Albums Revisited: Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’ turns 25: our own Diamond Dave Dierksen looks back at the grunge underdog’s iconic début.
By David Dierksen
On August 27, 1991, Pearl Jam released their début record Ten. And no one really gave a shit. A little under a month later, Nirvana released Nevermind. And still, people mostly didn’t give a shit. Shortly thereafter, MTV put Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into heavy rotation, and the world lost its goddamn mind. Seattle became a zoo. The bands were the exotic animals, and we all wanted to get a look. Oooh, there’s a Soundgarden. And that over there is a Screaming Tree. Isn’t that nice? And what’s this? A Pearl Jam! Delightful!
And that’s kind of all we knew as 1991 gave way to ’92. There were a bunch of bands. They looked and sounded different. We loved it. We bought it. Marketing guys had a field day. It was bestowed a name – “grunge” – and of course the whole thing ended up getting commodified. This story is old and has been told a thousand times, but the bottom line is this – fads fade away, but this one didn’t. At least the music didn’t. And that had a lot to do with what we DIDN’T know at the time.
We didn’t know how long some of these bands had toiled around the Seattle underground. That the music they were making wasn’t really something new but had been evolving over time in the Pacific Northwest. We didn’t know about the relationships between these bands and about how these bonds allowed them to rise together and endure in the face of crass commercialism (well, at least for a little while). We didn’t know who Andrew Wood was, or how his death both devastated and united the musicians who knew and played with him. A lot of pain, the power of camaraderie, and a healthy dose of consistently shitty weather informed the music coming out of Seattle, and that’s in large part why it was good and still resonates (unlike most imitator upstarts who faded into obscurity real quick like).
For their part in the pageant, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, who played with Wood in Mother Love Bone, would end up recruiting a new singer, guitarist and drummer to form Pearl Jam. Together they would write, record and release Ten just 17 months after Wood’s passing. It’s an amazing story that, again, has been told ad nauseam, but I have to admit – if I had been armed with that historical knowledge, then perhaps Pearl Jam would have made more sense to me when I first heard them 25 years ago.
Back then I thought I knew what grunge sounded like even if I couldn’t articulate it (today I’d tell you it’s a blend of 80s garage and punk blended with Sabbath sludge, but what the hell do I know?). What I did know was that it wasn’t a stretch to connect the dots between The Melvins, Tad, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains. While all of those bands certainly stood on their own, there were still common denominators. Dissonance, distortion, loudness, and darkness.
And then you had Pearl Jam. I was one of those guys, sweating my ass off in a flannel and beanie in the Texas heat, and even I was like – these dudes are grunge? I mean, I could understand teenagers breaking out in a spontaneous mosh pit for “Teen Spirit”, but watching a pulsing throng mosh and crowd surf in Pearl Jam’s “Alive” video – it was strange. Don’t get me wrong. I liked it, and then I grew to love it. But I couldn’t put into words why I loved it. Or how Pearl Jam fit neatly into this “grunge” thing.
It was rocking, but it wasn’t HEAVY. It was angsty, but it wasn’t ANGRY. The grunge bands were identified as an alternative to heavy metal, but the reality was that most popular music considered heavy metal at the time wasn’t remotely heavy at all. We loved Nirvana because they brought the heaviness back to popular music. Ten, however – there was nothing remotely punk or metal about it. It owed WAY more to Jimi Hendrix and The Who than to Black Sabbath and the Pixies.
Part of it was a matter of production. Producer Rick Parashar sanded the edges off the guitar tone, making the harder rocking songs sound like, well, traditional classic hard rock. Compared to Butch Vig’s bombastic wall-of-sound production on Nevermind, Ten sounded relatively tame.
(Side note: Pearl Jam would utilize Brendan O’Brien’s studio talents for 1993’s Vs. and most of their records after that. O’Brien let the music breathe a little more, making Pearl Jam sound at times more like what you would expect from a “grunge” band, especially as the band began to let their punk rock roots show. In 2008, they had O’Brien remix Ten for its deluxe reissue, and that version does sonically conform more to the rest of the band’s output.)
