness of the first option and hate the second option’s guts. All comers who argue otherwise are just contrarian fools.
This line of thought can be applied to musical subgenres, too. Take grunge, the scratchy, underproduced music which gets credit for taking rock music off life support after it was put there by whiffing too much of the hairspray it wore in the 80’s. There were several good grunge bands, but the eternal grudge match between grunge giants begins and ends with Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Those two are the faces of grunge, probably because they’re the two acts with the most longevity. Now, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, it’s important to note, are also two bands which are very different in many, many ways, something which Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain always seemed to get a kick out of mentioning. That didn’t keep everyone in the industrialized world from tossing the two bands into the same corner, though, and so we’ve come down to another one of those forevermore fights. And with this year being the 20th anniversary of a popular and acclaimed album from each band (Nirvana released In Utero in 1993, and Pearl Jam released Vs.) and next year being the 20-year mark of Cobain’s suicide, media followers everywhere decided now is the time to revisit one of the last great grunge years. And, being a glutton for punishment, I’m not going to stand above all as an exception to the rule. I WILL, however, stand above other typical cultural onlookers who play up the talents of both bands, praising them, and telling you to just go flip a coin when it’s time to decide to like one better than the other. That’s a cop out. I’m looking to define this sucker. So let’s do this! Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana. One day, I’ll learn.
Kurt Cobain was a very competent vocalist whenever he decided to make the effort. One needs only listen to Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York album for infallible proof of this fact. After listening to Unplugged in New York, though, one also only needs to play one of the two Nirvana albums that aren’t Nevermind to hear that Cobain spent his time coasting through his vocal duties. Yeah, he could be a somber and emotional vocalist, but doing that regularly would have required him to have more settings on his voice switch than just mumble unintelligibly and scream at the top of his lungs, frequently in a stuttering form in the same song. Pearl Jam’s frontman, Eddie Vedder, couldn’t be called a first-tier singer. Hell, he screams too, and he tends to adopt a low growl for the points where Cobain would have screamed. However, when Vedder deploys his distinctive low baritone indoor voice, he can be solemn, sad (“Better Man”), haunting, and sardonic (“Rats”) with just the lightest touches. Cobain almost seemed like he was trying to hide behind his vocals. Vedder embraces his vocal weaknesses and maximizes them so they compliment his strengths.
Pearl Jam. Perhaps the most damning aspect of Kurt Cobain’s vocal work isn’t his own vocal work, but the fact that parodist Weird Al Yankovic recorded his own spin on Nirvana’s popular anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with a song called “Smells Like Nirvana,” in which he made fun of Nirvana for the fact that nobody could understand what Kurt Cobain was mumbling and screaming. It’s one of Weird Al’s signature hits.
There’s an obvious handicap at play here because Nirvana, at most, had four active musicians if you decide to count Pat Smear, who may or may not have been an official member of the band. While Smear expanded Nirvana’s sound on In Utero, he never really received official credit, and he’s never included in the lineup of classic Nirvana members. Pearl Jam never had less than five active musicians; three alone on guitar: Vedder, Mike McCready, and Stone Gossard. Since McCready is the lead guitarist, let’s briefly remove him from the equation and reduce Pearl Jam to four members. With Vedder and Gossard now set against Smear and Cobain, we’ve now got the defining sounds of the bands: A classic rock influence against a punk influence. There’s not much of a contest here because punk is the dregs of rock genres anyway. Punk is music for people who want to be in bands without taking the trouble to learn anything about music or instruments. Punk is a single note and a repetitive lyric being vocalized without being truly sung. Classic rock is performed by people who spent hours in practice, perfecting their musicianship. The bass contest is between Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, a contest I’ll cede to Novoselic because so much of Nirvana’s sound was carried through his bass. Although everyone remembers the hook of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it’s Novoselic who carried Nirvana through the verses of the song, as well as a lot of Nirvana’s other truly great songs like “In Bloom,” “Sliver,” and “Heart-Shaped Box,” and his booming lines were simple but powerful foundations that gave Nirvana’s songs a lot of their power. On drums, Nirvana had Dave Grohl, who – unbeknownst to the public at the time – turned out to be the band’s best musician. Unfortunately, this is about his drumming, so I have to write off everything he accomplished as the frontman of Foo Fighters. Pearl Jam employed a handful of drummers after their breakthrough, but current drummer Matt Cameron as been with them since 1998, and in my book that’s long enough to call him their definitive drummer. In the greatest drum class in history from the most drum-heavy rock genre, both Grohl and Cameron (whose pervious gigs included Soundgarden) are rightfully considered top tier gods who could hold their own among enduring legends like Keith Moon and Neil Peart, so I’ll call this a draw.
