Some music is meant for a drive up the coast. Some music is best served for escape and release. There's music that's introspective and music that's merely background noise. Every once in a while though, when the moon, the stars and guitar gods align, there's music that becomes the soundtrack of your life! For those of us lucky enough to have been born in the early 70's, who came of age in the late 80's/early 90's, we have such a soundtrack. We have Pearl Jam's Ten!
I know what you're thinking and don't worry, I'm not really going to lump everyone born between 1970 and 1975 into the same category. Some of you have another band and another album in mind. Some of you probably don't even like music enough to even consider a soundtrack to your life. There's also plenty of you reading this that may have been born much earlier or later than the early 70's who still feel like Ten belongs to you as well. All I'm saying is that for those of us who were 18-21 years old in 1991, we experienced the greatest music scene since the 60's at an age where music was everything to us. The timing was simply perfect.
I decided to write this story now as we're fast approaching the 24th anniversary of Ten on August 27, 2015 and aside from making me feel old, it makes me feel nostaligic and satisfied. If I look back at the previous 24 years and all the music I've been lucky enough to hear, see and write about, I can't help but to feel that I owe at least a small debt of gratitude to the guys in Pearl Jam. Sure, I was a huge music fan before PJ broke onto the scene, but they, along with their Seattle contemporaries, changed the game for good. I still love Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, The Beatles, etc., but the cards got shuffled and we were playing a different game. Like it or not, the early 90's Seattle music scene did for my generation what the British Invasion of the 1960's did for that generation, and because of it, we're all better off.
If you don't believe the musical landscape was forever changed after 1991, look no futher than the Billboard charts in the late 80's and then again in the early 90's to see the tectonic shift that took place. At the top of the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart in 1989 you had U2, Crosby, Stills, Nash, Eddie Money, The Fixx and so on. By 1994, the same chart boasted Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots. The tide had clearly turned and Pearl Jam and their contemporaries were here to stay.
Looking back at just how much change took place and how many lives (artists and fans alike) were changed forever, I'd like to give Ten a song by song review, 24 years in the making!
Master/Slave Part I - Although not an official track, this musical interlude which opens the record is a haunting, unscripted piece that will show up once again in a longer version at the close of the album in a hidden track.
Once - A frenzied, energetic song written by guitarist Stone Gossard with lyrics penned by Eddie Vedder, Once is a monumental introduction to this record and to the band overall. Vedder was an unknown to the music world and Gossard along with bassist Jeff Ament had some success with previous bands Green River and Mother Love Bone but hadn't put their stamp on the scene just yet. This song puts Pearl Jam's intensity, drive and angst out front with loud guitars, big drums and a breakdown type of groove that they'd revisit several times throughout their career.
Even Flow - One of the bands most popular songs and a staple at live shows (typically including a 5 minute guitar solo by Mike McCready), Even Flow is an amped up blues song with a sing song/somewhat rap like vocal delivery throughout the verses. Sonically it has an undeniable groove which is slighty dark in tone and matched by it's blunt lyric about the life of a homeless man. Even Flow put Pearl Jam's potential on display and became one of their biggest hits to date. It's a strong song but not as good as its popularity might suggest.
Alive - If I can be corny for just a minute, Alive is Pearl Jam's "Stairway to Heaven." Although other songs have reached higher chart positions, Alive is and will always be their most prodigious work. This song has everything and more. The opening riff is intoxicating and grabs you the instant it touches your ears. The vocal is somber, edgy and desperate. The lyrics are a punch to the gut as Eddie Vedder tells a real life tale of death, deception, regret, guilt and possible incest and somehow gets you to sing a long throughout instead of contemplating the issues. The chorus is gigantic and arena rock ready. The guitar solo by Mike McCready is not only epic, it's historic as it's listed in just about every "Top Guitar Solos of All Time" list ever created. McCready isn't shy about his influences either as you can clearly hear Jimi Hendrix, Ace Frehley and Robby Krieger. This song has evolved from a song about death into a song about hope and endurance at Pearl Jam's live shows. The crowd has added a chant at the end of the song, 'Hey, Ho" to which Vedder and company willingly go along with during the massive sing along. Vedder has also been known to chage the lyrics a bit saying "We're all still alive" as proof of its positive evolution.
Why Go - Written by bassit Jeff Ament (lyrics by Vedder) this songs jumps on you from the get go with drums and bass big enough to fill any room. Not unlike Even Flow, this track screams of an amplified blues rocker which is quite unrelenting. Lyrically it's the story of a young girl admitted into a mental institution, against her will, by her parents. It also hints at corruption within the medical insurance industry and ultimately makes the statement that sometimes you're much better off on your own. The song captures a groove that seems to pop up throught the entire album, both in sound and lyric.
