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.