It’s not surprising that today we can take Pearl Jam for granted. Hell, they’ve been around for over 20 years, they have a devoted fan base, and their music is, overall, pretty kickass. But upon the release of Ten, their debut album, in 1991, I don’t think anyone was really aware of exactly what was about to happen to the music scene. Often imitated, deservedly lauded, this album became one of the most important albums of a generation.
The album begins with Once, the second song in a trilogy known as Momma-Son. Beginning with Alive and ending with Footsteps (which appeared as a on the B-side of the Jeremy single), the story follows a man being told that the man whom he believed to be his father is actually his stepfather. His real father has already passed away. Once then tells the story of this man going on a killing spree. Finally, Footsteps chronicles his capture and execution.
What I once thought of as just a badass rock song suddenly gained a haunting story. It ran a gamut of emotions, from betrayal and loss to anger and rage to acceptance and, ultimately, death.
The first half of the album features several of what would become Pearl Jam’s biggest hits. Songs such as Even Flow and Jeremy became a mainstay on my local radio station. It was almost impossible to go an hour without hearing at least one Pearl Jam single. But perhaps no song on this album hit me harder than Black.
Black is a song that, to this day, I have to listen to whenever it comes on. It’s one of the few tracks that I just cannot bring myself to skip. Many meanings have been ascribed to the song. Is it about betrayal? Loss? Regret? The final meaning is ultimately up to the listener. All I know is that whenever I hear Vedder scream out ‘I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life/I know you’ll be a star/In somebody else’s sky/But why?/Why?/Why can’t it be mine?’, I feel like my heart is being squeezed and I well up. The near two minutes after those lines are painfully called out can easily be seen as repetitive rehashing of the same notes and chords over and over again. Personally, I see that time as the pain and sadness we all feel when we face loss. It doesn’t go away immediately. It lingers, eventually fading away, just as the song fades out.
Perhaps one of the more overlooked aspects is the astonishing guitar work of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard. The melodies and harmonies the two came up with are what make Ten such an astonishing album. There is a vast wealth of guitar effects on here, enough to make any guitar player wish for a larger pedalboard.
For as much of a metal head as I might be, I cannot and will never deny the impact this album had on impacting my musical tastes. For me, Pearl Jam is one of the reasons that the 90’s were such a golden era for music.
The Final Word: Even though it came out at the beginning of the decade, Pearl Jam’s Ten became a defining album of the 90’s. To this day, it holds up as a timeless classic of the alt-rock/grunge era.