When it comes to creating great songs, seizing the moment and acting swiftly has proven to be a successful approach. We’ve seen examples of this with Black Sabbath recording “Paranoid” in just five minutes and The Beatles’ lightning-fast recording sessions in their early days. Embracing spontaneity often leads to fresh and captivating results, and Pearl Jam embodied this mindset for their second album, “Vs.”
With “Vs.,” Pearl Jam deliberately departed from their debut record, “Ten,” which had received criticism for being overproduced. The band aimed for raw efficiency, capturing studio chatter and even temper tantrums intentionally.
This album was about embracing their more immediate and confrontational style, incorporating random warm-ups and improvisations that were never intended for release but found their way onto the final record. By doing so, Pearl Jam firmly established themselves as an original force, shedding accusations of being derivative and avoiding mainstream conventions.
A significant aspect of “Vs.” that appealed to listeners was the band’s embrace of variety in their songs. While “Ten” had a cohesive sound, “Vs.” ventured into punk, grunge, and acoustic rock at a breakneck pace. Pearl Jam’s only goal was to steer clear of anything too predictable, leading them to exclude tracks like “Better Man” and instead include gentler, less obvious songs like “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.”
Eddie Vedder, the lead singer, reminisced about the creation of “Elderly Woman” during an interview with Rolling Stone in 2006. He shared that during the recording of “Vs.,” the band stayed in a small house in San Francisco. Vedder found himself in a tiny room, barely larger than a bathroom, where he set up his equipment and even slept.
One morning, he played a series of seemingly ordinary chords that resonated with him, using a 1960s Shure Vocal Master PA system, towering PA speakers, a small amp, and a 4-track recorder. Within just 20 minutes, the song took shape. Vedder played it for Stone Gossard, the guitarist, who immediately connected with it. They wasted no time and recorded the song that very day.
While the track’s title adhered to the band’s tradition of using one-word titles, the lyrics of “Elderly Woman” marked a departure from the doom and gloom commonly associated with the Seattle music scene. Vedder explained that the song depicted a woman growing older and feeling trapped in a small town.
His fascination with small towns stemmed from the diverse stories they held: some people striving to escape, while others were content being prominent figures within their limited environment. In the song, an old flame returns to town, appearing successful and driving a nice car. Initially, the woman fails to recognize him, and ultimately, embarrassment prevents her from saying hello.
Since its inclusion on “Vs.,” “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” has become a beloved staple in Pearl Jam’s live performances. The song has resonated with their dedicated fanbase and has been played live an impressive 491 times, as reported by the fansite Pearl Jam Deep.
In summary, the raw and quick approach taken during the creation of “Vs.” allowed Pearl Jam to break free from their previous sound and deliver an album that defied expectations. “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” serves as a testament to their ability to capture intimate moments and craft songs that deeply resonate with their audience, both on record and in their captivating live performances.