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Pearl Jam's third album - now out on 12-inch album and available on CD and cassette Dec. 6 - is another compelling triumph of surface over substance. "Vitalogy" tones down the anomie in favor of songs about insects, albums, romance and aging, but still has [Eddie Vedder]'s usual bad poetry and vein-popping vocalizations on the meat and potatoes of Pearl Jam's commercial diet: shapeless high-energy riff-rockers.
Which leaves the good stuff. "Better Man" is a quiet showcase for Vedder's impressive acoustic guitar playing; "Satan's Bed" (aka "Already in Love") marries Cheap Trickish pop verses and an organ-ic garage-rock chorus to invigorating, radio-ready effect; the catchy "Corduroy" doesn't suffer for its partial similarity to Soul Asylum. Ultimately, "Vitalogy" comes down to "Nothingman," a slow and touchingly somber minor-key ballad about a splintering romance. With the restraint and subtlety absent elsewhere, Pearl Jam gives Vedder a handsome frame in which harmonies and a performance fraught with potential violence achieve atmospheric folk magnificence. In the violent world of alienated rock and roll, it doesn't always take muscle to make an impact.