Pearl Jam Ten- 1991
RMR Album Rating- 9
To tag Pearl Jam’s debut album “Ten” as simply grunge or even just alternative rock is doing the album and the band a huge disservice.
But, I guess the grunge label is logical. Pearl Jam is from Seattle; “Ten” was released in 1991 in the wake of Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” and the band kind of fit the mold, so grunge must of seemed like a fitting tag for Epic Records to stamp on the album and the band, but the sound and scope of the album goes well beyond grunge and even traditional alternative rock. I would describe “Ten” as an alternative art rock album. This might sound like a strange term, but I think it’s a fitting one.
The songs on “Ten” can really be broken down into two groups, which split the album in half pretty evenly. Group #1 consists of traditional alternative rock songs, and group #2 consists of what I’ll call “alternative art rock” songs. The songs in both groups are excellent, but there are clear differences between the two groups of songs.
Group #1: The traditional alternative rock songs are “Once,” “Even Flow,” “Alive,” “Why Go,” “Jeremy,” “Porch,” and “Deep”. All these songs are all fairly hard hitting and are great traditional alternative rock numbers. My favorite of these tracks is “Even Flow,” which is filled with plenty of distorted guitars, and great vocals from Vedder. (click here to listen to Even Flow). I think the worst of this lot is “Jeremy,” but not uncommonly, my taste goes against the grain. “Jeremy” was definitely the most successful track from the album, and its video was in heavy rotation on MTV at the time.
Group #2: The alternative art rock songs are “Black,” “Oceans,” “Garden,” and “Release”. This is where the album gets interesting, and I think these are the best songs on the album. The songs in this group are still alternative rock songs, but they have a layer of complexity and emotional resonance that goes well beyond just traditional alternative rock. My favorite song from this group (which is also my favorite song from the album) is “Garden”. The song has a fairly slow pace, but the pace of the song builds as it enters each chorus. This creates a mini crescendo as Vedder sings “I will walk…with my hands bound/ I will walk…with my face blood/ I will walk…with my shadow flag/ into your garden/ garden of stone. These lyrics definitely strike a chord with me, and I think they are much deeper than the typical grunge or alternative rock lyrics of the era. (click here to listen to Garden).
There are two other elements that push this album beyond traditional alternative rock. The first is the “Mamasan” trilogy of songs, and the second is the cycling effect of music that opens and closes the album.
The “Mamasan” trilogy is a series of three songs that form a story. The songs include “Once,” “Alive,” and “Footsteps” (“Footsteps” was not released on “Ten”; it appeared as a B-side to the “Jeremy” single). Eddie Vedder has said that the songs are semi-autobiographical, but they also have a loose connection to Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” and to my point, most alternative rock albums don’t have parallels to Athenian tragedies. Here’s a brief overview of the “Mamasan” story…
The trilogy starts with “Alive.” It tells the story of an older teenager who finds out that who he thought was his father is actually his stepfather, and his real father died when he was 13. Now that the character is basically a grown man, his mother becomes sexually attracted to him because he looks just like his biological father, and she makes sexual advances on him. This completely screws him up, and he goes on a killing spree targeting prostitutes, which is what “Once” is about. In “Footsteps,” he is ultimately locked up. He blames his mother for his actions, and he shows no remorse or regret for his actions… stating that he “did, what I had to do/ And if there was a reason/ Oh, there wasn’t no reason, no/ And if, there’s something you’d like to do/ Just let me continue, to blame you”
Pearl Jam could have easily put all three songs back to back on “Ten” in the correct order, but I like that they have “Once” and “Alive” separated on the album and in reverse order, which makes “Once” a prequel to “Alive.” I also like that they left “Footsteps” off the album, leaving it as a hidden gem for their true fans to explore and piece the trilogy together on their own. Click below to hear the “Mamasan” trilogy of songs in their correct order:
Click here to listen to Alive
Click here to listen to Once
Click here to listen to Footsteps
The last element of this album that takes it beyond traditional alternative rock is the opening and closing music of the album, which is titled “Master/Slave”. This mellow music with mumbled lyrics creates a cycling effect on the album; so if the album is put on repeat, the last track (“Release”) flows seamlessly into the first track (“Once”). Pearl Jam certainly did not invent this type of cycling effect, but it is much more common in art rock, than it is in alternative rock.
To summarize all of this, “Ten,” has songs with emotional resonance and complexity that take them well beyond typical early 90’s alternative rock fare, there’s the “Mamasan” trilogy, which makes parallels to the story of “Oedipus Rex,” and there’s the cycling effect of the “Master/Slave” sequence that opens and closes the album. So, Pearl Jam’s “Ten” has a certain artistic integrity that makes it much more than just a simple alternative rock album.
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