By Chris Moore:
RATING: 5 / 5 stars
If I were to post a one-sentence review of this album, it would read something like this:
“Pearl Jam’s Ten is the Pet Sounds of the grunge rock genre.”
I do not take such a comparison lightly, so let me begin by explaining my reasoning in detail. In both cases, the general public took some time to warm up to the songs, but they have both ended up making regular appearances on “Best Albums” lists, both of the decade and of all-time. In both cases, the songs and the image projected via artwork and touring would define the band for years to come. Finally, in both cases, the album stands out as head and shoulders above and beyond other similar work being released at the same time from the same genres.
While Pet Sounds was the Beach Boys’ eleventh release and arguably more of a Brian Wilson solo album, Ten was Pearl Jam’s debut album, their very first studio release, and as much of a group effort as any rock album ever recorded. Of course, the former came at a turning point — it perhaps caused or at least contributed to that turning point — for rock/pop music in the sixties. Virtually every album that came after can be traced in some way back to that foundation.
In that sense, I do not mean to overstate Ten‘s importance by comparison.
Still, though its influence cannot compare, Pearl Jam somehow managed — and in their debut, no less — to compose and record as strong a set of songs as any being released during the early nineties and certainly from the grunge scene. From fade in to fade out, Ten demonstrates a simultaneous command of subtlety, beauty, and gripping lyrical content, while also delving into raw, reckless abandon in a manner that is not sloppy yet not too controlled.
Almost two decades later, it is one of the cornerstone albums of the nineties and of rock music as a whole.
As the cover suggests, Pearl Jam decided from the very beginning to be an “all for one, one for all” sort of group. Outside of their revolving door of a drummer’s seat in the first decade, they have followed through on the promise implicit in that pose.
And this is what makes the individual tracks so strong for a first release. As the various band members have stated in interviews over the years, many of these songs began life as Stone Gossard/Jeff Ament band jams, riffs and solos that were worked on and written, refined, and improved over a period of time. When Eddie Vedder was brought in, he carried with him a new sense of lyricism and a unique voice that brought these instrumentals to life. To this day, the issues and emotions expressed on Ten make for very compelling listening.
Critical opinions on Ten vary widely, though that difference has most often been the distance between five and four stars, or an A and a B-. Most reviews have been positive, at least to some extent, but I find it difficult to understand any rating that falls short of recognizing the outstanding fusion of classic and modern rock, energetic performances and purposeful recording studio techniques, standout songs and an overall cohesive sound and voice that define this album.
Any great tale should begin with “Once upon a time…,” and Ten does. It’s clear from the opening that this is no fairy tale, and “Once” sets the tone for the other songs to follow. (Taken in a different context, “Once” has also been situated as the second in a three track series known as Mamasan, or Momma-son. This three song cycle follows the story of “Alive” into the murderous “Once” and concludes with what has been read as an execution in “Footsteps.”)
“Even Flow” and “Alive” follow on Ten, unfolding one powerful, catchy riff after another, all driven by Vedder’s vocals. These are the songs that you wish you could play along to, and the songs that you try to sing to.
Even the by-comparison mediocre tracks shine, like “Why Go” with its driving beat, shouted chorus, and manic guitar solo.
It’s forgotten, though, by the time the next track unfolds. “Black” is a true masterpiece: put your headphones on for this one and listen for the way the instruments all play an intricate part, and yet how all the components gel around Vedder’s magnificent lead, made most impressive by what can only be called his vocal solo on the outro.
Next comes “Jeremy,” based on the true story of a boy who was bullied to the point of desperation, bringing a gun to school one day to shoot himself in front of his classmates. The refrain “Jeremy spoke in class today” gains more poignancy as the song continues.
The second half of the album nicely mixes the tempo and tenor of tracks. There are the slower, more melancholy tracks like “Oceans” and “Release.” There is the declaration of independence and survival that is “Garden.” Then there the rockers like “Deep” and its even more well-constructed, entertaining counterpart, the Vedder-penned “Porch.”
The outtakes from this period and the Ten recording sessions are nothing short of phenomenal. Ament reportedly considered leaving the band when Gossard grew tired of “Brother,” a gem that went unreleased until 2009’s remix. Even better is the live standard “Yellow Ledbetter,” a masterpiece in its own right. While I understand the decision to leave “State of Love and Trust,” “Wash,” and the aforementioned “Footsteps” off the record, I am thrilled to have them as outtakes. These are all songs that I look forward to, and they certainly transcend the typically forgettable bonus track fare.
From front to back, Ten is not only the strongest album in Pearl Jam’s considerable catalog — and this is saying something — but it is one of the best rock albums of all time. The balance that was struck here between interesting musical compositions and engaging vocal performances set a bar few albums since have been able to rise to. This is an album that deserved a reissue, and the deluxe edition (2 CD/1 DVD combo) was no doubt the best, most affordable deal of the four options. The packaging included a hard case with a scrapbook style booklet, a disc with the album as originally mixed, a second disc with the remixed tracks and six bonus tracks, and a DVD of the MTV Unplugged concert that Pearl Jam performed in 1992. This performance alone was worth the price of the album, and seeing Vedder, Ament, Gossard, Mike McCready, and Dave Abbruzzese was a clear reminder that these were different times: the grunge look has since gone out of style, but viewing this DVD provides an opportunity to see them in their early prime, each band member smiling at various moments in different songs, celebrating the outstanding music that they had written in brand-new acoustic arrangements.
(On this, the nineteen anniversary since the recording sessions began, the Weekend Review tips its hat to Ten and encourages you to squeeze in a listen very soon!)