Counterbalance No. 136: Pearl Jam's 'Ten'

Son, she said, have I got a little story for you. What you thought was your daddy was nothin' but the 136th most acclaimed album of all time. Pearl Jam's 1991 debut is this week's Counterbalance.

Pearl Jam


US Release: 1991-08-27
UK Release: 1991-08-26
Label: Epic

Mendelsohn: There are only a few albums that can drag me helplessly into the nostalgia time-hole. Those records are few and far between, mostly because the music I used to listen to is terrible and I can't even bring myself to revisit it (looking at you Marilyn Manson). Pearl Jam's Ten, however, is a different story. Thirteen-year-old Mendelsohn loved this record. As a result, whenever I put this album on, I get that feeling of being unsure about the world—struggling to find my footing and identity. For a teenager growing up in suburbia in the early '90s, this record seemed like the perfect soundtrack. It was deeper than the rest of the records coming out of the Northwest, it had a real sense of drama, unmatched musicality that still brought the hard rock, and it was even uplifting at times. Maybe uplifting is too strong a word. Pearl Jam managed to avoid the dour sound that so many grunge acts seemed to trade upon in favor of a more updated classic rock sound.

There are a lot of different talking points that go along with this record—everything from the video for "Jeremy" to the group’s eventual suing of Ticketmaster. But before we get to any of that, I need you to answer a question for me, Klinger. I can't answer it myself and I have been grappling with it for nearly a week.

Does this record hold up?

Klinger: Maybe I'm not the right person to ask here, because a couple of years ago I passed a very important milestone. I celebrated 20 years of not caring about Pearl Jam. I'm pretty sure I've heard all of the songs on Ten before, but hearing them again doesn't take me back to any particular point in my life. Then again, I should note a couple of things: 1) I have virtually no nostalgia for the sad, fetid 1990s, and b) when Pearl Jam broke big I was still sequestered in my strange little college radio world, a world in which Eddie Vedder and company were held in contempt for having been signed to Epic Records, a division of Sony. We were a dogmatic lot, I assure you—maybe too dogmatic.

So listening to Ten in concentrated doses for this here Counterbalance project, I can say that I feel exactly the same about it as I always have. I don't particularly mind anything about Ten, but I'm pretty sure this week will mark the end of my relationship with it. So short answer—yes. It holds up just fine.

Mendelsohn: I think you're just saying that so I'll stop talking about how awkward I felt as a teenager. At the very worst, this record suffers from an over-washed, over-reverbed sameness that can cause every song to bleed into the next one without much differentiation. At the very best, Ten may have been the pinnacle of the music coming out of the Seattle area in the early 1990s, if not the entire grunge movement.

What were you listening to in the early 1990s? Behind Nirvana, Pearl Jam was everywhere.

Klinger: Gah, you might as well be asking me what I ate for lunch that year. I've executed far too many brain cells in the past couple decades to give you an exhaustive list. I will wager that I was going through a heavy Jonathan Richman phase right around, and most likely that was a reaction to all that angst that was starting to waft up to the surface around about 1991. And I think Pearl Jam—maybe even more than Nirvana—was at the forefront of all that. Which is something that I'm finding very curious as I'm listening to so much Ten right now.

After all, if there's one thing my generation is supposed to be known for, it's ironic detachment. And all throughout Ten, you're given a heaping helping of earnestness and sincerity, the type that generally made my compatriots' eyes roll. So it's interesting to me that Pearl Jam became such a force during this time. Maybe my generation was hungrier for sincerity than we realized. Or maybe Vedder's lyrics on songs like "Alive" or "Evenflow" were just that powerful. Or maybe they were just surprisingly catchy tunes. But I'll defer to you Mendelsohn—what was your connection to this album?

Mendelsohn: The majority of this record is surprisingly catchy. Out of the four major acts to emerge from the Northwest at the height of grunge, Pearl Jam seemed to be the only one who had a different take on rock 'n' roll while remaining true to rock tradition. Soundgraden and Alice in Chains were an extension of Black Sabbath's metal while Nirvana pushed more of the updated garage rock aesthetic. Pearl Jam fell more in line with traditional rock with touchstones that sprouted from Led Zeppelin. It may be easy to write both bands off as unthinking rock but Pearl Jam's Ten has an unmatched sense of musicianship and songcraft that far outshone their contemporaries.

Don't get me wrong. Pearl Jam was not the Led Zeppelin of grunge and Ten is no IV. But if I had to play connect-the-dots, those are the dots I would connect.

And then there is the earnestness of Vedder's lyrics. I didn't really recognize the whole Mother-Son reverse Oedipal love thing going on in "Alive" until I got much older, but by then, I also didn't care. At the time though, it was really apparent that there was an earnestness to much of this record that was missing from nearly every other piece of music being released during that era. And that was sort of refreshing.

Klinger: I get the sense that Pearl Jam is to your adolescence what the Who was to mine—and that of course is an analogy that Pearl Jam would greatly relish. Whatever I might think of the Who now, I can't deny that they helped ease the transition into teendom by acknowledging and amplifying the hugeness and the depth that I felt all around me. You did have the benefit of getting in on the ground floor with your group (and I have the scars that come with an intimate familiarity with It's Hard). I suspect I was, at 22, already a little too jaded to allow that sort of heartfeltedness into my psyche, but as an old-timey rock nerd I certainly understand the impulse.

But you're right when you say that the Alternative Rock™ of the early '90s was less about ripping it up and starting over than it was attempting to seamlessly integrate Classic Rock® into their sound. That's pushed right up to the forefront when you hear Stone Gossard and Mike McCready's Hendrix-by-way-of-Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar work on "Black", but there are lingering moments throughout the album. Pearl Jam is also clearly not afraid to put together a gigantic arms-wide-open greeting the sunrise from a mountaintop anthem like "Release", a tendency of theirs that forces the intimately person nature of Vedder's lyrics into a much more universal realm. And maybe that's why Pearl Jam now enjoys a comfortable standing as a relatively mainstream rock band (do the silly little pishers of today call them "dad rock"? Whatever.), and a first-round draft pick for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016—that's Klinger's Lock of the Week, by the way.

Mendelsohn: If you need any more evidence that Pearl Jam was just a classic rock band dressed up in flannel shirts, please direct your attention to the guitar solo on "Porch"—30 glorious seconds of pure homage to their AOR forebearers. Snippets like that throughout the entire album are a dead giveaway to the origins of Pearl Jam and the alternative rock in general.

I don't think there is any question about Pearl Jam's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame readiness. They have the right mix of commercial and critical appeal. They are almost completely inoffensive. They are nothing if not consistent when it comes to the quality of the music they release. And thanks to all of that they have become an industry unto themselves, easily moving units and filling seats. They have become to lone surviving grunge act that was able to adapt and yet remain relevant in an ever-changing music scene. There are only a few bands from each decade that have managed to pull off such a feat. In essence, Pearl Jam has become a classic grunge rock band. Road warriors and studio veterans who have earned their due. Maybe not the innovators they once were, but elder statesmen who have an assured place in the canon.

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