Pearl Jam. I handicapped in the previous paragraph for having an extra musician. Unfortunately for Nirvana, Pearl Jam played more complex music with a cast that was at least equal to their talent. Bringing McCready back into the equation, the contest is suddenly more one-sided, and Nirvana’s guitar weaknesses can’t hide behind maybe-member Smear forever. And let’s not kid ourselves; Nirvana did have weaknesses on guitar. Kurt Cobain’s greatest gift was in song construction, and his song construction managed to hide the fact that he wasn’t doing anything extraordinary as a guitarist. A large chunk of his work actually sounds downright amateur when Nirvana’s work is stripped down by piece.
This is an area where these two bands seriously differ, and point A for why they really shouldn’t be categorized together. They’re both Seattle grunge bands, but that’s about the only thing they have in common. Kurt Cobain’s whole object was to be a great punk god, and my description of punk in the last section completely sums up my attitude toward punk – if you want to be a musician, either learn to play the fucking music or don’t be a musician! Music is art, but punk is the manic, street artist revolutionary wannabe for whom “art for the people” is the defense commonly used to excuse the lack of talent, organization, and – a lot of the time – vision. Nirvana is one of two bands to perform the trick of making punk listenable (the other being Green Day, who added a second chord and a competent singer), but despite that, they were a band of punk extremes. They wandered too far in one or the other direction. When they made it too close to traditional rock, they would be in the position of a good mainstream band, if not exactly a pop band. That would be their cue to switch direction and move too far back toward punk, which would turn them into screaming instrument-whippers. (Listen: “Territorial Pissings,” “Scentless Apprentice,” “Milk It.”) Pearl Jam’s sound could be shoved back 20 years prior to the original release of Ten, and it wouldn’t sound very out-of-place. It’s more what people tend to think of when they think of rock music – reliance on guitar rhythm, six or eight vocal lines per verse excluding bridges and hooks, guitar solos. The risk of Pearl Jam’s style, though, is an accusation that I’m playing it safe by stating my preference of a decent, constant musical flow than constant stuttering, white noise, and undecided grinding broken guitar explosions.
Pearl Jam. For some reason, critics still have two problems: They’re either: 1 – confusing “original” for “good” or 2 – believing the two terms are synonyms. Well, I don’t buy that. It isn’t like Pearl Jam never took any musical risks, after all. It’s that Pearl Jam’s risks always seemed to get panned. Remember the whole No Code fiasco? Sure, everyone is acting all buddy/buddy with Pearl Jam’s fourth album now, but that’s convenient forgetfulness to make up for the fact that Pearl Jam turned out to have more longevity as a band than anyone expected. No Code was reviled as Pearl Jam’s greatest mistake for years after its release. All the hoopla over No Code, by the way, also happened to come immediately after the band’s sterling Vitalogy album, in which the band made a departure from the sound they had established on Ten and Vs. to give the world something with a slightly more punk flavor. In the meantime, about half of Nirvana’s work could have been penned by fifth-graders, including the more original stuff. The band in general was apparently fond of grinding, screeching guitars, and choppy album consistency.
Pearl Jam just released its tenth studio album. It’s called Lightning Bolt, and it’s setting alight music critics everywhere. They clearly have the advantage in the quantity department, but this is more about quality. And in this respect, Nirvana can give them a fight. Songwriting was Kurt Cobain’s greatest strength. He was never the most talented musician the world has ever seen, but his ability to write songs continually tricks people into believing he was because he always got the most mileage out of the few strengths he had. Pearl Jam could tell more storytelling and descriptive lyrics, and their music was a lot more complex. Nirvana’s musical model, though, has proven to give us more enduring songs. Everyone can automatically hum the explosive chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which is basically the theme song of the 90’s. While “Jeremy” is another popular 90’s anthem, anyone asked to sing a bar or two of it will come up with a blank stare. Nirvana doesn’t have much greatness in the way of lyrics, though. “Aneurysm” is mostly repeated chorus. “School” has nine words repeated. Too much of the lyrical content in general is just plain juvenile. Pearl Jam’s lyrics could, like Eddie Vedder’s voice, take a large number of tones. “Daughter,” told through the eyes of a young girl, is a stellar example.
I take nothing away from either band in this category. Both have done outstanding work. When I began, I wanted – and was expecting – to give this to Nirvana. Well, I’m going to call this one a draw. Pearl Jam’s songs are better, but simply planting them with the victory would be depriving Kurt Cobain of his own abilities as a songwriter. And since his work was keeping Nirvana afloat, he deserves recognition. Pick your poison.
