Pearl Jam’s “Ten” was released in August of 1992. As of this writing, it has surpassed 10 million copies sold worldwide. This is the first in a series of reviews trying to determine whether or not my dislike of Pearl Jam is unfair. For more background on this project, go ahead and read this.
“Ten”. The Pearl Jam album that I’m most aware of, but don’t recall ever having sat down to listen to in its entirety. For the purposes of this project, I’m going to listen to the 2009 remastered edition (in order to make the album a little bit more palatable to me, as I know how much I hate some of these songs). Here we go.
ONCE – Pearl Jam decides to begin their first record with weird Phil Collins-esque atmospheric percussion and the worst bass-noodling I’ve ever heard. It’s as if they’re saying “Here – allow us to act as a bridge between lousy over-produced 80s corporate rock and lousy over-produced 90s corporate rock”. When the track properly kicks in, the guitars chug along competently and Vedder’s admittedly fiery vocal attack digs in. The chorus of this song still actually carries reasonable punch.
Immediately pre-chorus, Vedder descends into a bee-bop-a-squeedley-bop vocal pattern typified by much of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler’s work. It is conceivable that this PJ song softened up early 1990s audiences to this vocal pattern, paving the way for the massive success of Aerosmith‘s “Get A Grip” album in 1993. That album would go on to spawn mega-hits and three music videos starring Alicia Silverstone acting as a volatile young woman. As I’ve credited these videos for the genesis of my feelings that volatile women are attractive… “Once” by Pearl Jam may have indirectly ruined my life.
Thanks, Pearl Jam. That’s one strike.
EVEN FLOW – I remember this song being a giant hit and thinking that the stage diving in the video was exciting. Listening to it now, I’m struck by how profoundly un-alternative it is. The guitars in this song could all have been cribbed from a Guns N Roses record. The lead-in riff, the chicken-pickin’ guitar work in the verses, the whammy dive-bombs in the chorus – these are all glam rock/cock rock 101. Vedder’s voice is the only piece of that puzzle that doesn’t fit.
Speaking of Vedder’s voice being out of place, what’s up with the bridge section where he’s asking people for money and pretending to be a homeless person? Oh, Eddie.
25 years later, This song is kind of embarrassing.
ALIVE – I have always hated this song, so this isn’t going to be pretty. The quiet moments of this song are where it becomes really apparent how influential this album would become. Vedder’s voice booms like a slightly less-cartoonish Hootie prototype. The 90s were a nightmare for songs that locked into a mid-tempo groove and lasted far too long and “Alive” feels like patient zero. It feels like this song is about to do something interesting for the entire length of the song. It doesn’t happen.
Fast forward to the end where the bass-player does a little squeedly-beedly bass flourish that’s really… something.
WHY GO – It’s at this point that I realize how important this album is in terms of tracing the lineage of most of the bad rock music that would emerge in the decade that followed it. In “Why Go”, we can see the seeds that would go on to germinate into early Silverchair, the vocal work in Creed, Seven Mary Three and Godsmack. This hasn’t been my least favourite listen on the record so far, but “Why Go” seems to have a lot of explaining to do in relation to ruining the rest of the decade for everyone.
BLACK – This song is a conflict of interest for me. I would like to give an honest reading of what I think of it, but given that I have sung this song around campfires while drinking no less than three dozen times, it would be hypocritical to claim that I am at all above loving this song. I respectfully recuse myself.
JEREMY – I always considered this the Pearl Jam song. The video was unavoidable. The song – taken with the video – seemed like Eddie Vedder was trying to explain away a school massacre. Kind of a weird hill to plant your flag on, if you ask me.
Listening to this song today, it’s easily one of my favourites of this collection. I’m troubled, though, by the fact that it is easy to draw a line between this song and Our Lady Peace‘s first record, where virtually every song sounds like “Jeremy”. In that we have “Jeremy” to thank for the genesis of Our Lady Peace, shouldn’t we be pretty angry about “Jeremy”, regardless of it being a pretty decent song? Hard to say!
Bonus points for “And he hit me with a surprise left; my jaw left hurtin'”, because that’s hilarious work, Eddie.
OCEANS – Sonically, this is listenable. The songwriting is utterly forgettable. I can take it, though.
PORCH – This feels like a throw-away studio track. The skiffle-shuffle guitar work is embarrassing, as are the sheer number of “yeah”s. The mid-section breakdown/guitar solo makes it sound like they have no idea of what to do with themselves. A poor track.
GARDEN – Through this song’s meandering, we find probably the heaviest riff on the whole record, which makes it a noteworthy track. Also noteworthy because it sounds like something like this went down:
“Eddie, do you have lyrics written for this song yet?”
“Yeah, yeah, I do… just let me…”
“Is that a blank page?”
“No, I’m just…”
“Can I see your notebo…” “NO! DON’T TOUCH IT! THIS IS MY PRIVATE NOTEBOOK!”
DEEP – There’s a Steven Tyler scream in this song that made me giggle. There are a few good reasons to use a slide guitar, and this song doesn’t manage to find any of those reasons. We’re really in the dregs of this record now.
RELEASE – It’s difficult not to blame the guitar work on this song for Creed‘s ballads around the turn of the millennium. This song seems like a shapeless parody of an over-blown 90s ballad. That assessment is unfair, because it’s really just laying the groundwork for dozens of other bands to follow suit. But in looking back, it’s often difficult to appreciate that the things that preceded what you may perceive as a completely tired and loathsome trend were not actually tired and loathsome at the time.
So I’ll go easy on it and stop talking. Except about the wah-wah pedal, which this band just seems to be addicted to, like a bunch of shitty 12 year olds.
MASTER/SLAVE – I get it. CDs are new and you have loads of time to play around with on your record. You’re a young band and you’re trying things out. There’s still no excuse for wasting everyone’s time with this horse shit. Terrible way to end an album.
It is very, very difficult to judge this album on its own terms, given that it became the blueprint for countless albums that were terrible – much, much worse than this one. Perhaps what rankles me about this album is how clean, composed and well-played it is. I wanted my rockers to appear that they may disintegrate at any moment, not play their instruments with incredible consistency at a steady pace.
There are some good tunes here, tunes that sound better when heard for what they are now – classic rock – than as what they were sold as upon release – rebellious alt rock. Having heard it now – for the first time – in its entirety, would I consider listening to it on a more regular basis?
Will I feel differently about their follow-up, 1993’s VS? We will find out very soon!