It's always been easier to admire Pearl Jam in theory than in practice. Like a bunch of Davids bravely taking on a music-business Goliath, the band has tackled high concert prices, worked hard to connect more with its fan club than with record-company weasels, and has done commendable things like offering a live broadcast of one of their concerts for free to any radio station that wanted to carry it. Musically, it's been another story: Self-important and humorless, Pearl Jam has often been a musical Blob, engulfing and devouring every influence in its path and plodding along from the cumulative weight.
The band's second album, Vs., took a few steps in the right direction, but Vitalogy marks the first time it's possible to respect the band's music as much as its stance. First off, the songs are melodically stronger. When Pearl Jam latches on to a no-frills, traditional melody, as in the flailing ''Corduroy'' and the ragged folk-rocker ''Better Man,'' they downplay chest-pumping arena riffs in favor of more vulnerable, and simply less obnoxious, music. Even better, Vitalogy is one seriously demented record. The spooked ''Bugs'' is set to an accordion oompah beat that wouldn't sound out of place on a Tom Waits record; ''Aye Davanita,'' a wordless drone, could be the initiation chant for the Seattle chapter of the Hare Krishnas.
Pearl Jam still hasn't developed an individual style to match that of its profoundly uptight singer, Eddie Vedder. Guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready continue to play sloppy, characterless riffs; their punk song, ''Spin the Black Circle,'' is a little flabby, like dinosaur rockers trying to prove they're into Green Day. But at least the band is learning to loosen up: ''Hey Foxymop-handlemama, That's Me,'' the album's most disturbing cut, is seven grueling minutes of guitars and drums lurching behind a string of electronically distorted children's voices, who sweetly say things like ''Spanking, that's the only thing I want so much! Why is it better than being hugged? Because you get closer to the person!'' Even if you never want to play that song again, you can't help but admire a multiplatinum act willing to assault its audience with such strange, psychologically unhinged music.
It isn't merely in its music that the album is wacked out. Everywhere Vedder turns, something or someone is suffocating him, confining him, and his don't-fence-me-in twitchiness reaches new levels of paranoia on Vitalogy (named after a dubious quasi-medical textbook published earlier this century, portions of which are reprinted in the album's overloaded booklet). In ''Not for You,'' he sits down at a table for two and has to leave because it's too cramped. In ''Bugs,'' he sees ''bugs in my ears/there are eggs in my head/bugs in my pockets/bugs in my shoes'' and slowly flips out. Even in what appears to be a love song, Vedder snaps, ''You're finally here and I'm a mess...Can't let you roam inside my head.''
Well, at least he's being honest. Three albums on, Vedder doesn't sound any happier or any more at peace with himself. His sentiments can be as vague as fortune cookies (''He who forgets will be destined to remember,'' ''The smallest oceans still get big big waves''). More often, he's so bottled up that his lyrics sputter out in half-finished, inarticulate gushes; the sulking, lashing ''Immortality'' appears to be a Big Statement song about death, yet you'd never know that from its obtuse lyrics. Even childhood isn't a respite anymore. Vedder proclaims ''all that's sacred/comes from youth'' in one song, but ''Foxymophandlemama'' ends with an adult (a therapist?) asking one of the ''children'' if he had considered suicide. The child responds, almost playfully, ''Yes, I believe I would.'' And then the album ends.
From the beginning, Vedder's return-to-the-womb scream has clearly connected with a lot of people, particularly those who might feel disenfranchised or discombobulated. That fact is sadly telling (and understandable), but it's also disquieting. Kurt Cobain had a similar mind-set, but he was also self-deprecating and had a sense of humor. Vedder doesn't allow himself those feelings; he seems incapable of expressing joy or happiness, or even figuring out why he can't. For his torment, he's become a hero and icon. We cheer his every mumbled, incoherent statement and live vicariously through his pain. So, despite its musical advances, Vitalogy leaves an odd, unsettling aftertaste. You walk away from it energized, but wondering what price Eddie Vedder, and Pearl Jam, will ultimately pay for it. B+