Hard To Imagine

For a long time, even after the song became known to me through various bootlegs, “Hard To Imagine” was, for me, the Grail. Prior to 1998, when a version appeared on the soundtrack to Chicago Cab, the song was like a wisp of cloud trailing around the growing mountain of the Pearl Jam catalog. Echoing from my speakers as a distant, tinny recording, over and over again, no matter how many times I listened it was hard to imagine the song actually existed. Where did it come from? What was its purpose? My young mind had already been blown by the fact that bands recorded b-sides and songs for soundtracks. Now there were songs that didn’t even reach those destinations. What other unheard wonders existed?

To my ears, “Hard To Imagine” is at the very top of songs that were unreleased prior to Lost Dogs. And before you raise your eyebrows, consider how many people actually knew of or bought the Chicago Cab soundtrack? Not enough, so I find it hard to count that record. Plus, even then the song was rescued from near-complete obscurity a good few years after it was first recorded, as opposed to “Breath” and “State of Love and Trust” being delegated to Singles.

Allegedly, it was recorded twice, once for Vs. (the Lost Dogs take), and once for Vitalogy (the Chicago Cab take), though I can’t discern much difference between the two apart from a couple lyrical changes.  The song would have felt out of place on either of those records, though it’s tough to fault the band for trying.  Although they rarely performed the song live, surely the song had a greater destiny than as a b-side (the Vitalogy b-sides of course, composed of an album track, improv, and the Frogs, respectively). But after 1994, it doesn’t appear that the song had any life until Chicago Cab, and then again for another seven years.  As Mike McCready wrote in a frustratingly short entry for the song in the Lost Dogs liner notes, “Hard To Imagine” has been “A frequently held sign by fans over the years.”  Whereas many Pearl Jam obscurities are beloved for their relative rarity, “Hard To Imagine” possesses an altogether different allure: a song as haunting and beautiful and worthy as any on the band’s official albums, but always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

As much as I adore the song, I have to admit that both studio versions are somewhat lacking from a production standpoint.  The song itself is unquestionably beautiful, from its hushed beginnings (with a guitar figure recalling both “Release” and “Let Me Sleep”, among others) to its slow-burning build and cathartic peak, but there’s a strong sense that something’s missing.  The small clutch of live versions provide a hint of what could have been w/r/t the studio; a more immediate, less-reverbed, closely-mic’ed recording could have helped the song match the sonic intensity of its rivals, vying for a spot on those early albums.  But would a better recording have helped?  Or did the band drop the song from consideration before it had the chance to get fully fleshed out? “Hard To Imagine” could easily be a demo, albeit one of the band’s best.   Whatever it is, and whatever the reasons why and why not, the song’s patient, steady pulse, and bittersweet melody have aged far better in the shadows than many of the band’s songs have in glaring light.

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~ by Michael on July 29, 2007.

7 Responses to “Hard To Imagine”

  1. Sweet review C13. I think this song just never really fit any album (just like what Ed said about ‘Down’ and Riot Act). Altough I like this song, it would not of improved any album IMO. With that said, I refuse to listen to the Lost Dogs version. The Chicago Cab version is it. <– Period. But kudos to PJ for giving us a different version of the song, although it sucks.

  2. I was one of the few who actually bought Chicago Cab. So there 🙂

    I bought it precisely for this song. My roommate had a version of it on one of those ubiquitous bootleg compilation. But I wanted an actual, produced version for myself.

    I’ve always loved this song.

  3. one of my favourite tunes ever i must admit, but i agree with the other two post saying that it didnt fit into any of the records.

  4. I always found it strange that this never became at least a live regular in the Vs. days, as from listening to late 92 boots, mainly from the lollapolooza shows, almost every gig featured an improv that was the HTI riff with Ed mumbling lyrics.

    This suggests that it was one of the first songs written (at least the music) for the album, and from the repeated performances i would assume it a band favourite.

    So why was it banished to the ages? True, it would not have fit on Vs. but why was it never performed live bar the odd appearance? I have always thought that Ed never really liked it, and perhaps that is why it has been played so few times. It is a mystery that has plagued us for years, and one i doubt we will ever find an answer to.

  5. i’ve always wondered about the lyrics…when Ed sings, “light your pillow, lay back, watch the flames”…do you think he means lay back onto the pillow you just lit? Yikes. or do you watch it burning from the other side of the room, maybe in the fireplace if you’ve got one…or stuffed into your Weber. The song, lyrics and music, definitely succeed in creating a…let’s say, bummer, to coin a classic…bummer, dude. and given the timeframe, i think that had a whole cache of bummer songs that got the job done with a bit more panache…”release” comes to mind. I’m rambling, out of practice…bottom line, what is it that is so hard to imagine? There’s no story…he even tells you it’s too long to tell, so we just get the mood…and, while it’s nice to visit that mood once in a while, other songs get us into that mood with a bit more…i don’t know…imagination?

  6. You’re right Oleyever; the song is excessively vague. And good call on the pillow line! 🙂

  7. I think the “light your pillow” line should be punctuated like this: “Light; Your Pillow.”

    I think the thing that is Hard To imagine is how far they (the band) have come, how much has changed since success. Sort of a similar theme to breath but in a much more personal way… and in a much more powerful way.

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