Pearl Jam & MTV Unplugged in 2020

by Nick Papanicholas

I remember first hearing about MTV Unplugged back in its heyday when I was at the tip of the iceberg in my musical journey. Back then, Nirvana, Green Day, and David Bowie were a few of the many artists I had in rotation. I was in high school at the time and was starting to dip my toe into the vast realm of music. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged album served as a huge stepping stone into the world of live music. But how well does this live format hold up today, and is it still a worthy venture for modern groups to do in the present music landscape?

Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance was, and still is, legendary. I remember back in the day, I wasn’t at all interested in live performances. I figured why settle for a less-than-decent recording when a studio version is likely available, and all the songs would be perfectly mastered and hashed out by the artist or group. Boy, was I wrong. I soon understood that live recordings can, in fact, sound better. Some groups play extended versions of songs and, in the case of MTV Unplugged, rely on acoustic instruments rather than electric ones.

In October of 2020, Pearl Jam decided to release their performance for MTV Unplugged that was recorded in March of 1992, two years before Nirvana’s performance. This was seemingly to drum up some hype for their new album, Gigaton, but I think that they also wanted to capitalize on the popularity of Nirvana’s performance for MTV and see if their recording could perhaps compete.

In all honesty, this recording sounds spectacular. It’s a short 7-song album, and features some of the initial songs from Pearl Jam’s debut record, and “State of Love and Trust” from the Singles Motion Picture Soundtrack. Every song sounds raw and full of emotion, thanks to Eddie Vedder’s voice. At the time this was recorded, Pearl Jam had garnered critical success for their debut, and had been one of the main bands driving the new grunge movement in the early 90s. Their contemporaries, like Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots, all had a stake in the new sound that was dominating airwaves and music television at the time. Pearl Jam was easily at the top of their game, and this Unplugged recording is proof of that as it features all of their well-known songs. If this album had come out during the grunge heyday, it would have probably sold thousands of copies and become a critical and commercial success.

Perhaps Pearl Jam wanted to save this album for a rainy day? After all, 2020 saw the decline of the concert industry due to COVID-19, which resulted in a shocking spike in online “virtual” concerts. These endeavors have been set up where you pay for a virtual ticket and log onto a site that can stream a full length show. In theory, this could be a good method for bands that thrive off of live performances. They would be putting butts back in seats and selling merchandise all on the web. My take on this isn’t as optimistic as it may seem to be; I can’t imagine getting the same experience at home that I would at a live show, so I haven’t really felt the need to buy a virtual ticket.

Pearl Jam Unplugged takes you on a trip through memory lane if you were around for the grunge explosion back in the 1990s. It’s a quintessential alternative album, and proves that Pearl Jam aren’t afraid to give their fans a dose of nostalgia in the wake of one of the toughest years in recent memory.