30 songs in 30 days: #16 – “Better Man” (Pearl Jam)

Day 16: A song that you used to love but now hate

There’s that H-word again. I have a hard time thinking of a song, one I’ve actually listened to in its entirety, that I definitively hate. Especially one that I used to love. So I’m dialing down the emotion from both ends for this post. Let’s talk about a song that I guess I liked upon its release, that I now don’t really care for all that much.

End of 1994. Pearl Jam’s third record, Vitalogy, comes out. I’m ambivalent, since they never held my attention back then the way the other big grunge bands did. “Better Man,” the album’s most successful radio play, fills the airwaves. Once the rest of the band wakes up after the too-long hushed intro, it’s a generic strumfest, slightly faster than midtempo, and it’s catchy enough, as long as you don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics (we’ll get back to those). I listen to it, record it off radio and onto cassette, and move on. But then it’s suddenly everywhere—one of those songs that gets repeated on alt-rock radio every half hour or so. And I just don’t get it. I didn’t know many other Pearl Jam songs at the time—“Black,” “Jeremy,” “Evenflow,” “Alive,” possibly “Dissident” and “Daughter”—but I know something is off with this new song. Eddie Vedder, a leading voice of the grunge generation, is mewling like an abandoned kitten, and the others are just jangling along behind him like a folk band. Where is the rawness, the energy? Where are Eddie’s anger and frustration?

Now, the lyrics. There really isn’t a way to misinterpret them, blatant as they are. The song describes an abusive relationship from the perspective of a woman who can’t bring herself to leave her partner. My complaint doesn’t concern the content—far from it. I protest the execution. The lines sound like they were written by a high schooler—because they were. Eddie wrote the lyrics while in high school. Somehow, the song got dredged up for the recording sessions of their second album, Vs., during which their oh-so-insightful producer proclaimed it a slam-dunk hit. And that should have been the end of it. Ever anti-establishment, Eddie and the band didn’t want a slam-dunk hit, so “Better Man” got scrapped—until recording of the next album, Vitalogy, rolled around, when the same producer convinced them to rerecord it. Forget rerecording, the song should have been rewritten from the ground up. Same inspiration, same story, same message, but a more mature execution all around. Give the subject matter the respect it deserves.

Having finally explored their catalog a decade and a half later, I can confidently say that any song off their first two albums is better than “Better Man.” If you don’t know the song, you can listen below, but I maintain you’d be better off picking a random track from either Ten or Vs.

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3 thoughts on “30 songs in 30 days: #16 – “Better Man” (Pearl Jam)”

  1. I giggled reading this because while I am an unabashed Pearl Jam fan, I disliked No Code and Vitalogy – No Code because it was a poorly executed concept album and Vitalogy because I think Pearl Jam was trying too hard to repeat their earlier success (more at the insistence of their label than the band’s continued desire to have that level of fame and fortune) with the exception of “Off He Goes.” That track is reminiscent of Neil Young in its structure and sound, but is wonderfully melodic and haunting. Then came Yield and honestly the two best songs on that album are “Do The Evolution” and “Low Light.” I saw them on the Binaural tour (again, so-so album) and after that, I’m not into their newer stuff.

    Side note: Not to make you feel old(er) than we both are, but RCP’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Nirvana’s Nevermind are both 25 years old this month. Also, Cake’s Fashion Nugget is 20 (same year I graduated from high school and start college)!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, their “newer” stuff is really hit or miss for me. I looked back at their presence in my library and was surprised at how many songs I actually have from albums like Binaural and Riot Act, but they still can’t compare to those first two records. If you’re curious about their recent stuff and haven’t already checked it out, I think their 2006 self-titled (AKA Avocado) is pretty solid – varied and interesting while still a cohesive album.
      And you’re killing me with the album anniversaries 😉 Reminds me of a game we used to play with one of the younger students while listening to rock radio in my grad school lab – How Old Was Jason When This Song Came Out? Often he hadn’t even started middle school yet, which made us all laugh and at the same time feel very old.

      Liked by 1 person

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