We are two years away from the twentieth anniversary of Pearl Jam’s masterpiece debut album Ten. However, beginning later this month, the band plans to celebrate between now and 2011 with plenty of anniversary specials and rare releases. Among them is the re-issue of their spectacular debut, Ten.
I’d like to say that Ten is the greatest album of all time, and while I might be able to produce a valid argument or two, I simply can’t call any album the best ever. There are just way too many different categories, rhymes, reasons and likes to make this declaration. But a statement I can make is that Ten is my favorite album of all time. So far.
In the spring of 1993, I was camping with some buddies in Eastern Ohio on my friend’s family property. We were sophomores in a Catholic high school, and none of us were even drinking yet. I don’t recall much other than talking about girls, making jokes and chopping more firewood when needed. One of my friends did have a new album we had never heard, though, and it turned out to be Ten. With the power of D-cell batteries and plenty of spares, I’ll bet we listened to that CD seven times that night, and each time I was just floored. I remember laying there in my sleeping bag as the others were sleeping and the sun was starting to come up over the country horizon. That was my first chance to really listen to “Black” all the way through and to focus on the lyrics.
That song has become the ultimate mournful break-up song of our generation. Rarely will you find a person who has listened to that song and not felt exactly how Eddie Vedder describes:
All the love gone bad turned my world to black
I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life
I know you’ll be a sun
In somebody else’s sky
Then the song builds up with Vedder screaming the word “Why?” like a truly broken man. “Why, why can’t it be, can’t it be mine?”
Countless times over the years I’ve been in the car or somewhere private and tried to match that ending “Aah… uuh…” scream. I can keep in tune with it, but it’s obviously not the same. I can’t match the pain unleashed in Vedder’s voice.
For years I used to think about that song in terms of a relationship with a girl from high school, saying it was “our song.” In reality, I had asked a girl that I’d always had a crush on to homecoming. She reluctantly said yes. Things didn’t work out like I had hoped they would, so I used to sing along to “Black” using her as the subject. I had no clue what real love loss was yet, but since then I have experienced it a few times. And I can insert each girl into that song as the subject, and it has significant meaning. That’s a timeless song.
In the fireball opener “Once,” Vedder yells about losing control and losing the ability to love someone. His vengeance is relieved a little later with “Porch” as he proclaims:
What the fuck is this world
Running to? You didn’t
Leave a message, at least I
Coulda learned your voice one last time.
He later goes ballistic and you can practically see the veins in his neck bulging out in the studio as he howls “I know when I would not ever touch you, hold you, …feel you…in my arms…never again.”
The opening guitar riff to “Alive” could just as easily be the symbol of the 90s as the opening guitar riff to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Pearl Jam made a video for that song and it began with a giant wave, which was an eventually perfect lead-in for the tsunami guitar solo that Mike McCready unleashed during “Alive.” That solo still had hints of the recently finished 1980s, but now it seemed more intense, less repetitive and completely fresh. Even to this day, you can put that song on at any pool hall across America and you’ll see a few people trying to sing “O…Ewh…I’m still alive.”
The thing is, you have to remember when this album was released. In 1991, Guns ‘N’ Roses were still the kings of rock and roll, and glam was still alive and well. Quite often they just wailed about the hookers ‘n’ blow lives they were living, bringing a little bit of real substance to the table.
When bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam broke, they brought a little mood, fury and emotion, layered with amazing musicians and catchy songwriting; the whole world stopped to hear what was going on. Plus, this was music that spoke to issues like depression and suicide, big issues in Seattle back then (and still are) because of the constant gloomy weather during long winters. These boys were speaking about what was happening, what they knew. Screaming it, even.
Previously, no one had been talking about a young boy in school named “Jeremy” that was always being picked on and had rage just snowballing inside of him. Sure, we all knew about these weird kids, but they were usually just bundled away in those Special Ed. classes. No one was on their side, speaking their word; until now. And as a result, Pearl Jam caught some hell for having a controversial video on MTV about a kid who brings a gun to school and gets his revenge. “My god, you mean the kids aren’t all right!!??”
The direction of the eye, so misleading
The defection of the soul, nauseously quick.
I don’t question our existence,
I just question our modern needs.
So went the lyrics in “Garden” and this critique of the materialistic drive for money, power, and success at the expense of spiritual fulfillment was pretty deep for the time. Still is, actually.
Pearl Jam’s rain-soaked boot was putting an end to the good times of Hair Nation.
The days of make-up, spandex and hair spray were being replaced with flannel, corduroy and black construction boots. The video that Pearl Jam made for “Evenflow” is now a classic moment in time as it captured a seemingly insane Eddie Vedder running around The Moore Theatre in Seattle. The video times perfectly Vedder’s backward leap off of a side ledge down onto the crowd below with the song’s chorus. The thing is, even though it was a video, a lot of their early shows were that wild!
Vedder once called “Oceans” a little love song he wrote about his surfboard. This album was so full of the water references, that it took me years to figure it out. Did the word TEN perhaps coincide with “hanging ten?” I’m probably over-thinking that one, but the point is that a gorgeous song like “Oceans” can put me into a trance when my eyes are closed, and I think of things like that.
The main reason I was sold with Ten is that it’s the first album I ever heard where I loved every single song on the album. That didn’t happen with any Beatles album, or Nirvana’s Nevermind, or Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magic. Those were all close, but there was always at least one song I felt was “okay.” Still to this day, I can’t think of one album I own where I love every song. Add to that the ebb and flow of the album and how each song was arranged like a complete story. Oh, and as a side note, keep in mind that Ten has out-sold Nevermind, which might surprise some people due to the fact that Nevermind is often looked at as the most important album of the 90s.
“Release” is the band finally letting the listener drift off back into their own world after having been enveloped with Ten and taken on the voyage. The mostly slow pace of the song even includes the lyric “I’ll ride the wave where it takes me.” The water theme rolls in again.
If you listen to “Release” with your eyes closed, it can almost put you to sleep as the song fades away for good at around the five minute mark. And as you drift towards unconsciousness to rest, out of nowhere there appears to be a “secret song.” The sounds of “Once” begin to slowly creep in all over again, and the journey repeats.
A lot of people give Pearl Jam flack because they feel the band has never done anything as good as Ten. I agree with this, though I’m not saying Pearl Jam hasn’t made a good album since Ten. Just not as good. And they should never try to make another Ten. Ever. It’s a masterpiece stuck in time, where it should be.
So now with the re-issue, let’s celebrate with the band and go back into time and enjoy it once again.
*All photos by Lance Mercer. Album cover and photo permission courtesy of www.pearljam.com