Pearl Jam's 'Ten', 20 Years On

by J.M. Suarez

26 September 2011

Released alongside Nirvana’s Nevermind, the importance of Pearl Jam's Ten has been somewhat overshadowed by that record. Here is a young band, barely together for a year, yet confident enough in it style and aware of its strengths to release a cohesive debut album that would serve as a fine indicator of its potential.
cover art

Pearl Jam


US: 27 Aug 1991

Pearl Jam’s first album, Ten, was released August 27, 1991, and would go on to sell more copies than any other album by the Seattle rock group. While it would be an unqualified commercial success, the quintet could not know it would come so completely and so quickly. Ten is perhaps best viewed as not only a cultural artifact of the early 1990s grunge and alternative music explosion, but also as a signal of Pearl Jam’s talent and longevity as a band.

Released the same year as Nirvana’s Nevermind, Ten’s importance has been somewhat overshadowed by that record. Nevermind’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” may be credited with ushering in the grunge era, but Ten also played a significant role in the commercial success of the genre. In the scheme of the larger alternative rock movement, Ten stands alongside releases like Nevermind, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, and Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish, among others, as albums from 1991 by artists that would carve out enormous musical achievements during the 1990s.

Formed from the ashes of Mother Love Bone and Green River, two bands whose members included both bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard, Pearl Jam came together with lead guitarist Mike McCready, drummer Dave Krusen, and vocalist Eddie Vedder. Gossard and Ament’s established working relationship served as the basis for much of the music on Ten. However, Vedder’s lyrics and vocals combined with McCready’s dynamic guitar solos and Krusen’s powerful drumming would cement the band as a unit—a collaboration that would continue to grow throughout the group’s next eight studio albums.

The record opens with “Once”, a song that sets the tone for the rest of the album. There’s an immediacy and rawness that doesn’t sacrifice melody or feeling. Ten then builds in not only volume and intensity, but atmospherically, as well. As an overall statement, Ten is unified and solid enough to serve as a launching pad for the following two albums, Vs. (1993) and Vitalogy (1994), on which Pearl Jam expanded and explored its sound while staying true to the spirit of its debut.

The three monster singles—“Alive”, “Even Flow”, and “Jeremy”—are the most obviously memorable tracks from the album, but more than that they speak to a band with a strong point of view and musical direction. Ten is an album filled with themes of alienation and rebellion, and one that manages to still find hope in much darkness. “Alive” is an especially good example of this dichotomy, as it’s a highly personal song about the protagonist discovering that his father is not really his father after all. Vedder’s own family life served as inspiration for the composition, making for particularly insightful and striking lyrics. As Vedder wails “I’m still alive” towards the end of the song, there’s a passion and connection to the words that offers universal appeal, despite the specificity of the story.

Similarly, “Jeremy” tells the story of an outcast driven to violence, another tale of desperation and alienation. There’s an immediacy to the music that is matched by the lyrical imagery (“But we unleashed a lion / Gnashed his teeth and bit the recess lady’s breast / How can I forget?”). This is no simplistic, trite lyric writing; rather, Vedder uses strong, almost visceral images to create a powerful, emotional resonance within the listener.

The impact of the music video for “Jeremy” should also be considered, as it had a strong affect on the band. While it certainly propelled Pearl Jam into superstardom, it also offered creative insight into the group in arresting, emotional ways. Its success was so massive, and the attention it garnered so extreme, that the video (directed by Mark Pellington) was the last the band would make until “Do the Evolution” off of its fifth album, Yield (1998), as Pearl Jam was thrust into an unwanted limelight it was unaccustomed to and unprepared for.

Vedder’s lyrics really excel when dealing with universal themes. Like “Alive”, “Why Go” is a good example of a detailed story (about a girl committed to an institution) with overreaching themes that make the song relatable to many: “She seems to be stronger / But what they want her to be is weak / She could play pretend / She could join the game / She could be another clone”. While seemingly melodramatic or too precise, the rage inherent in the music and vocals further exemplifies the frustration so clearly at the heart of the song. Additionally, the music matches the subject in its intensity to create a fuller picture of rebellion.

While Ten is most noted for its heavy, driving rockers, it certainly shines in its slower ballads and dirge-like songs. Tracks such as “Black”, “Oceans”, and “Release” are especially important in pointing to the path that Pearl Jam would go on to mine consistently throughout its career. “Oceans”, with its simmering drums and guitars coupled with soaring vocals, seems like a blueprint for innumerable future Pearl Jam songs. This is a young band, barely together for a year, yet confident enough in it style and aware of its strengths to release a cohesive debut album that would serve as a fine indicator of its potential.

“Black” and “Release” are the kind of songs that set Pearl Jam apart from the massive influx of similar-sounding and often lesser bands that emerged. Throughout Ten, the group straddles the line between delicate and tender to smoldering to develop songs of real honesty and vulnerability. Its ability to move so effortlessly between the unbridled energy of an album highlight like “Porch” (also the standout from its 1992 MTV Unplugged performance) to the achingly beautiful “Release” makes Ten a well-rounded and, ultimately, quite compelling release. While the band would go on to experiment further with song structure and varying influences, Ten still feels like a complete album, start to finish—no easy feat for a debut.

Twenty years after the release of Ten, Pearl Jam has continued to record and release album after album. Backspacer (2009), its tenth and most recent studio LP, has carried on the spirit of Ten, as the band persists in changing and growing over time. Not only is Pearl Jam still putting out music—its staggering output of authorized bootlegs is enough put any band’s catalog to shame—it has have never stopped releasing music. Drummers may have come and gone, but it’s difficult to think of another band that has consistently stayed as true to itself and its music as Pearl Jam has done. Ten marks the beginning of a career with overflowing potential, one that Pearl Jam would not let go to waste.

Topics: pearl jam
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