Today begins a double-header of massive grunge albums, as we kick it off with the huge debut album from Pearl Jam, “Ten”. After the band Mother Love Bone had dissolved following the death of vocalist Andrew Wood, inspiring the recently discussed Temple of the Dog album, Eddie Vedder was invited to audition for the band, which proved to be a brilliant choice. I can’t say that I’m a huge Pearl Jam fan, but I do love this record, and I have always been a big fan of Eddie Vedder. His deep voice is a great contrast to the shrill falsettos of many ‘80s metal bands, including the band Motley Crue, who he has been verbally sparring with as of late, and his insightful and intense lyrics and views on life make for great musical theater. He now stands as the sole survivor of the great grunge vocalists, and he is definitely an icon of Seattle music. “Ten” is rated as #160 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and is the #3 rated grunge album of all time by loudwire.com.
I’m not one to pick on song sequencing on a record very often, but if I was producing or marketing this record, I would have had the band switch the first two songs. “Once”, which opens the album is a dark and intense song, but even as a good song, it isn’t the explosive attention-getter that you get with “Even Flow”. With the best riff on the record meshing perfectly with Vedder’s heavy tone, this song absolutely rocks and it had to be what first pulled me into this band.
As I noted, the lyrical contents of Pearl Jam songs are full of substance, and the powerful song “Alive” confronts the time Vedder learned who he thought was his father was actually someone else. Like in many areas of pop culture, there is some embellishment in the actual story, but the lyrics paint a vivid and disturbing picture of betrayal that is very believable in the imperfect world we all exist within.
“Why Go” is another good up-tempo rocker with great guitar work from Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, but it is the next song that is the other real emotional centerpiece of this album. Joining the Hall of Fame of angry devastation along with “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse and “The Kiss” by the Cure, “Black” by Pearl Jam guts you with its musical and lyrical sadness, reinforced by the haunting outro.
“I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life, I know you’ll be a star, In somebody else’s sky…”
“But why… Why… Why can’t it be me, Oh can’t it be mine…”
The profound intensity continues with “Jeremy”, a song that has grown sadly much more relevant with the continued proliferation of bullying and resulting gun violence. Originally written about a student named Jeremy Delle who shot himself in front of his high school class in 1991, how many stories have we witnessed and read about the horrific byproducts of bullying and abuse in our schools? I know I saw some absolutely unacceptable acts during my days in school, and I wish I had the courage to stand up then for those who didn’t have the voice, strength and support to stand for themselves. We can all do better, and I hope we will.
The last five songs aren’t as well recognized, but the consistency of excellence sustains through the end of the record. Throughout their long career, the music of Pearl Jam has not always had the hook, compelling interest or appeal that brings me back as a listener, but I respect the band immensely, and admire the impact Eddie Vedder has had on popular music. There is a place for dark and thoughtful music like Pearl Jam, just as there is a place for frivolous debauchery like Motley Crue. Even if Vedder and Nikki Sixx don’t see the appeal in each other’s contributions, I can and will continue to enjoy both sides of the musical coin here, especially on a masterpiece like “Ten”.