Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pearl Jam - Ten

Unbelievable and even disturbing though it may seem for those who were a fan back in the day, this Saturday marks twenty years since the release of Pearl Jam's Ten album. Two decades on, it marks a milestone in the grunge subculture that grew out of Seattle, Washington in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

While fellow scenesters Nirvana and Alice In Chains found fame with their second albums, Ten was Pearl Jam's first, although bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard had already played with proto-grungers Green River and Mother Love Bone. It came out one month before Nirvana's Nevermind to little immediate attention, but rode the crest of their wave, eventually finding a kind of 'classic rock' longevity that eluded most of the grunge generation.

This can possibly be attributed to the fact that it's far less obviously influenced by punk rock than Nirvana were, and far less doomy that Alice In Chains were. Stylistically, it often owes far more to the likes of the clean harmonies of a Neil Young or a Bruce Springsteen than the jagged, nasty guitars of Black Flag. That's not to say it's all sunshine; there's a sweet sinisterness to many of the tracks, which back up the lyrical themes.

These were provided by the baritone-voiced Eddie Vedder, who had auditioned for the band with a tape he called Mamasan. Like with all grunge bands, the words conveyed an affinity for the lonely, the isolated and the abused. But on Ten, Vedder perhaps went further than his contemporaries in giving these victims their own voice, and getting it on the radio.

In the final analysis, grunge was the product of a society that had been through the Reagan-led ruling class counter-offensive of the 1980s, and was now seeing his successor, George Bush Snr, deepen the chasm between rich and poor. The anger of hardcore punk had given way to some despair, and parts of Seattle were full of apparently futureless, often drug addicted and sometimes homeless young people, many of whom formed bands.

Eddie Vedder was not one of those people - he had been brought up by a Chicago attorney, and his guardians could afford to foster seven children. But nonetheless he was personally and artistically drawn to the burgeoning Seattle scene, and all it represented.

On the first six tracks, Vedder tells the stories of a homeless man (Even Flow), a young girl who was locked in a mental institution "by some stupid fuck" (Why Go), and Jeremy Wade Delle, a 16-year-old who shot himself dead in English class. "Jeremy spoke in class today", Veddie intoned, and Pearl Jam very obviously spoke too: there was something definitely, desperately wrong with the American Dream.

The first half of Ten is also memorable for two other outstanding tracks. Black may 'just' be a lament for love lost, but the heartfelt nature of the words, plus the sincerity of their delivery and the chiming melancholy of the guitars make it so much more than that. Finally, the language gives way to pure singalong vocalisation, in what still makes for an amazing live moment. And Alive is a constant staple of rock radio stations, whose programmers probably think it's some kind of life-affirming anthem. The music would certainly suggest as much, but on the contrary, it is the semi-autobiographical story of a mother revealing to her son that the man he believed to be his father "is nothing", and his real father is now dead. Horrifyingly, after this, the mother tries to seduce the son.

Though it's musically accomplished, much of the remainder is filler, and sounds somehow flat and unaffecting. Still, six absolute generational classics are enough for any album. Pearl Jam never particularly asked why things were the way the were, but Vedder did his best to describe how things were, and that was very significant to a lot of people in 1991. Ten isn't quite up to the standards of Nevermind or Dirt, which were classics for quite different reasons, but it certainly merits its place amongst that exalted company.
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