For a long time, Ten was the only Pearl Jam album I cared about. I bought Vitalogy a couple years after I bought Ten, but I almost never listened to it, and I didn’t discover Vs. until I was in college. As for their post-Vitalogy portion of their career, that’s practically a different band playing on those albums, and while I have come to like that “other band” a lot, I would argue that their first three albums rank among the best first three albums any band has ever released. Sure, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen have them beat, but make no mistake, they exploded out of the gate with Ten, which is one of the very best debut albums ever. I was initially drawn to Ten after hearing “Black” on the radio numerous times. I now consider it my favorite song and have for years, though I don’t recall a moment where I was blown away by it or something like that.
I think I may have downloaded it illegally at some point in middle school, but it wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I actually bought Ten and discovered that I had already heard three other songs on the radio countless times, as well: “Even Flow,” “Alive” and “Jeremy.” I might have already known that “Even Flow” was a Pearl Jam song, but given that this was nearly ten years ago now and I had no idea at the time that I would eventually want to keep track of this information, I can’t say for sure. Times were so different back then. (I believe I bought Ten in the fall of 2002.) For one thing, Wikipedia, which was created in 2001, didn’t have the kind of presence like it does now, since it was still in its infant stage. Nowadays it’s just a given that I end up on Wikipedia at least once during a given day, since inevitably I’ll want to look something up.
Information is just there, and it has been ordered into a sensible narrative that’s easy to follow, even if all of the details aren’t always entirely accurate. (It’s usually easy enough to discern what’s bullshit and what isn’t though, in my experience.) When I bought Ten, I had no sense of the alternative rock narrative, and I had never even come across the word “grunge.” I had a general sense that Nirvana was supposed to be important, but that was about it. I actually don’t really have a memory of listening to Ten for the first time. In fact, given that this is one of my very favorite albums ever, I find it rather strange that my memories of listening to this album at all for the first few years I had it are completely nonexistent. Somehow it must have made some kind of impression on me that fall when I bought it, because the following spring I actually used “Even Flow” in a presentation for my English class as an example of the use of a simile for the “thoughts arrive like butterflies” line.
The following fall, about a year after I bought it, I distinctly recall an incident where my friend Mike showed me his project he made in our digital art class with the words “INTO YOUR GARDEN” on it, which I remember appreciating. (Listen to track nine, “Garden,” if you want to get that reference.) But aside from those two memories, I don’t really have any recollection of having listened to Ten in those early years at all. Yet here we are, almost ten years later, and it’s a definitive album for me. I feel like I’ve listened to it a million times. It’s one of those albums that somehow gets more interesting each time I listen to it. But what’s fascinating about the album is that the band members have since expressed dislike about how it sounds, and they enlisted their frequent producer and collaborator Brendan O’Brien to remix it for the 20th anniversary reissue.
I got the reissue for my birthday recently, since I was curious to hear what it would sound like, and while I think I still prefer the original mix, it is definitely interesting to hear things in the new mix that I simply couldn’t hear in the old one. (To clarify any confusion: the performances are the same. It’s just the mix that’s new.) Now that we’re more than twenty years removed from that initial alternative rock explosion and the ridiculous “Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam” argument that I still occasionally have with people, all that’s left is the music. And for me, Pearl Jam resonates much more than Nirvana does, though I like Nirvana a lot, too. I was shaking my head earlier at what Rolling Stone writes about Ten in their entry for their greatest albums list: “When their debut came out, Pearl Jam were competing with Nirvana in a grunge popularity contest they were bound to lose.”
Well, actually, that’s not true at all. Ten outsold Nevermind, and Vs. outsold In Utero. (At least in the United States, which was the most important place to be popular, especially for two American bands.) I think what they’re really getting at is that Nirvana clicked with Generation X and is probably more popular with that generation than Pearl Jam is. Pearl Jam’s appeal has been a lot broader, and they have roped in fans from multiple generations, including my own, at a greater rate than Nirvana. For one thing, Nirvana and Pearl Jam had much different sounds; Nirvana owed their sound more to punk and Pearl Jam’s songs are based more on Stone Gossard’s classic rock-ish riffs and Mike McCready’s bluesy solos.
Throw in Eddie Vedder‘s Bruce Springsteen/Jim Morrison-esque baritone and it’s not hard to figure out why Pearl Jam became so popular, as they took somewhat familiar elements and presented them in a completely new way (i.e., the “grunge” sound). Furthermore, there has always been a life-affirming quality to Pearl Jam, especially Ten. They managed to survive the grunge implosion of the mid-’90s that ended the careers of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, and I really think it’s due to the nature of their music. When I listen to Nirvana (especially their live performances), I’m not surprised that Kurt Cobain killed himself, because of what it must have taken from him to go back to the well again and again. It’s sad, really. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and it’s easy to see now that Seattle’s Big Four were trapped in a burning building. The fact that Pearl Jam made it out alive at all, albeit in a permanently altered form, is all the more impressive.