Dusting ‘Em Off: Pearl Jam – Ten

At a time when the US was riding the tail end of the pop/hair metal craze, the Seattle cauldron was beginning to boil over after five-plus years of stewing. On September 24, 1991, it did just that. With the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, the world became collectively turned on to a scene that was seemingly on its way out: Grunge. When the lid was blown off, many bands were allowed to see the light of day via record contracts and album sales, but two – Nirvana and Pearl Jam – went above and beyond their fellow Seattleites.

Pearl Jam released its debut album, Ten, on August 27, 1991, less than a month before Nevermind dropped. As a result, despite critical praise, the album and band failed to get major commercial recognition right away, instead living in the shadow of Nirvana’s second album. Sales picked up over time, with Ten eventually surpassing Nevermind (and all of Pearl Jam’s later releases) in sales, chart success, and industry awards. Pearl Jam may not have been the band “responsible” for the “Seattle Sound” or grunge in general, but it was probably the biggest reason for the sound’s success as well as for the public at large embracing alternative rock.

Taking the collective sounds of Pearl Jam guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, you won’t necessarily find punk or grunge allegiances. The principle reason being that Pearl Jam was never a grunge band. The grunge label was applied due to geographical coincidence. Instead, Pearl Jam’s sound is embedded in the roots of classic rock artists like Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and especially Stevie Ray Vaughan… minus the blues influences. Sure, founding members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard were formerly in Green River (perhaps the first grunge band to release a record) with future Mudhoney grunge-iteers Mark Arm and Steve Turner, but almost everything about the band, from writing with open tunings (notable in the blues and folk) to the delicate layering/mixing of the players to singer Eddie Vedder’s ostinato/vibrato singing style, tends to steer away from the abrasive sludge and anger often associated with grunge. Pearl Jam’s anger and seriousness come across via Vedder’s lyrics far more than through the band’s instrumentation.

Ten begins with approximately 30 seconds of a sonorous, haunting intro, which is actually the beginning to hidden track “Master/Slave”, before the true opening number, “Once”, kicks in. “Once” may begin the album, but it is actually the second part of a song trilogy Vedder called Mamasan (or Momma-Son), beginning with “Alive”, the album’s first single, and concluding with “Footsteps”, originally released as a B-side to Ten’s third and most successful single, “Jeremy”.

“Even Flow”, the second single, immediately throws the listener into the middle of a musical melee and features one of Stone Gossard’s funkiest riffs. Taking upwards of 70 takes to get the song down, the final version on the album is not the version heard in the video (hell, the song is not even the song being played in the video) or released as a single, and it features a different drummer (Dave Abbruzzese replaced Dave Krusen) who re-recorded the song while the band was recording for the Singles soundtrack.

“Agytian Crave”, “Dollar Short”, “Footsteps”, “E-Ballad”, and “Richard’s E” were five instrumental songs originally recorded by Gossard, Ament, and drummer Matt Chamberlain while the former two were preparing a demo in search of a drummer and singer. Vedder, upon receiving the tape from former Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons, famously wrote the lyrics while surfing in his home of San Diego. “Agytian Crave” turned into “Once”, “Dollar Short” became “Alive”, and “E-Ballad” was re-titled “Black”. (“Richard’s E” became “Alone”, originally recorded for Ten, and an alternate recording is featured on the “Go” single off follow-up album Vs.)

Though “Oceans” was the fourth official release from Ten, it was “Black” that became the unintentional hit. Originally pushed by Epic Records to be released, the band refused based on the extreme personal nature of the song’s content. Vedder even said, “Fragile songs get crushed by the business.” Never officially released as a single, the song took on a life of its own and actually peaked at number three on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts. The song is easily one of Pearl Jam’s most beautiful and has since gone on to be one of the band’s most known and regarded tracks. Guitarist Mike McCready commented, “That’s more of a Stevie [Ray Vaughan] rip off, with me playing little flowing things… Stone wrote it and he just let me do what I wanted.”

Vedder’s lyrics accompanied by Gossard’s and Ament’s compositions go beyond the typical angst and alienation commonly heard in earlier punk and grunge outfits. Not content to just scream about society’s or the government’s general disregard for the populace, Vedder’s lyrics instead take specific aim at hard-edged, often uncomfortable topics like homelessness (“Even Flow”), incest (“Alive”), psychiatric ailments (“Why Go”), serial killers (“Once”), teen alienation and familial dysfunction (“Jeremy”), in addition to the age-old topic of lost love (“Black”). Despite the album’s release in August 1991, none of the singles released to radio and video outlets were available commercially in the United States until July 1995. Until then, if one wanted to own the singles, the only option was the more expensive import discs from Europe.

On a closing note, it is interesting to point out that despite the commercial success of Ten (certified 13x platinum) and fan frenzy that resulted from the album, none of the band members were particularly happy with the results of their recording efforts, specifically the mixing of the album. Ament commented, “I’d love to remix Ten… it wouldn’t be like changing performances; just pull some of the reverb off it.” Vedder remarked that he cannot listen to the first album due to its sound saying, “…it was mixed in a way that was… it was kind of produced.” With the anniversary reissue of Ten in 2009, the band members got their wish with producer Brendan O’Brien remastering and remixing the entire album. The rest is just ’90s history.


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