I’m going to briefly use The Lazarus Machine on Kurt Cobain for a moment. Pearl Jam has had the longer career by a wide mile, despite no one thinking they were going to be around for very long. Eddie Vedder is a passionate activist, after all, and he’s never been afraid to stand up for what’s right. It reflects on a lot of Pearl Jam’s songs like “Even Flow” and “World Wide Suicide.” What this means is that Pearl Jam survived a handful of politically-based scares which would have destroyed a lot of other bands. They went to war against Ticketmaster, a corporate giant that sold most of the concert tickets at their big venues. On Nirvana’s end, the popular narrative is that Nirvana would have gone on to further their fame and fortune. I don’t doubt this. But fame and fortune only last in the music industry until you make a lousy album, and sometimes it only goes until the point where someone in the band flips out. There’s no real evidence that Nirvana would have lasted beyond In Utero. Dave Grohl had been trying his hand at songwriting for some time by then, and it took him just two years after the end of Nirvana to rise from the ashes as the frontman of a new band, the Foo Fighters, who have now been around for 17 years. Cobain carried around a bit of an attitude, though, and he complained constantly about things beyond his control. Fans weren’t getting him, the producer ruined Nevermind, the TV show lip-synchs, this or that band is a sellout. He also didn’t appear very bent on fixing things he could control – he hated Bleach, Nirvana’s debut album. He had also reached the point that he believed Nirvana had reached their creative peak, which he alluded to in his suicide note.
Pearl Jam. At Cobain’s rate, Nirvana might have been able to produce three more albums, and I’ll only give them that out of the greatest generosity my heart will allow. A more realistic estimate has them barely making it through one more before Cobain called quits to the entire band and, sickened of his fans and image, done the Axl Rose routine. Except that in Nirvana’s version, there’s no promise of the Chinese Democracy album at the end.
The nutshell imagery has folks envisioning Nirvana as an angry, tortured band, making authentic and heartfelt music that speaks for the masses while Pearl Jam is a band of idiots obsessed with showing everyone that they’re not sellouts. Are you fucking kidding me?! Everything Pearl Jam did, especially early in their career, had no personal benefit to the band. They refused to make music videos, got into a war with the corporation that pretty much owned all the big concert halls because of what the band said was ticket gouging, and are legendary for their live performances. In other words, they refused to have their fans’ personal song interpretations compromised, stood up to a big corporation because they thought their fans were being screwed, and always run onstage and give 100 percent, gee, look, for their fans! Ya think this is a band that’s fond of its fans? On the other end, there’s Nirvana, a band which created a debut album which the frontman himself hated even though he wrote every song on it; wanted to call its second album Sheep because they thought it had too much of a pretty, mainstream sheen; and made their third album solely as an effort to alienate people. And while people hemmed and hawed about how Kurt Cobain was angsty and authentic and all that other stuff, Cobain was turning the stripped, fundamentals-heavy sound he helped create into a playland where only his own version of the cool kids could dance. And his version of the cool kids was pretty narrow. His feud with Axl Rose happened because Cobain created it and considered Rose a sellout. He took potshots at Pearl Jam too, calling the band out for using too many guitar solos and a shot reserved for Jeff Ament because Ament liked to play basketball. It was Vedder, by the way, who caught Cobain for the bully he had turned into. Sayeth the legend, Vedder called Cobain out of the blue and the battle ended, and the two of them were on much better terms by Cobain’s death.
Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam. It was summed up in one novel which described Pearl Jam as being the band of the people and Nirvana as the band that hated its people. While I have no doubt Cobain meant everything he sang, he is also the early prototype of the modern hipster: A man who tracked the mainstream and made business decisions accordingly, all carefully calculated to project the image of how much he didn’t care. Pearl Jam wins this battle or you’re a fucking moron who needs to trade in your tasteful music card right now and go buy the new album from Justin Bieber. You’re not ready to have a conversation about grownup music yet.
Pearl Jam’s first album was Ten, and they busted into the mainstream right off the bat with it. Nirvana had to wait until their second album, Nevermind, to catch fire. Both of these albums are outstanding, and feature the bands at the top of their games. Nevermind, however, has a limit in its sounds. It’s either similar-sounding one-note guitar work or sardonic acoustic songs. They’re great songs, mind you, but Nevermind really doesn’t venture out to sound all that different from itself. Ten is a haunting album loaded with stories, anger, and pain. It tackles a variety of social ills as well as personal issues, trying to reach out and grab everyone surrounding it. Ten is situational and existential while Nevermind is merely existential.
You can’t go wrong with either, but my personal preference is for Ten.
Pearl Jam rolls over Nirvana in every way. Stripped of their air of authenticity, Nirvana is a band for people who think they’re authentic, but who are in truth just hipsters.