In the fall of 1994, I was even more excited about the impending release of Vitalogy than I had been about Vs. By then, my obsessive fandom was even more entrenched, and I might have even had a few b-sides under my belt. All the more frustrating that I was forbidden by my parents to buy the album on the day it was released (on CD) as Christmas was just a couple weeks away. Oh the outrage! How was I ever going to wait that long, especially as the details were coming out about the inventive packaging, et al? At least I had the radio to help tide me over.
Now, I haven’t listened to the radio in over five years, beyond once or twice putting on a classical station, NPR, or college radio if I could find it, so I don’t really know the way modern rock radio works these days. But my understanding is that it’s become, like most mainstream media, tightly controlled and formatted, though what this means exactly is unknown to me. I do know that prior to new Pearl Jam albums being released, DJ’s would play almost every track, and I would sit hunched over my cassette/radio for hours at night, finger poised over the record button. And before Vitalogy I managed a good seven or eight songs on there, the names of which I mostly guessed at: “Can’t Find a Better Man”, “Already in Love” and such. But one title there was no mistaking was “Nothingman”.
Like “Daughter” and “Small Town” before it, “Nothingman” became a radio staple ballad, and while not being an official single, made it to the Rearviewmirror greatest hits record. Ament’s chord progression was simple, but a perfectly autumnal and bittersweet backdrop for Vedder’s troubled-relationship reflections. And while the two major components of “Nothingman” are inseparable at this point, it’s become evident over time to me that the former outshines the latter, meaning the overall mood and atmosphere of the song as conjured by Jeff and the band haven’t diminished, while Vedder’s lyrics and performance have dimmed somewhat in comparison to more recent and mature efforts.
“Nothingman” suffers from too many metaphors. She’s a bolt of lightning, then the couple is in prison, now he’s a bird (or Icarus) flying into the sun. Also, someone’s left in a well (?). And then there’s the Nothingman himself, someone we’re meant to both pity and sympathize with, who basically loses his worth and identity because of a failed relationship. But why did the relationship dissolve? Obviously some bad communication (“Some words when spoken can’t be taken back”), and the unfortunate natural tendency of two people to grow apart (“She once believed… / Then she stiffened / Took the other side”). But there’s too little offered in the way of explanation or justification for the amount of pathos invoked.