Pearl Jam's "Ten", Eighteen Years Later

by Michael Metivier

2 April 2009

Over the years, Sony Legacy has re-released countless albums, but rarely has it honored a record whose importance with regards to legacy has been debated since day one as Pearl Jam’s debut.
cover art

Pearl Jam


US: 24 Mar 2009
UK: 23 Mar 2009

Over the years, Sony Legacy has re-released countless albums by artists from Miles Davis to Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash to Journey (?), but rarely has it honored a record whose importance with regards to legacy has been debated since day one as Pearl Jam’s debut, Ten. Or should I say almost day one. Originally released in late August of 1991, the album sold modestly until a year later, when now-iconic videos for its biggest singles, “Even Flow”, “Alive”, and “Jeremy”, became inescapable on an MTV newly flush with product from bands and artists previously relegated to local, independent, and underground markets.

At that point, Pearl Jam and its initial clutch of songs (along with Nirvana, Soundgarden, et al) became, unfairly or not, synonymous with the notion of an “alternative” music that would ultimately reclaim and save all of rock and roll from the degradations of hair metal and prefab pop. Though their sound, minus the golden baritone of the enigmatic, reluctant hero Eddie Vedder, wasn’t markedly outside the confines of classic rock (with touches of punk and metal), it was received as such by radio, video, and live audiences, if not the media, and its legacy and impact on future bands seemed all but certain ever since Jeremy spoke in class, and all five horizons revolved around her soul.

But Ten, for all of its earnest, burly grandeur, almost certainly wasn’t recorded with the amount of ambition equivalent to its success. The album was the result of both incredibly good and incredibly bad fortune, and the simple desire of its creators to continue making music through it all. Guitarist Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament had already had some success with their mid-‘80s garage fuzz-bomb Green River (which also featured Mark Arm and Steve Turner, who would later form Mudhoney). They were poised for even bigger success with the decidedly slicker glam-rock of Mother Love Bone, going so far as to sign a deal with Polygram Records before lead singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose in March of 1990.

The shock and grief of his untimely end led Gossard and Ament not only to record the Temple of the Dog tribute with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, but to maintain at least a semblance of momentum for their own compositions. After fashioning a demo with the help of fellow Seattle guitarist Mike McCready and Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron on drums, they passed it along to former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons. Irons in turn gave the tape to a San Diego surfer/gas station attendant named Eddie Vedder, thus defining Pearl Jam’s origins as a combination of tragedy and kismet.

Vedder dubbed his vocals over three songs, which he named “Alive”, “Once”, and “Footsteps”, and sent it back to the band (a playable replica of this demo cassette is included the super extra mega deluxe edition of the reissue), and it was clear to everyone involved that there was something special about that voice. The new songs Gossard and Ament were working on were more aggressive than the shimmery Mother Love Bone material, though they retained an iota of that band’s tendency toward funk rock. Vedder’s deep baritone projected both sensitivity and ruggedness onto that template, at a time when both pop-metal and college-rock were led by keening yowlers (Axl Rose, Perry Farrell, etc.). Furthermore, Vedder’s lyrics weren’t snarky or intentionally subversive, but rather fragmentary pieces of character and story that recalled the Oedipal confusion and mystery of the Doors, instead of paeans to booty and booze.

No one at the time predicted that their debut Ten would sell millions and catapult the band into classic status, hoping instead for a modest 30,000-40,000 and the chance to make another one.  The first few months after its release in August of 1991 saw the band’s expectations more or less met, with the album slowly but steadily finding its way off the shelves. But the ubiquitous media phenomenon of “alternative” rock, led by MTV and a little touring concert festival called Lollapalooza soon made Ten an indispensable rock and roll album.

Ten became just the right album at just the right time, with the DNA to endure beyond its peers. Less metal and apocalyptic than Badmotorfinger, less grimy and bleary-eyed than Dirt, Ten’s most winning trait may have been that it was less cynical than Nevermind. Pearl Jam was, and remains, a fundamentally romantic band. Like U2, to whom they received a lot of comparisons back in the day, they were unafraid of passion and earnestness both in their songs and performances.

Watching the finally-released DVD of the band’s MTV Unplugged set, included in the Deluxe edition of Ten’s reissue, it’s a little awkward watching Vedder swivel on his stool, shaking his hair in front of his face, with all of his infamous facial grimaces and tics, like looking at old yearbook pictures. But there’s also something similarly touching and sweetly innocent about it, though it may never be “cool”. When they taped that show for MTV in March of 1992, the band had only been playing shows together for a year and a half, they were still getting to know each other in the midst of becoming enormous musical celebrities, so there’s something noticeably green about them (though every note, plucked or sung, sounds spot on from relentless touring). With Ed scrawling “Pro-Choice” on his arm in black sharpie during “Porch”, and Jeff Ament grooving on his bass while hanging over then-new drummer Dave Abbrusseze’s kit, it seems a bit ham-handed in retrospect, but it definitely doesn’t seem studied.

