In the months before the official release of Vs. (and in the pre-internet leak era), albums songs began to hit radio. I was only 14, and remember hearing “Dissident” for the first time waiting in my mother’s car while she went into a flower shop. It’s strange that I would remember this, as it’s only been recently that the song has regained the power it had for me at that age. For the long stretch of time in between I couldn’t get a handle on “Dissident”, its charms just a blur of mid-tempo angst. Now I’m excited to hear it at shows or on bootlegs, and feel its inclusion on Rearviewmirror was deserved as a classic Pearl Jam track. Before radio was as tightly programmed as it is today, DJ’s would play everything and anything they felt would excite their audience. “Dissident” was constantly on the air. It was released as a single in 1994, but unconventionally, with three different import versions featuring multiple live tracks forming (almost completely, but not quite) the band’s ecstatic performance at Atlanta’s Fox Theater in April of that year.
The song itself is less immediately noteworthy that the other Vs. singles. “Animal” would have fit in perfectly on Ten (indeed, as the music preceded that debut), “Daughter” was one of the band’s first forays into acoustic balladry, and “Go” was, well, fierce. “Dissident” on the other hand, sits quietly yet confidently in the corner, not drawing too much attention to itself. It moves at its own deliberate pace, led by Mike McCready’s bending lead guitar. The guitars are what I love most about “Dissident”, what brought me back: how they mimic Vedder’s vocals not in melody, but how they play freely within the structure of the verse and around Dave Abbrusseze’s beat.
Now that I’m reviewing the track for More Than Ten, I’m finally coming around to figuring out what the song’s about. I’ve never been one to construct my own elaborate theories and stories around other people’s songs, preferring instead to take only what they give me, and eliminate the guesswork. Until now, I’ve always just enjoyed the words in bits and snatches, a little “escape” here, a little “conflict” there. And I’ve appreciated the song for teaching me a new word when I was in junior high, a definite rarity in popular rock music. The title “Dissident” gives us pretty much everything we need to know to unlock the song on a literal level (which is mostly what I’m interested in): a woman sheltering a political dissident from an oppressive government, then turning him in. I’ve not heard tell from any official source if the song is referencing any particular historical incident, and if anyone knows, do pass that information along. But it’s compelling nonetheless, dealing with grief, guilt, crises of conscience, etc. She sold him to the state after all, and although she’s “glided on” ever since, we can imagine the burden she’s bearing.