Music

Pearl Jam's 'Ten', 20 Years On

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.


Pearl Jam

Ten

Label: Epic
US Release Date: 1991-08-27
Amazon
iTunes

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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Television

Fleabag's Hot Priest and Love as Longing

In season two of Fleabag, The Priest's inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.

Music

Annabelle's Curse's 'Vast Oceans' Meditates on a Groundswell of Human Emotions (premiere)

Inspired by love and life, and of persistent present-day issues, indie folk band Annabelle's Curse expand their sound while keeping the emotive core of their work with Vast Oceans.

Music

Americana's Sarah Peacock Finds Beauty Beneath Surface With "Mojave" (premiere + interview)

Born from personal pain, "Mojave" is evidence of Sarah Peacock's perseverance and resilience. "When we go through some of the dry seasons in our life, when we do the most growing, is often when we're in pain. It's a reminder of how alive you really are", she says.

Television

Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Hilary Levey Friedman
Music

Pere Ubu 'Comes Alive' on Their New, Live Album

David Thomas guides another version of Pere Ubu through a selection of material from their early years, dusting off the "hits" and throwing new light on some forgotten gems.

Music

Woods Explore Darkness on 'Strange to Explain'

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.

Music

The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling

The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.

Music

Dustbowl Revival's "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)" Is a Cheeky Reproach of COVID-19 (premiere)

Inspired by John Prine, Dustbowl Revival's latest single, "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)", approaches the COVID-19 pandemic with wit and good humor.

Books

The 2020 US Presidential Election Is Going to Be Wild but We've Seen Wild Before

Americans are approaching a historical US presidential election in unprecedented times. Or are they? Chris Barsanti's The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History gives us a brief historical perspective.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.