When all that I had of Vitalogy to listen to was the CD single for “Spin the Black Circle”, I nearly wore down the repeat button on my stereo because of “Tremor Christ”. Angular and seasick, mid-tempo yet ferocious, the song was an encouraging sign that Pearl Jam was continuing to evolve and mature with its audience, consequences be damned. “Tremor Christ” also signalled the dark, confused, troubled times the band and its music were entering. If the band’s prior two records hadn’t been exactly sunny, they almost sounded so in comparison to songs like “Tremor Christ” and its Vitalogy bretheren. The band was discovering the awful truth that success can compound one’s problems, create new ones rather than alleviate the old.
The themes of the song recall several other Pearl Jam songs, including “State of Love and Trust” and “Red Mosquito”. There’s a devil in there, buzzing some sweet words into the protagonist’s ear, but what’s he saying? There’s a troubled relationship of some kind, faith ultimately put in love (love reign o’er me?), which is seemingly a matter of life and death. But what’s the story exactly? I have no freaking idea. Like many Pearl Jam songs, most even, “Tremor Christ” is not a narrative with an identifiable beginning, middle, and end. It’s not even a slice out of the middle that suggests backstory or foreshadows conclusion. What it is is cryptic, coded language whose answer key is likely locked somewhere in a vault in a hidden cave somewhere on Puget Sound.
But I don’t need to know, and maybe I don’t even want to know. It’s a skill of Vedder’s (and the band’s, certainly) to elevate personal struggles to the heights of rock and roll mythology. He does it in different ways, some explicit, some vague, but there’s no denying the conviction that ultimately sells it. When he screams “It’s divine!”, that’s the whole song for me, to rage, rage against the dying of the light or love. And the guitars in lockstep with the percussion, hammering the same nail relentlessly for four minutes, pitching and rolling in the song’s storm–they sound as fresh as ever now even as I approach 30 and my own youthful emotional turbulence has been largely quelled. The song reminds me, oh I still know what it’s like.