TGR Part 20: Pearl Jam – Ten

Pearl Jam - Ten

Pearl Jam - Ten

The Grand Re-listening, (TGR) is a series of articles in which I go back and revisit albums that the world considers classic, and see if the impressions of them that I have held for years changes upon listening now.

There are a few reasons why this may happen; My personality has changed so much since I first got into a lot of the albums that I have a different thought process when listening to music now. Also, learning more about the band members, who does what and what their personalities are like can change how the music appears. Furthermore, over time hearing songs live, remixed, in documentaries, covered by other bands and covered in real life etc can create a mental situation where an amalgamation of all versions is remembered and then fed to the brain when the ears pick up any version instead of the actual version as it was recorded.

This time I will be Re-Listening to Ten, the 1991 debut album from Seattle Grunge legends Pearl Jam.

I have owned this album for years and years, it was probably the first Pearl Jam album that I got (I may or may not have got No Code first, I genuinely cannot remember) and it contains the track ‘Jeremy’ which was the song that prompted my interest in the band initially.

Despite owning it all this time, I’ve never really gotten on with it. I can’t say there is any good reason for that, after all it contains the aforementioned ‘Jeremy’ as well ‘Why Go?’ and ‘Porch’ which have always been high in my list of favourite Pearl Jam songs, but for some reason I never think if this as a good album. For years I’ve always been of the mind that ‘I’m a VS. Guy’ because I prefer their sophomore effort to this so strongly. I don’t however remember when or why that ever became a thing… is there a rivalry between the two albums or something ?

Apart from the aforementioned three tracks as well as the singles ‘Alive’ and ‘Even Flow’ I can’t remember how any song goes at all.

Re-listening to the album now, I am surprised by the Eastern sound to the first minute of opener ‘Once.’ This is a very enjoyable song, but it seems an odd choice for an album opener, it seems a bit proggy and arty in comparison with the rest of the album which I can’t imagine won points during the grunge era. It seems like it would have fit better two thirds of the way through the running order as a nice change of pace, rather than as an unrepresentative taste of things not-to-come.

One thing that hit me from the first track and that was constantly reinforced throughout is that the band have this amazing melodic classic rock guitar solo style that is so superior to almost every band of the era that I’ve ever heard, to the point where it is genuinely surprising. Many Grunge, early Stoner Rock, Groove Metal and early Pop Punk bands at the time had guitar solos and many had melodic classic rock influenced ones to boot, but Pearl Jam’s are on a whole other level, they are just delightful to the ear as well as musically accomplished and come across as greater than the sum of their parts.

Interestingly I just read that the prominent and accomplished lead guitar work drew criticism from Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and resulted in the band being called sell outs by magazines and alternative fans. This doesn’t really show Cobain or the music press of the time in a good light for me considering just how great the band are because of their lead work, and how interesting the leads allow their music to be.

One thing I don’t enjoy about the album is the specific vocal production and the exact reverb settings in particular. No other Pearl Jam sounds that way, and for me it takes a lot of the Character away from Eddie’s incredible voice as well as strangely making the album feel really sad or something.

Evoking strong emotions is usually a sign that an artist is doing something right, but if I don’t want to listen to the album because its such a bummer then I’m not exactly enjoying the record and since Pearl Jam aren’t an especially pretentious crowd I’d imagine they still want fans to enjoy their albums. Take for example ‘Alive,’ which I’ve always assumed had a positive and life affirming message, however evokes in me the image of an emotional breakdown at a funeral on a cold November afternoon. The vocal production is largely responsible as well as one of the less distorted guitar tones. It is such a problem that my eyes are literally pretty moist while typing this, as if I’ve just watched some emotionally manipulative film where a father buries his son.

When ‘Why Go’ comes on it is a relief, this song is just a powerful and structurally perfect three minutes of hard rock that has always stood above the majority of the rest of the album for me.

There is a scene in the cancer-movie 50/50 where the main character walks though a hospital ward as Radiohead’s ‘High And Dry’ plays over the top. ‘Black’ reminds me a lot of that, it seems to me as if it was used in the credits of a film or tv show, and possibly over a sad montage. The song is good, but forgettable. I don’t mean that as an insult like disposable. I just mean that I had literally forgotten it, several times. That being said, the lyric/vocal performance of ‘I know some day you’ll have a beautiful life’ is really powerful and will probably stick in my head for a few days now, I just wish he repeated it four times in a row with rising intensity each time around. Its possible I’ve heard that done live and that’s why I expected to hear it that way, but it could also just be established songwriting conventions that make me want it done that way.

‘Jeremy’ is just a great song. I don’t really have anything interesting to observe about it other than, while a tinge of my avoid-the-singles mental-block does apply to it, it isn’t to anywhere near the same level as ‘Even Flow’ or ‘Alive’ and while I could wholly enjoy a Pearl Jam set list or playlist without either of those two, I fell that Jeremy absolutely must be included. I also think it would have made for a better opener than ‘Once,’ and that in modern album sequencing the two would be in the exact opposite positions.

‘Oceans’ is pretty cool and reminds me a bit of Led Zeppelin in parts, but it feels more like a section within a twenty-minute song rather than a song in itself.

I still think that ‘Porch’ is the best song on the album; I have thought that since my first ever listen-through and this state of affairs has never changed in all the time I’ve owned the record. Not now either. It is one of the only songs on the album that doesn’t evoke sadness in me, in fact its guitar solo sounds ‘sexy,’ like they stole it from an early demo of Guns N Roses’ ‘Rocket Queen’ or something, and it just worked here within the otherwise up-tempo grunge track. I seem to recall it being a highlight of the band’s MTV Unplugged performance too, but I haven’t seen that since about 2004, so can’t be sure.

The next three songs, which finish the album out, aren’t very memorable or interesting for me. They aren’t the sort of thing I’d ever choose to play on their own. I wouldn’t add them to a playlist, learn how to play them for fun or anything like that. They’re there and there’s nothing specifically bad about them, but they don’t jump out on any level more than that.

Overall; If I had to describe the album it would be as competent but dull, with the caveat that its side effects may include irrational sadness. To be honest, this Re-Listening hasn’t changed my opinion much. I’m still basically going to only listen to my three or four favourite songs from the album as a rule, and forget the rest if I haven’t heard them recently enough.

Despite the whole Ten anniversary that happened recently and all the acclaim that the album always receives, I still personally feel like Vs is Pearl Jam’s classic album and that this is just good but non-essential. I don’t know why, but apparently it isn’t just a weird childish first impression that got locked in because it was never challenged… it is actually how this album appears to me even as a rational and educated adult.

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  1. VS is my favourite.

    Brendan O’Brien remixed this album in 2009 and stripped away a lot of the reverb, making it sound a lot less ’91 and to sound a bit wanky, timeless.

    VS is interesting because they did no promotion for it – no interviews, no press, no videos. Just let the album speak for itself. I like that that happened after such a huge success like Ten.

    There’s a three-disc version of Ten that has the original, 2009 mix and that Unplugged show on DVD. Worth a look.


  2. Sounds pretty cool.
    The Devonshire mix of Nevermind did wonders for me, so maybe that 2009 Ten-mix is worth my time.
    Not that I did a side by side comparison.


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