Black - The first true glimpse at how powerful Pearl Jam can be when slowing everything down and letting nothing but pure emotion take over. It's also the first real taste of how compelling and dynamic Eddie Vedder's voice is. The song begins with an unassuming, muted guitar riff which leads to a quiet verse telling us about the pain of a broken heart. Written by Stone Gossard but driven by McCready's flowing, Stevie Ray Vaughan-esque shredding and Vedder's desirous and haunting vocals, Black is by far the bands biggest and most popular ballad. As a matter of fact, in a Rolling Stone magazine readers poll in 2011, Black was voted as the 9th best ballad of all time. It ranked ahead of Freebird and Hey Jude...
Jeremy - If there's any song that is known more for its video than for the song itself, it's Jeremy. The song and video is about a young school boy who shoots himself in front of his class, his teacher and classmates left to deal with the aftermath. It's a true story gleamed from the pages a newspaper article that Eddie Vedder came across one day. Its stark imagery and delicate content caused a huge uproar upon it's release and garnered world wide attention to the dismay of Vedder and the band. Despite it's powerful and important message, the band hated the attention the video received and basically ruined the video making process for the band going forward. The song, written by bassist Jeff Ament is decent at best. A straight up rock song with a good hook but nothing truly spectacular. If it weren't for the video I think it may have faded away over time. That being said, the video and lyrical message are fixtures in my mind so there's still a takeaway despite not loving the track.
Oceans - Outside of the Master/Slave intro, this is the first time we hear the experimental side of Pearl Jam. This song is all atmosphere and feel. It's a collaboration between Stone, Ed and Jeff that starts off with the vocals over a simple guitar riff and classic Ament style bass lead. The song slowly builds with rolling drums and Vedder's higher range vocals sharing time with actual lyrics and "ooooh's" and "ahhh's." This song is a tiny peak through the window that will show up many times throughout their career. As the band grew in confidence and stature, their willingness to experiment increased. Oceans was the birth of that experimentation.
Porch - The only song on Ten written entirely by Eddie Vedder (music and lyrics) is a total departure from the rest of the record. Although it's catchy in its own way, and does have a true guitar solo in it, it's the first time we hear the punk rock influence that Vedder will contribute many more times. Starting with just a simple guitar riff which Vedder sings over, it soons turns into a frenzied, chaotic free for all. True to Vedder's style though, his vocals and sense of melody are omnipresent and find a way to make you sing along. When the band first started playing this live, during the guitar solo I mentioned earlier, Vedder would start his now famous lighting rig climb/dive into the crowd. I've seen this many times first hand and I can honestly say I'm shocked he wasn't killed on numerous occasions. These days though, the rig climbing has gone by the wayside but the song, sometimes transformed a bit, still fires up the crowd and kicks ass.
Garden - This song is in the same vein as Oceans but a bigger and bolder version. The main appeal with this track is the build up to and pay off of its chorus. It's ethereal feel and defiant lyrics mesh perfectly. The listener is swept up in the ebb and flow of the song and whether or not they realize it, there's somewhat of an emotional drain they experience when the song comes to an end. It's a classic example of how Pearl Jam is able to be simple yet gain a stranglehold on those listening and never let go. It's one of the highlights on the album as far as I'm concerned.
Deep - A somewhat disorganized song, Deep is high on the list of die hards as a favorite track. Although purposely disheveled, the song is an up and down ride of passion and angst. It fits on this record perfectly. Along with Oceans and Garden, it's bit obscure but vital to the overall sound of the album. It's a little jammy and moody but it's Pearl Jam through and through.
Release - If Alive is the heart of Ten, Release is the soul. It's easily one of the greatest album closers of all time. It's a beautifully haunting and cathartic song sung to and about Vedder's deceased father. If you don't know the story, Ed was always led to believe that his stepfather was his real father and his real dad was a family friend who died when Eddie was just a young boy. He didn't know the truth until after the fact and that, as one might imagine, drummed up some emotional wounds that probably never healed. Release is a plea to his biological father to liberate him of the pain and sadness he felt since learning the truth. Although it closes Ten, when played live, it's typically used as an opener. Having seen the band perform live 30 times, I can comfortably say that this song gives me chills like no other and sets a tone for the rest of the set. It cannot really be described accurately but if you've witnessed it, you get it. If you haven't, I hope you get the chance some day. Due to the remarkably personal essence of the song, it's almost as if Vedder goes to another place while singing it and he doesn't mind having us tag along with him. It's the definition of shedding ones soul and not caring who's around to see.
Master/Slave Part II - As mentioned in the description for Part I, this is simply a longer version with some additional moans and vocals throughout. It's not a bad little bow to tie on this musical gift that is Ten.
Many albums mean many things to many people. Music has a way a breaking into peoples lives and taking permanent residence. For me, even though I love so many different bands and albums, Pearl Jam's Ten came around at the right time with the right sound to become the official soundtrack to my life.
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