Another factor that distinguished Ten from its peers – the beats. Or beat, I should say. A subtle but important feature of Ten is that most of the songs on the record utilize the same boom, b-dap, boom kick-snare pattern. Drummer Dave Krusen would mix it up from song to song, changing the pattern slightly and varying the tempo, and the rest of the band crafted unique compositions over each instance (see “Even Flow” and “Why Go” for the most obvious examples). One result is an almost subliminal unifying feature to the songs, arguably making Ten Pearl Jam’s most cohesive record. It also gave the songs on Ten a groove that most of their contemporaries would shy away from. Taken by itself, that beat is downright funky.
(Another side note: Krusen left the band early on, beginning an almost comical, Spinal Tap-esque revolving door of drummers for Pearl Jam. Second drummer Dave Abbruzzese would carry the torch of the Ten beat onto quite a few Vs. tracks, but as the band evolved and new drummers subbed in, those groovy tracks appeared much more infrequently, which is another reason Ten is a bit of an outlier within the Pearl Jam catalog.)
When you combined the peppier beats, anthemic choruses, and the occasional (and often-mocked) inscrutability of singer Eddie Vedder’s vocals, it was easy to overlook one thing Pearl Jam definitely did have in common with their Seattle peers – they were singing about some dark, sobering shit. On Ten, Vedder crafted vivid, poetic narratives about the plight of the homeless (“Even Flow”), the plight of the broken-hearted (“Black”), the plight of an unhinged murderer (“Once”), the plight of a young girl institutionalized against her will (“Why Go”), and the plight of a bullied young boy (“Jeremy,” sadly becoming more relevant with each passing week). There are a lot of plights on Ten. “Deep” by itself contains three separate plights by my count.
But here’s why I think Ten really spoke to me more than the other records at that time, and why I think it has endured all these years. There is an openness and accessibility to the stories Eddie Vedder tells. Kurt Cobain’s lyrics were amazing but it was hard to separate the truth from the irony and the esoterica. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell could craft together some trippy poetry to rival Jim Morrison, but like Morrison, I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about half the time. And Alice in Chains – well, I could only wallow so long in that sea of sorrow before it all became a little too much.
Click here for Alice in Chains Facelift Turns 25
While Vedder has been known to go down some hippy dippy introspective rabbit holes (“Oceans”), when he’s telling a story about an unfortunate soul, he does so with great clarity and great empathy. He’s reaching out to those of us who might relate to the stories he tells, and he lets us know he’s on our side (you’re right, the doctor that casually diagnosed you as mentally sick IS a stupid fuck! Jeremy “spoke” in class today, but let’s not forget why).
Think about the great singalong moments on Ten that reflect some sort of affirmation:
“This will be the day!”
“I will walk!”
“Someday soon, he’ll begin his life again!”
And of course…“I’m still alive!”
It’s fitting that Pearl Jam’s first hit and arguably most iconic song is also the perfect encapsulation of Pearl Jam’s greatest strengths. When Vedder sang “I’m still alive,” the original intent was a semi-autobiographical lament about his continued, undeserved existence after finding out some horrible and tragic familial truths. But I never took it as a cry of anguish, and I don’t think most fans did. How could we? The song rocks so hard; the chorus was created for mass singalongs. Of course we all thought he was saying something along the lines of, “Fuck you, I’m a survivor!” (Vedder himself eventually came around to this interpretation, as admitted on a 2006 episode of VH1 Storytellers).
But through his pain, we could admit ours, and unite with others like us to exorcise those feelings of loneliness and isolation in grand, exalting fashion. Just look at the cover at the record – five guys huddled together, united and reaching for the sky! This was not a record about alienation; it was a call to persevere in the face of alienation.
As I’m sure it’s now sickeningly obvious, Ten was a huge part of my life and helped me instrumentally in getting through a rough first couple years of high school. It begins with an angry song about a man with a shotgun and ends on a peaceful, plaintive call for release from all of this pain. It was perfect therapy.
And even better, it was only the beginning.