Damn. To think that I almost made it two decades without hearing Ten, an album that I understand was pretty popular in the '90s. Whenever general hatred for Ticketmaster has been aired or there's been mention of Eddie Vedder and his warbling vocal style, my sole reaction has been an involuntary, "You know, I've never heard Ten." This usually produces a shocked, "Really?" or the occasional, "Crazy!" But it isn't meant to shock or dazzle people in a carnival freak-show manner, as if a red-striped-vest-wearing barker should follow me around proclaiming, "Step right up, folks! Gaze upon this witless soul who wanders the earth, having never heard 'Jeremy!' See as he tries to make sense of the pop-culture landscape unfolding around him, unable to properly identify songs from the previous decade that are starting to show up on classic-rock stations!" The truth is that, well, it surprises me too. By no means am I bragging with this concession.
But as long as I'm "coming clean," I should also cop to having never listened to Alice In Chains or Screaming Trees, and that my knowledge of the Smashing Pumpkins doesn't go far beyond their appearance on the Simpsons. I get the references to all these bands, but it's a little like not being able to show my math on the final exam. I know AIC wore out their share of wah-wah pedals and that Billy Corgan has a whiny singing voice I'll never be able to tolerate, but not from first-hand knowledge. What I don't know is how I've missed out on Ten, though, seeing as how I was a big fan of Nirvana while they were still active. I might not have been old enough to be allowed in to see them when they played Chicago, but their songs were etched into my memory—listening to Nevermind and In Utero is unnecessary today. I can remember the songs and every stray recorded cough Kurt Cobain left behind. But perhaps I was a bit too narrowly focused in my formative years—after all, I did seek out as many Nirvana bootlegs as I could, but never bothered giving Ten a passing glance. Oh, but I have listened to Stone Temple Pilot's Core and Soundgarden's Superunknown. So get off my back, dudes and lady-dudes. Don't front.
Unlike some of my A.V. Club brethren, though, I'm not ashamed to have missed on Ten or those other albums. I always figured I'd get around to them whenever. I'm still a pretty young guy and those albums aren't going anywhere. Still, I had no preconceived notions about Ten last week when I was ushered into the conference room and Josh asked me, "How much of Ten have you actually heard?," and then proceeded to assign me this Better Late Than Never? you're reading now. Then, pretty much everyone in the room launched into their Eddie Vedder impressions. I could do nothing but back away silently, their cackling singing rattling in my skull and clattering my teeth. I had forgotten about Pearl Jam, and I had forgotten about how the band is usually just boiled down to Vedder's theatrical singing.
So, I was pretty surprised, then, when I queued Ten up in Winamp (yes, I have a PC at home—don't front on that either) and sat back, ready to just listen and soak it in. I vaguely remembered some of their videos in passing, maybe part of a melody here or there, and the whole Kurt Cobain-Vedder feud, but I really didn't know what to expect. In all honesty, I looked at the tracklist and thought, "Ten has 11 songs on it? Misleading!"
The album gets off to an unassuming and lurching start, with "Once" eerily creeping alive with spare rattles of percussion perforated by a jazzy bassline and an ambience that vaguely recalls Peter Gabriel's "Shock The Monkey." Wasn't this supposed to be grunge music? It's an intriguing start to an album that went on to get certified platinum 12 times—and it now had my attention, but by no means was I yet enthralled. About 40 seconds in, "Once" jolts awake with the thunderous clap of a rattling lead-guitar line, something that, to my surprise, is on pretty much every song on the album. Even more astonishing was Vedder's voice. He's gruff and visceral—maybe not as raw as Cobain, but certainly as passionate and intense. Like Nirvana, the lyrics aren't necessarily about what's written out—it's the delivery that's important: "Indian summer and I hate the heat" is the stuff of junior-high poetry, and "Once upon a time I could love" is pretty damn cheesy, but it doesn't matter. Sure, there are poignant songs about suicide, depression, and homelessness on here, but everyone still just makes fun of Vedder's voice—even though it cuts through a field of crops like a scythe on "Once."
