In the late ’80s, the vanguard of a new musical movement spearheaded the Seattle grunge invasion. Through the flood of new grunge bands, I particularly remember the hot summer when PEARL JAM debuted one of the most potent albums ever released: “Ten,” 30 years ago on August 27th, 1991. Despite the heat, everyone that could play guitar quickly learned to play “Alive,” “Even Flow,” and “Black.” The songs resonated throughout those summer nights, when small groups of people hung out, singing and having fun.
After several long years of hair metal dominance, there was finally a band that could fill the stadiums with their energy: a dark and murky sound mixed with a powerful explosion of blues-rock on top. Who knew that the Seattle band MOTHER LOVE BONE, who already had a strong reputation with their fans, would make drastic changes and become… phenomenal. After the death of their vocalist, Andrew Wood, in 1990, bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard could have taken a break from playing, but instead, they were invited by SOUNDGARDEN’s Chris Cornell to pay tribute to Andrew Wood in a project called TEMPLE OF THE DOG. During this period, they gathered their strength and decided to push on by forming a brand new band, one that would eventually become PEARL JAM.
A vocalist from San Diego, Eddie Vedder, got a copy of the demo and immediately began to write lyrics for the instrumentals songs from the demo. Some songs – originally titled “Dollar Short,” “Agytian Crave,” and “E Ballad” were soon reworked into well-known songs that still resonate today, such as “Alive,” “Once,” and “Black.” Eddie Vedder’s baritone “yarling” style, that became very popular in the grunge/alternative era, was a perfect match for the songs. Lyrically and vocally, the album was expressing his feelings – mostly rage. Once Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament heard Eddie Vedder’s vocals and lyrics on an updated demo, they sent him a ticket to fly to Seattle for an audition on October 13th, 1990. There, the journey of PEARL JAM and the album “Ten” started.
Even today, this is the most distinguished and prominent album in PERAL JAM‘s discography. Just by listening to the album, the listener experiences the full potential of their alternative grunge blues approach, while the lyrics are mainly negative, dealing with social problems and other subjects like depression, loneliness, and suicide.
The album starts with the opener, “Once,” starting with a hypnotic sound and a powerful bass line that progresses with the aggressive dirty guitar riffs, leading listeners into the melodic chorus. The energy from the first song does not end there, continuing into the next song, “Even Flow.” Another well-beloved classic, this vocally driven song thrives thanks to a great hook during chorus and a heavy funk riff by Stone Gossard. The song nearly fades away during the lead bridge, before coming back with a strike of vengeance in another outro crescendo. Eddie Vedder’s lyrics describe his experience of being a homeless man and panhandler. This intensity is followed by brilliant “Alive.” This track starts with a slow, methodical, majestic intro by Stone Gossard, but is then dominated by Eddie Vedder, with his distinct and odd vocals and melody. A simple but entertaining guitar riff in the calm bridge gives way to a contrasting crescendo jam by Mike McCready. While the song’s lyrics deal with the shock of a son discovering that his real father is dead, many fans have come to interpret “Alive” as an uplifting and inspirational anthem.
These songs for the first two parts of a three song cycle called “The Mamasan Trilogy”; the third song is “Footsteps,” a song on the “Jeremy” single. This gives the whole album a hidden bonus. All three songs tell the tragic tale of a man who’s mother sexually abused him in his childhood (“Alive”), followed by a inhuman outbreak of his frustration from these times, leading him to him to a killing, and puts an end to his sadness and anger as he waits for his execution in jail (“Footsteps”). This all wraps up in “Once”, where the character feels he has no other choice than to settle his destiny and go to prison to get away from the past that forever haunts him.
“Jeremy,” of course, was inspired by a true story, in which a high school student shot himself in front of his classmates. This haunting but catchy guitar riff includes an unconventional storytelling vocal melody during the verse and a soaring hook during the chorus. It naturally left a controversial mark on the industry at the time.
To counterbalance the powerful but thematically heavy songs, the album also includes a couple of calm, surreal, and melancholy pieces. One of the heavier songs on the album is “Black,” a moody song with vague lyrics that appear to deal with loss. Even in slower songs, Eddie Vedder manages to create a signature harmonic vocal melody which. combined with a lead guitar, forms a memorable sonic hook in the background of the song.
For the grunge era, PEARL JAM‘s album “Ten” made a big mark on both the music industry and listeners. Even today, it’s easy to sit back and enjoy both a masterpiece of musicianship as well as a collection of honest, compelling lyrics that have stayed relevant all these decades.
Written by Peter Jerman
2. Even Flow
4. Why Go
11. Release / Master-Slave
Eddie Vedder – Vocals
Mike McCready – Lead Guitar
Steve Gossard – Guitar
Jeff Ament – Bass
Dave Krusen – Drums
London Bridge Studios