Pearl Jam’s Ten Is Grunge’s Version Of a Classic Rock Album
Lumped in with the rest of alternative rock, it’s maybe the least “alternative” album of its era.
If you had introduced me to Ten instead of Nevermind, I’m not sure I would have jumped into 90s alternative as fervently as I did. That’s not to say I don’t like Ten, or the music of Pearl Jam, music I’ve heard my entire life. I just always had a preference for when grunge was reacting against, rather than building from, classic rock.
Admittedly, because of this approach to their sound, Pearl Jam are a bit of a blind spot for me. I was never drawn to the elongated guitar solos, the self-serious tone, the impassioned timbre of Eddie Vedder (which, through no fault of Vedder’s, slowly became a bit of a caricature thanks to imitators like Scott Stapp). I guess I always liked my rock stars to evoke the nonchalance of Joey Ramone rather than the vivacity of Robert Plant. Putting all this aside for my first proper listen to the band’s debut, Ten, I can attest that the sound is not for me, but it is still an incredibly enjoyable album.
Now, I’ve heard songs like “Even Flow” and “Alive” about a bazillion times, but I’ve admittedly never paid much attention to the lyrics. And by far the most intriguing thing about Ten, to me, now that I’m all ears, is what Vedder is singing about. I was today years old when I discovered the actual story of “Alive,” and I’m doubtless NOT the first person in the world to have this realization. Thanks to the on-the-nose dramatization in the music video, I know all about “Jeremy” (far and away my favorite single from this album), but overall I was surprised at the array of dark topics throughout Ten, like murder, suicide, depression and homelessness.
In terms of the sound of the album, it is very distinct, more or less the template for what became known as Seattle grunge, even more so than the punk-adjacent style of Nirvana. By the time Pearl Jam came together, and Ten was recorded, all the members had cut their teeth in bands like Temple of the Dog and Mother Love Bone. The scene would see its share of tragedies in the decades ahead, but perhaps the members of Mother Love Bone experienced the first of it with the sudden death of Andrew Wood. The trauma is evident throughout Ten’s sullen mood and reverb-layered production. The album, in spite of its massive rock radio appeal, is grunge’s auditory equivalent to a contemplative dirge.
We all know the story: Pearl Jam reacted pretty negatively to the trappings of sudden fame, and retreated almost immediately from the spotlight. Because of Ten’s impact, and its enduring legacy as one of a handful of canonical grunge albums, the band never could truly disappear into obscurity. Based solely on the success of Ten, it is ensured Pearl Jam will headline festivals and stadium tours for decades to come, much like the classic rock icons they emulated so well. Unlike their peers, the band has mostly avoided tragedy and inner turmoil, which has allowed them to soldier on, while Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden have either been forced to call it quits or replace iconic members for second-rate comebacks. Of the Big Four, it is my opinion Pearl Jam are the least interesting, but Ten is still a very good grunge album, and its legacy for reshaping rock is deserved.