Happy 25th Anniversary to Pearl Jam’s Debut Album Ten, originally released August 27, 1991.
From the perils of tragedy came one of rock music’s most auspicious debut albums. Twenty-five years ago, Pearl Jam’s Ten originated in Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament’s final stage of grief: acceptance.
Heroin, the effects of which would later rob music’s finest talent—Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley—took the life of Mother Love Bone’s charismatic lead singer Andrew Wood months following the band’s major label deal with PolyGram Records. Shattered dreams lay like shards at Gossard and Ament’s feet. Members of their former band Green River created Mudhoney. For the two musicians who stood on the foothills of musical relevance, they returned from their brief excursion with success stripped of it. Nothing but broken hearts and anguish lingered.
Few musicians overcome death’s misery of riches. After Ian Curtis’ sudden suicide, New Order emerged and moved with the memory of the dead inside of the memory of the living. Coping with Mother Love Bone’s demise, Gossard began writing music resembling little of Mother Love Bone’s funk/metal fusion. Ament and Gossard began working with community college dropout and Stevie Ray Vaughan acolyte Mike McCready, drummer Chris Fiel, and even Soundgarden’s virtuoso drummer Matt Cameron on a series of demos (Dave Abbruzzese would later become the band’s full-time drummer). Yet, these instrumental demos needed a vocalist, and after Gossard and Ament had worked with the magnetic Wood, they lowered their expectations, knowing in their heart of hearts that Wood was irreplaceable.
Fact: Edward Louis Severson III rose up from Midwestern stock. Following his family’s dissolution, divorce planted him in the San Diego area. Myth: This free spirit rose out of the sea like Neptune but with the essence of Adonis. Surfing and music stirred his soul, the latter of which nurtured his temperament with his deep devotion to The Who. Playing in a handful of unsuccessful bands unknowingly prepared him for his destiny.
As the legend goes, former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons handed him a demo tape after one of their basketball games from this band in Seattle trying desperately to find their second wind. After listening to Gossard and Ament’s songs, Severson who changes his last name to Vedder, records a narrative filled with a man facing the reality of his identity wrought with falsehoods. The haunting, powerful voice captured the ominous feel of “Once,” “Alive,” and “Footsteps.”
Magic propelled the loss into a cosmic success. No other blueprint like Pearl Jam’s can be found. Released nearly a month before another monolith of its era, Nirvana’s Nevermind, the eleven songs plus the inexplicably hidden “Master/Slave” falling out of “Release’s” nethermost atmospherics, rose slowly in comparison to Nirvana’s direct assault on tasteless hair metal. Ten’s production is slick, refined, gorgeous and boundless. Each song leaves room for further exploration live. Compared to Mudhoney’s and Melvin’s sarin gas thickness rolling onto the shore like a fog coupled with punk’s ethos and DIY appeal, Ten stood out from the bands who hated the grunge label despite accepting its de facto reduction.
“Once” lacks Soundgarden’s dense, detuned, bottom-heavy, odd-time signature songs with this voice that had to have been kicked out of every church choir ever attended. “Jeremy” polemicizes where Mark Arm’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” toys with love’s leprosy with wisecracks in its all-too memorable chorus. “Clearly I remember picking on the boy / Seemed like a harmless, little fuck” differs greatly from even the cynical lines from Nirvana’s “Lithium,” where the song’s character could have been Jeremy: “I’m so lonely / But that’s okay / I shaved my head.”
Pearl Jam’s debut exists as an outlier, even today with bands afraid to venture outside of their original recordings. Twenty-minute versions of “Black” riddled with Neil Young and Bob Dylan lyrics interspersed like mixed metaphors feel welcomed and unobtrusive to the original track.
To call Pearl Jam’s Ten a grunge album is a misnomer. Vitalogy sounds like a grunge record. Ten jaunts into a search for an identity somewhere lost between Mother Love Bone’s demise and Eddie Vedder’s surfing daydreams. Their chemistry became evident even during the early stages when they toured with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Smashing Pumpkins. The video for “Alive” was shot in black and white, capturing the band pulling the crowd toward them, eliminating the separation between them, the band and the stage. The riff repeats while Vedder tells a story of a boy’s identity crisis and the burden that comes with it. During the chorus, the audience is seen singing along to something they’ve just learned.
Within Vedder’s tortured notes sung from a place filled with fragments and mementos too difficult to be connected with truth, he belts the chorus each time as if he is reliving it for the first time. “Oh, I’m still alive” might be tucked away in this mini-opera he wrote for the band’s first demo, but his voice stings and pokes through into places that remove any suspicion that this is autobiography, too. Vedder’s birth father died when he was young, and when he emotes the words to the masses, his story becomes their story as well. “Alive” fosters the beginning of a long-standing relationship between the band and their audience.
“Even Flow” may provide levity sonically, but themes of alienation and despair persist. The opening riff launches into the air like a bouquet of fire at night. Exploding within it is a signature groove that becomes Pearl Jam’s most obvious characteristic. The chorus swells like a soccer chant. It sounds like Vedder summons the voices of rock and roll that have come and gone to join him for a hymn of disenchantment.
“Even Flow” is a paradox. Sung with child-like joy, the song lacks the hope promised by the feeling of its refrain. The character discussed in the song chases his fleeting thoughts away, unable to understand their inherent beauty. McCready showcases his Hendrixisms during the solo, giving the band its connection to the history that supports it. The instrumental interludes permitted Vedder during his early days to climb every known structure, tempting the fates all the while.
Even McCready surmised “Black” as an homage to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Gossard’s ballad creates one of rock music’s melancholiest tracks. From verse to pre-chorus to chorus, it’s like a slow dirge toward a shallow grave. Yet “Black” allows for Vedder’s expressive baritone to delve into an unreturnable void. The lyrics do little to break new ground with themes of unrequited love, but what it lacks in narrative and poetics is made up for with an emotional weight that Pearl Jam has never equaled.
Sure, “Corduroy” from Vitalogy contains a power that rivals “Black,” but Vedder plumbs shallower depths. Sacrosanct, the songs like “Deep” and “Ocean” fail to compare to the anguish found in the band’s least performed song. When Pearl Jam performs “Black,” however, few songs capture the audience’s deafening imitation of Vedder’s falsetto. First time listeners of the song will remember the chills. More importantly, they will remember the power they wished all music had when they listen to it.
Ten inspired bands with the growling voices and baritone lead singers who attempted to emulate Vedder’s power. Bands like Creed and Seven Mary Three missed the point, sadly. Pearl Jam would adopt the anti-rock star attitude, wishing to maintain perceived artistic credibility in being anti-commercial. The band loved Fugazi and how they gave the middle finger to the record industry.
But Ten would have been a different album had they been a D.C. band and signed to Dischord instead of being signed to Epic. The gloss and sheen would have been removed on other efforts like No Code and Vitalogy. This has come to be accepted by the devoted fans whom they’ve nurtured along the way. Vedder’s superstardom and artistic direction nearly destroyed the band. Yield brought them back to the enchanted realm Ten once manifested. But as Heraclitus once said—and I paraphrase—you can’t step in the same river twice.