The themes Pearl Jam dealt with on Ten were both grand and accessible: troubled families, troubled relationships, and troubled kids, with vague hints of politics thrown in for good measure. And though songs like “Alive” and “Jeremy” told specific stories with equal parts fact and fiction, they were universally relatable, and received as gospel by audiences who were primed to take the business of rock and roll seriously again. Ten to date has sold over 12 million copies worldwide, yet its die-hard adherents (who must make up a fair percentage of that lot) have forged intensely personal connections to it that feel exclusive even amongst stadiums full of fellow Bic-wielders. 

All of this makes Ten an obvious and natural candidate for commemoration. The band has approached the reissue with equal parts nostalgia and characteristic forward-thinking, right down to the artwork and packaging, which recasts the original magenta cover in sepia-tones, and with Ament’s distinctive handwritten song titles. Rather than just opting for a quick re-mastering and vault-clearing, the Legacy editions of Ten (of which there are four, which range from a 2-CD set to an exhaustive collector’s extravaganza) opts for a more creative and thoughtful approach.

The first disc honors the original Ten mix that fans know and love with a solid re-mastering, basically louder, more pronounced and sharper than previously-released pressings. But the second disc is fairly unprecedented in the history of album reissues.  It presents Ten in its entirety again, re-mastered, but also re-mixed by Brendan O’Brien, who produced the string of Pearl Jam albums from 1993’s Vs. to 1998’s Yield. The remixes are mostly simple tweaks and prods (no Greedo shooting first, if you catch my nerdspeak), though the cumulative effect is significant. By stripping away the vast swaths of reverb and delay that swamped Rick Parashar’s original production, Ten becomes more immediate, less dated, closer to what the band projected live, and to later recordings.

Initial remixes were released for three of Ten’s songs on Pearl Jam’s 2004 greatest hits compilation, and the idea had been on the band’s mind for even longer, to strip the echo cloak away, and see how the album would sound without dated production techniques. After all, though the songs from Ten still make up the bedrock of Pearl Jam concerts, the album, from a production standpoint, sounds different and isolated from any of its successors. The complete 2009 “redux” proves a successful makeover. The main difference is that the mix is drier, creating more separation between the individual instruments and giving them more definition. The effect does wonders for all involved, not least Dave Krusen, whose drums sound infinitely less watery. Ament’s bass is also more pronounced, resulting in a more three-dimensional listening experience than the blurry original. More noticeable changes include erasing the delay from Vedder’s vocals on opener “Once” and a fuller intro to “Garden”. Recording-experts will probably be able to pick out every enhanced or stricken detail, but all anyone really needs to know is that the album just sounds better. In fact, for anyone who feels like changing the past is sacrilege, drying out the mix is, in effect, the reverse of airbrushing. Besides, the band thoughtfully included both takes to satisfy all comers, so pick your poison.

Additionally, all of the Legacy editions include six bonus tracks, the highlights of which are the previously unreleased “Brother” and “Just a Girl”. The former had previously seen the light of day as an instrumental on the 2003 Lost Dogs rarities collection, and both songs have been kicking around on unofficial, fan-traded bootlegs since being leaked in the early ‘90s. But here, of course, they sound significantly better. “Brother”, an outtake from the official Ten sessions, has since been remixed by O’Brien, and here features vocals and lyrics that appear to have been redone recently, as they’re somewhat different than the bootleg versions. Currently the single for the Legacy reissue, it’s an attractive radio-friendly cut, big, bold, and testosterone-fueled, though it’s clear why its inherent choppiness wouldn’t have worked in the midst of Ten. “Just a Girl” comes from early demos recorded not long after the band’s first show, when they were still called Mookie Blaylock, after the NBA player. Unlike “Brother”, which would have been a sore thumb, “Just a Girl” perhaps sounds a little too close to tracks like “Why Go”, though it sounds more complete and fully-formed than most demos. 

Also included are a demo of “A Breath and a Scream” (later shortened to “Breath”) and a studio outtake of “State of Love and Trust”, both of which were later re-recorded for the soundtrack to the movie Singles, with a different producer and drummer. Rounding out Disc 2 are a studio improvisation dubbed “2,000 Mile Blues” and a goofy throwaway called “Evil Little Goat”. Though inessential, these tracks do prove illuminating for die-hard fans, particularly with regards to how different drummers can affect a song’s momentum and feel, and also the band’s underreported sense of fun and humor. The Deluxe version comes with the aforementioned MTV Unplugged DVD, and the Collector’s Edition delivers all sorts of bonus artwork, posters, and replicated materials, though all versions are made with care, featuring sturdy packaging, and lovingly compiled photos and memorabilia. Furthermore, the re-release of Ten goes out of its way to leave out previously-released outtakes and b-sides that have appeared elsewhere, including “Wash”, “Dirty Frank”, “Alone”, and a cover of the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling”, which would have unnecessarily overwhelmed an already gigantic undertaking. 

After years of Ten’s legacy only being discussed in terms of its legions of inferior imitators, who downgraded its earnest passion into naiveté and its grand sound into sludge, or the years of media-battling (Ticketmaster, et al) that ensued, this reissue rightly sets the focus on the songs themselves, which are firmly ensconced in rock fans’ collective consciousness both as energizing and deeply felt music, and as symbols of mainstream rock and roll’s all too-brief rediscovery of meaning.



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