With all of the big news surrounding Pearl Jam’s new album/single/tour in the past few weeks, I thought it would be great to go back to their genesis and reexamine the album that would end up transcending the grunge world and become a part of popular music history. It was also the beginning of a long career of hit making, long tours and going against the grain: It all started with Ten.
This album simply blew my mind. It was 1992 and I was 14, hanging out with my buddy Lee, watching MuchMusic on the TV in the basement. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on the music video that was playing. The tune was balls-out awesome and their frontman was swinging from a balcony and crowd surfing during a groovy guitar lead. It was Pearl Jam’s first single, “Even Flow” and I was now a fan and Mike McCready was my new favourite guitarist! I went to the old Sam the Record Man on Yonge to pick up the album.
What really struck me as I rolled through the album is that by the time I got to the last song “Release “, I realized that there wasn’t a “throw away” song on the album. They were all fantastic songs that could stand on their own and together they all had their own specific place on the album. And not only was the songwriting outstanding, the performances by all of the musicians who played on the album was superlative.
The songs themselves had actually been written for a while – the instrumentals anyway; they had been laid down in a demo by the band’s founding members Jeff Ament (bass), and Stone Gossard (rhythm guitar). They had been looking for a singer since the death of their previous singer, Andrew Wood from their band Mother Love Bone. They had just started their assent to music stardom when Wood passed away, and they knew that to duplicate their prior success they needed a frontman with charisma – and an original voice. The demo found its way to California and into the hands of a singer/surfer/dude. Enter: Eddy Vedder.
Vedder was the piece that would bring it all together for Pearl Jam. His lyrics addressed serious topics like abuse in the song “Jeremy”, homelessness in “Even Flow”, and depression found in Vedder’s musings on “Release” and “Alive”. His soothing, deep voice resonated over fantastic songwriting and arranging. It wasn’t about “studio trickery” and massive overdubbing – in fact, there was something elegant in the stripped down way the band played and recorded their parts. Remember, this album was released in 1991. Just coming out of the opulent recording practices out of the eighties, it was so refreshing to hear some four-on-the-floor, balls-out, rock-and-roll! Just after gaining their fame, they gave props to legendary Canadian classic rocker Neil Young, who would be from then on known as “The Grandfather of Grunge”. A very appropriate title considering the similarities to Young’s style that was all over bands from the Seattle scene. Young was most famous for his politically charged societal commentary over his version of stripped down music and wandering guitar solos. This Canadian link also explains the band’s willingness to drape themselves in flannel shirts – aka the Kenora dinner jacket.
Pearl Jam would end up as the voice of an entire generation of disenfranchised youths. It gave the music a certain depth that many felt were missing in the over-produced, glitter and plastic of eighties music. In particular, the lyrics of “Jeremy” and its video eerily foreshadow the escalating violence that would end up plaguing American schools. Their music cast a bright light on the dark side of depression anxiety and bullying. On this the band was way ahead of its time. The issues of violence and bullying prevention in schools has only recently been adopted by society as a whole within the past 5 years. Pearl Jam was bringing these issues out as early as 1991. Pearl Jam’s “Ten” will go down with Nirvana’s “Nevermind” as the two albums that would propel alternative/grunge genre into the popular consciousness, even making them mainstream. Whatever “Ten” is categorized as, it will go down in history, not just as one of the greatest debut albums ever, but as a piece of art work that will stand the test of time.