Over the years, Eddie unfairly got a bad rap for his voice—which is largely misplaced, even though it gave bands like Creed an inexplicable spot in the post-grunge sun. But his forceful roar is obviously the focal point of Ten—all the cock-rock-like solos and shiny production in the world ultimately serves as an excellent backdrop to Vedder's caterwauling and fine baritone. There's simply no way to overpower his voice, which is a good, since that's something else that instantly became apparent with Ten:It's very, very lush sounding. "Black" is a nearly six-minute cave of fuzz that slowly builds to an impressive climax that still leaves listeners able to feel the haunting ring of the piano, the cutting whine of the guitar, and the urgency of the drums. If Ten was recorded and released today, it would have fallen victim to the loudness war and been compressed into a sludgy mess, completely robbed of its soul.
Which is, I suppose, another thing to mention with Ten: It should be viewed in the context of its time. Pearl Jam wasn't a band "hopping on the grunge bandwagon," if they were from Bismarck, Maine, they probably wouldn't have gotten as much shit quite as much in the '90s. What also surprised me about Ten was how classic-rock-influenced the band obviously is. "Evenflow" is a riff-heavy bee's nest that lays on the whammy bar and wah-wah enough that it probably could have been a radio hit back in the '70s in addition to the '90s. Also, the songs are surprisingly complex for a debut record. It's intensely focused, not with the purpose of "making it," but from a desire to craft memorable and powerful songs. And the aforementioned gloss on the album isn't bad in the slightest—the slickness merely enhances what is already great here: The versatility of the musicians. The drones on "Alive" and the grand, almost opera-like scale and depth of "Jeremy" is worlds away from the spare "Something In The Way," but they're no less affecting.
Pearl Jam hated the machine that made them famous, just like Nirvana, even though they also worked so hard to get there. And while Nirvana mocked success by sending a Michael Jackson impersonator to accept their MTV Moonman for "Best Alternative Video," according to a 2006 Rolling Stone feature on Pearl Jam, "When 'Jeremy' won Video of the Year, Vedder felt the prize should have been called 'Best Commercial for Your CD.'" He then added, "We were coming form a standpoint like the Native American Indians, who thought if they took your picture, part of your soul got sucked out of you."
It's understandable that Pearl Jam didn't know what to do with all the attention they got in the wake of Ten. They might not have really been part of the so-called "grunge" movement, but they obviously reaped some benefits from breaking onto the mainstream concurrently with it. Also, it doesn't hurt that Ten is really, really solid—there isn't a weak song on here, although the aptly titled coda "Release" isn't exactly memorable, or at least isn't within listening to it the first few times this week.
"Jeremy" is, of course, a clear standout, and not just because of its supposedly controversial video. I'd imagine the only thing controversial about the song is the amount of shit it caused for awkward teenagers at the time named Jeremy, who would be openly mocked in homeroom in the rare occasion when they spoke aloud. There's a somber stillness in the song when it begins with effected guitar letting the main riff ring out, and when it builds to the first chorus early on, it's hard not to feel the hair on your arm standing on end. It's a powerful song, and it manages to top itself repeatedly throughout—almost making a game of how impressive it can be. When it reaches the bridge, it's hard not to feel the anticipation of what's to come on the song. When it taps out for a subdued freakout at the very end, it's intriguing instead of feeling like a letdown. There's a delicate sleight of hand going on in that song that must be heard to be understood. Articulating it with words would merely cheapen it.
When sequencing the album, Pearl Jam probably knew there was something special about "Jeremy," because the remainder of the album is a slow cool-off. "Oceans" is a much-needed respite on what's been a rollercoaster ramping up for about a half-hour, and though there's nothing especially remarkable about the song, it's still pretty nonetheless. "Porch" feels like an extended noodling session, and I'd argue that its ending is far better than the two minutes that precede it. To prove there's still some fight in them, though, the slimy rock of "Deep" throws a wrench in the album's gummy works. It's probably a scathing derision against suicide and addiction ("He's got a great view, and he sinks the needle deep / Can't touch the bottom"), but, again, it's hard to say definitively. In addition to being an album as easy to enjoy as oxygen, it's also pretty damn cryptic both lyrically and on the surface. For instance: Why are the songs so tersely titled? The album's longest title is "Why Go." Are they saying the songs just speak for themselves? Was the album's tracklist printed by a telegram company? Does it really matter? Probably not. Rather than pick it apart and analyze it to death, I'd prefer to just listen to Ten again, and accept it at face value, a little less ignorant.