Pearl Jam’s “Ten” at 30: a raw and dynamic first album, both sonically and emotionally exquisite
When I think of Pearl Jam to “Ten”, a lot of things come to mind. Singer Eddie Vedder pulling a Spider-Man during shows and climbing on stage equipment it dangles from before descending safely via crowd dives or precarious jumps. Mark Pellington’s gripping video for “Jeremy”, featuring the song’s lyrics, about a school shooting.
However, a small gesture from the band’s episode “Unplugged” on MTV in 1992 is the most important in my mind. As happened during Pearl Jam’s electric shows, the scathing, punky “Porch” morphed into a raucous jam with a frenzied bridge and powerful vocals. As the band’s acoustic guitars unravel, driven by Dave Abbruzzese’s kinetic drums, Vedder picks up a marker and scribbles “PRO-CHOICE !!” in big letters on his arm. The cameras continued to occasionally linger on his arm for the remainder of the song, making it clear that the message was heard.
As a young child, this moment may have stuck with me because it coincided with my own growing awakening to social and political activism embraced by my favorite groups. Looking back, however, it is revolutionary and deeply moving that the figurehead of a great rock band has so openly and unabashedly supported this cause.
Vedder was not alone, of course; Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and REM’s Michael Stipe also spoke about many social issues around this time. But at this early stage, Pearl Jam leaned heavier than these two groups, both sonically and emotionally. The quintet’s debut album, “Ten”, is made up of Raw Nerve Endings, a collection of songs about managing change and ending grief and grief. Sometimes these feelings are expressed in frustration; at other times, they manifest themselves in anguish and despair.
“Ten”, of course, is also considered one of the major albums of the grunge era, alongside another LP from 1991, Nirvana’s “Nevermind”. Pearl Jam was one step ahead of Nirvana – their album arrived in August 1991, a month before “Nevermind” exploded in stores – but “Ten” took longer to take off: it was certified platinum. on May 5, 1992, while “Nevermind” was certified four times platinum on June 12, 1992. Like many musical movements, grunge has always been more of a press construction than an organic stage.
However, a descriptor like grunge took the bands away from their 70s rock lineage, an old-fashioned era at the time. (This is why Nirvana’s love for bands like The Cars and Cheap Trick hasn’t been highlighted either.) But grunge has never been a monolith. Soundgarden and Alice In Chains were inspired by psychedelic stoner rock and heavy metal bands from the 70s such as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Nirvana, on the other hand, is subtly inspired by 80s college rock (Pixies, Smithereens) as well as hardcore punk and melodic new wave pop.
The only grunge inspiration common to all bands was Led Zeppelin and their mix of heavy blues, pastoral folk and hard rock. The British band certainly had a big influence on “Ten”, although the musicians who wrote the core music – bassist Jeff Ament and guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready – brought eclectic backgrounds to the album. Ament and Gossard were part of the influential Seattle band Green River, but were more recently in Mother Love Bone, which had glam rock and alternative metal overtones. (Tragically, the band’s frontman Andrew Wood died of a drug overdose in 1990.) Vedder, meanwhile, was a fan not only of REM but of artists such as Neil Finn, Ramones, Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads and The Who.
“Ten” claims energy, abandoning the turgid and complacent tempos of classic rock bands in favor of languid grooves – a song like “Alive” stretches and disconnects, with a dynamic offering a respite from the heaviness – and a crisp psychedelic boogie (“Deep”). Elsewhere, the album boasts a surging punk (“Porch”) and hard rock both exuberant (“Even Flow”) and elegiac (“Garden”), as well as complex atmospheres, as at the opening of “Once “, which sounds like drops of water magnified 100 times.
Time tends to flatten the context around bands, which can be good (the disappearance of old prejudices often leads to a more open listening audience) or negative (important nuances around songs are lost). Pearl Jam often falls into the latter camp. “Alive” and “Even Flow” were played in the ground on the radio, making them sound more like classic rock wallpaper than deep and meaningful songs.
But “Ten” deserves better. It’s an album that is the result of musicians and lyricists grappling with deep loss. “Once upon a time, I could control myself” Vedder moaned in “Once”. Later in the song, he changes his tone slightly: “Once upon a time I could love myself.” The haunted “Black”, long a fan favorite, can be read as a song about the end: a death, perhaps, or a relationship that is irrevocably broken. “The five horizons revolved around her soul like the earth in the sun,” sings Vedder.
“The song is about letting go,” he noted in the “Pearl Jam 20” documentary. “It’s very rare for a relationship to resist Earth’s gravitational pull and where it’s going to take people and how they’re going to grow up. I’ve heard that you can’t really have true love unless it is. not be a love It’s hard because then your truest is the one you can’t have forever.
Much of “Ten” is about absence. Vedder wrote a trilogy of songs – “Alive”, “Once” and “Footsteps” – which he called “Momma-son”, centered on a young man whose sanity deteriorated after learning of his identity. real father. Elements of “Alive” are taken from his own life: As a teenager, Vedder learned that his stepfather was not his biological father – and, unfortunately, the latter was deceased, so he never had the chance to. to know him. However, Vedder fictitious his experience in lyrics that touched on incest, murder, abuse and incarceration; together the songs read like a short story. “Jeremy,” meanwhile, was inspired by the true story of 15-year-old Jeremy Delle who committed suicide in his English class. The song’s narrator is one of his classmates left behind, remembering every sign that pointed to (and his own complicity in) Jeremy’s actions.
These are heavy topics, but Vedder’s tone is empathetic and incisive. Already very early on, his emotional generosity was already fully formed, for he was digging in the heart of sensitive subjects. “Release,” a primal and self-conscious song Vedder wrote about his reaction to finding his father, is especially loving. Vedder is kind to himself when he sings, “Oh dear daddy, can you see me now? / I am myself, like you in a way.”
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“Release” in particular meant a lot to Vedder. “These words – I still refuse to write them down, even if they need them for publication,” he said in the book “Five Against One: The Pearl Jam Story”. “I won’t write them. It was just something I hadn’t experienced, it was so intense.” He extended that same empathy to the protagonist of “Why Go,” who is in the hospital against his will, and “Even Flow,” written about a homeless person. Vedder centers these characters in their own stories; it is their voices and perspectives that we hear, rather than an outsider who decides the narrative form.
This combination of honesty, empathy, and intensity also made Vedder a formidable leader. During Pearl Jam’s “Saturday Night Live” appearance in April 1992, he repeated his pro-choice plea during “Porch.” This time, Vedder was explicit: Dressed in a beige shirt adorned with a hanger, he improvised a pointed commentary during the bridge. “A woman has every right to choose – to choose, to choose, to choose,” he said. “Choose for herself.” He didn’t need to elaborate: his passion and his message were clear and underscored exactly why Pearl Jam and “Ten” have become such enduring institutions.