Nirvana's 1991 release of Nevermind is often credited with providing a tantalizing tremor to the world of music in ways that few others artists/albums/songs ever have. Almost overnight, well crafted radio-ready singles became passť and very, very, very uncool. Nirvana started a revolution and is often credited as such. I doubt anyone wouldnot agree with this, but I have always held the argument that if Nirvana had never existed, that revolution would still have come to pass. Everyone wanted a change it's just that no one realized it until they heard "Smell Like Teen Spirit". However, if the song or band never existed, the world's "Come To Jesus" moment would have been when they fully digested the debut album by Pearl Jam, Ten. Regardless of Nevermind's success, Ten would have sprouted from obscurity to the masses without a question. People were fatigued of eating the same meal seven days a week and Pearl Jam's uncompromising, unrefined and wicked truthfulness was the recipe for revolution. Over time Ten has outsold Nevermind thanks in no part to songs that are cut in a classic-rock vein. More importantly, I suppose more people understood lead singer Eddie Vedder's lyrics (even if at times I wonder what precisely is being said). From the opening instrumental that precedes "Once" to the parallel coda of "Release", Ten was a fatiguing psychological event that sheltered you, f**ked with you, confronted you and ultimately released you like the greatest records do. The potency of Ten is in its songs which are laced with melodies amidst an avalanche of sledgehammer chords appealing to the non-nonsense attitudes of the alternative world but was melodious enough for those who grew up on pop and hard rock to devour.
I bought Ten without hearing a track on the record; a rarity for me. However, I strongly recall Rip Magazine doing coverage on the band, having full page ads and because I never ventured out to hear or buy Mother Love Bone, I felt obligated to buy this one. What I heard crushed me. At the time, I saw Pearl Jam as a member of the hard rock family who was writing from a higher conscious level not seen since U2. On the album's opener "Once" Vedder empathizes in a way where he doesn't sing so much as bark at you making the listener an integral part of the experience. I barely understood the lyrics, but he was pissed off and so was I. This wasn't music that was being sung to me, but felt as if it was coming from me. I love it when people condemn the grunge movement as the nail in the coffin of hard rock, but the truth is that many of the acts had either self imploded recently or they were creating music that their fans could not relate to. So when the brutal directness of Ten invaded your speakers, it was as if seeing light after an intolerable darkness. When the riff to "Even Flow" lashed across my headphones, I immediately thought, "what the hell is this and why it isn't on the radio". It was an all encompassing anthem for the masses. This wasn't made to be played in clubs, but arenas and stadiums. "Even Flow" to this day is the one staple that appears at every Pearl Jam show no matter what. While I'd give anything for them to retire it for one tour, it's difficult to deny its power. Ament's bass grooves like a biker on a highway, weaving in and out of lanes when necessary but always with his focus on the road ahead. However, especially on the new remixed edition of Ten, Aments' bass curls around your ribs reverberating itself. Stone Gossard's finger flexing cements the songs vigorous stomps. In 1991, it had been a while to find sonic and lyrical candor this authentic, alluring and palatable.
Over the course of eleven near perfect songs, the band takes the listener on an emotional roller coaster comforting, scaring and redefining what an album could do. One of the reasons this record sold north of eight figures (thirteen-million in the US to date) is because of the bevy of top-tier songs. People discovered that this was a record that contained more than MTV hits, but a multitude of cuts that serenaded not just one's ears but their inner psyche as well. From the misunderstood and misdiagnosed narrator of "Why Go", to the existential anthem "Alive", to the harrowing heartbreak of "Black" to the outward aggression of "Porch", there was no holding back of emotions and for a short time, wearing your emotions on your sleeve were more than just a passing fad but proved to be a release needed by much of the world. One has to wonder if there is a higher power playing chess allowing certain lives to intersect and weave together for a band like Pearl Jam to stay together. Even if Ten was not a landmark record, it would still be a wildly important one because of the impact it gave and its everlasting legacy. Every tour I see by Pearl Jam features a significantly younger audience that was not at the previous tour. There's something universal about the battles we face in life and how Pearl Jam found a way to triumph through the sheer will of the fight. struggles and despair evoked out of these songs. Even when my love and admiration fell to the wayside a few years later, I would return to this record time and time again always discovering something about myself in the process. There was an unspoken instinctive trust between band and fan. These songs weren't just songs on the radio but the listener felt as if they were reading out of someone's diary and as a result, it was all that more real to them. It wasn't a sound or image that took the wind out of the sails of polished music, it was the sincerity. Ten< is a startling testament of survival and I'm glad I still turn to it for the continual ride we call life.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.
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Pearl Jam Month: Ten