Pearl Jam's Primal Scream Therapy

No one hates the star-making machine more than stars. Every so often, when some rock band is whining to the media about the media, one is reminded of Frank Zappa's sublime directive: "Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar." Pearl Jam emerged from the pleasuredome that is Seattle in 1991. Nirvana broke bigger, but Pearl Jam had a longer run: their debut album, "Ten," has sold 5 million copies and remains in the Top 30 after nearly 100 weeks. Singer Eddie Vedder has fretted over the commercialization of his songs, which are full of anger and grieving. And he has been bewildered by the odds and ends of fame, such as Shannen Doherty's telling the press that she wanted to meet him. (Yikes.) Pearl Jam's second album is titled "Vs.," presumably a jab at the media for pitting the record against both "Ten" and Nirvana's latest effort, "In Utero." Fortunately, Pearl Jam doesn't waste much energy on resentment. These guys know when to shut up and play their guitars.

"Vs." is an absolutely firstrate rock-and-roll album: streamlined, propulsive and full of urgency. (The band didn't come up with the title until the midnight hour, so the first discs to roll off the press will be called simply "Pearl Jam." Collector's item, anyone?) The key here, as on "Ten," is Vedder's dark, tremulous voice and his weirdly poetic lyrics, which return again and again to issues of abuse, power and rage. The most startling tunes on "Ten" were "Jeremy," about a neglected child who wigs out in class one day, and "Alive," about a teenager whose mother tells him that his father isn't really his father. According to the new Rolling Stone, Vedder's real father died of multiple sclerosis before the singer knew he was anything more than a friend of the family. "My folks..they've given me a lifetime's worth of material to write about," he says in the interview. One lifetime, at least.

The new album makes it clear that Vedder is still an ardent disciple of the no-pain-no-gain school of songwriting. "Rearviewmirror" is an exquisitely tense bit of riff-driven rock: I took a drive today/Time to emancipate/I guess it was the beatings/Made me wise. "Daughter," banged out on an acoustic guitar, is written in spooky, disjointed prose: A young girl, violins/Center of her own attention...She holds the hand that holds her down/She will rise up. ("Violins" is indistinguishable from "violence." If a schoolkid had written this, they'd give him a special test.) Vedder can overdo it, as in Troubled souls unite and It's my bloooood. But Pearl Jam's best tunes still go from a whisper to a scream. Vedder is famous for climbing stageside scaffolding and diving into crowds, as well as for leaning into microphones, his eyelids fluttering, his eyes rolled back in his head. The name of the game is catharsis.

Vedder doesn't possess a bottomless bag of vocal tricks, but guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready goose him along with bits of thrash and heavy metal. Their distorted, muscular riffs contribute to Pearl Jam's central irony, which is that the creepiest songs are also the catchiest. Early on, some insisted that the band was merely the sanitized, user-friendly face of the Seattle grunge invasion--that Vedder et a]. were the Beatles, while Nirvana was the Rolling Stones. Pearl Jam is certainly the more accessible of the bands. "Vs." should debut at No. 1 and (God and Garth Brooks willing) spend some time there. But surely there's no sin in being popular if you don't trade away your fearlessness or your fear. It's 1993. Meet the Beatles.