“Popularity” was a delicate subject to bring up around Pearl Jam in the early 1990s. On one hand, the band were inarguably one of the most popular acts in America, selling millions of copies of their debut LP Ten and riding the forefront of the grunge explosion. On the other, they were being railed by writers and Kurt Cobain for their supposed trend-chasing and apparent desire to find commercial success through the Seattle scene.
This kind of criticism hit home for the members: Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament were already lifers in the Seattle music scene, having most famously been a part of Mother Love Bone before the death of lead singer Andrew Wood. Mike McCready had cut his teeth with bands like Shadow and Love Chile before being recruited into Chris Cornell’s project dedicated to Wood, Temple of the Dog. All members were stung by the notion that they were Nirvana followers, and they decided that anything too pop-focused would be put on the backburner going forward.
Nobody told producer Brendan O’Brien, who was working with the band on their second album Vs. Although it had been clear that more aggressive songs like ‘Go’ and ‘Blood’ were leading the sessions, O’Brien still convinced the band to let acoustic-led songs with noticeable pop hooks like ‘Daughter’ and ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’ sneak onto the tracklisting. Eddie Vedder was hesitant, wanting to cut songs like ‘Rearviewmirror’ for being “too catchy”, and he drew the line at a song that eventually became a Pearl Jam classic.
“There’s a great song we recorded for Vs., ‘Better Man’, which ended up on Vitalogy,” O’Brien recalled in 2001. “One of the first rehearsals we did they played it and I said, ‘Man, that song’s a hit.’ Eddie just went ‘uhhh’. I immediately knew I’d just said the wrong thing.”
Adding: “We cut it once for Vs., he wanted to give it away to this Greenpeace benefit record, the idea was that the band was going to play and some other singer was going to sing it. I remember saying to the engineer, Nick [DiDia], ‘This is one of their best songs and they’re going to give it away! Can’t happen!'”
O’Brien could only do two things: wait it out until the band were willing to put their best work into ‘Better Man’ and knock down any half-assed attempts to record it. “We went to record it and I’m not going to say we didn’t try very hard, but it didn’t end up sounding very good,” O’Brien said about the initial recordings of ‘Better Man’. “I may have even sabotaged that version but I won’t admit to that. It took us to the next record, recording it two more times before he became comfortable with it because it was such a blatantly great pop song.”