Monday, March 23, 2009

Ten: A Retrospective, Part 1

I was 8 years old when Pearl Jam released their debut, breakthrough album Ten in 1991 and it was probably not until the end of high school or even college that I became familiar with any of its tracks. But today, on the eve of Pearl Jam's re-release of Ten, the first reissue in a planned re-release of Pearl Jam's entire catalogue that will lead up to the band's 20th anniversary in 2011, I can say without any doubt that Ten is for me, the best and most important album of all-time. Now to be clear, this is as a matter of personal taste and personal significance, as when considering historical context and musical influence, there are probably a number of albums that most would say supersede it (Dark Side of the Moon, Zeppelin I & IV, and several Beatles albums immediately come to my mind.) But in terms of the album that has most influenced and appealed to my musical taste, spoken to me on a personal level, and whose tracks I simply just flat out enjoy the most, Ten is definitely at the top of the chart. This re-release would be exciting enough on its own, but it is further enhanced by the fact that the album's tracks are being made available for download on Rock Band, so as soon as we get our XBox's wireless working and fix the cord on our drums, we will be rocking out to Ten for hours on end. This is a band whose catalog of quality songs is so deep and whose live performances are so energetic and have blown my mind every single time I have seen them, that I am eager to borrow the words of Ben Harper, who called them "the greatest band in the world." To commemorate this momentous event, I have compiled my thoughts on the entire album and included sample videos of live versions of each song. This analysis will be a combination of merely relating the actual, sometimes personal stories that inspired the songs as well some of my own personal comments on what the songs mean to me.

Once: The 2nd installment (between "Alive" and "Footsteps") of the "Mamasan trilogy," a 3-song mini-opera composed from the original Stone Gossard demo tape that fell into the hands of a young Eddie Vedder, who recorded vocals over it, returned the tape, and the rest, as they say, is history. It tells the story of a man so traumatized by the emotional baggage he endured as an adolescent (which we learn about in "Alive") that he turns into a serial killer. Most striking to me is the lyric "once upon a time, I could control myself," which most acutely relates what to me is the most frustrating part of any downtrodden emotional state, be it depression, loneliness, alienation, or whatever one is afflicted with: namely, the ability to remember times where you were able to control your thoughts and feelings and confront whatever the problem is contrasted with your current inability to do so.

Even Flow: A song that is demonstrably about homelessness and those who are cursed to suffer through the cruelties of that life. The song speaks of what is clearly a mentally ill homeless man unable to deal not only with the day to day challenges of life but even to cope with the thoughts that enter his head, instead choosing to "chase them away." I think this is a song that even those of us who are not homeless can relate to (and I assume that anyone reading this falls into that category), particularly through that lyric and the notion of chasing away bad thoughts rather than trying to battle them, but also from the perspective of living in New York City and seeing people who have to endure this terrible life on a daily basis. I think the lyric "faces that he sees time again ain't that familiar" captures the relationship between residents of a neighborhood and the homeless people that wander its streets, as we come to recognize the same homeless characters, each on their corner with their own defining characteristic, yet never come to actually know them, a dynamic that is probably much more disheartening from their perspective than from ours. Notably, it features almost as good a guitar solo as you will find, courtesy of Mike McCready.

Alive: Eddie's personal, autobiographical account of learning from his mother as a teenager that the man who he thought was his father was, in fact, his stepfather and that his "real daddy" had died years earlier. The song continues with a fictional sidesplot of an incestual relationship between the mother and the child, who has grown up to resemble his deceased father. The song's climactic chrous line "I'm still alive" expresses the feeling that having endured all this emotional trauma the worst part was the fact that he was still alive and had to deal with the baggage. "I'm still alive," was a curse. However, as Eddie explained when telling the backstory to the song during Pearl Jam's performance on VH1 Storytellers, the fans reinterpreted the song, energetically belting out the chorus "I'm still alive!" in a celebratory unison voice that, for Eddie, changed the meaning of the song and "lifted the curse."

Why Go: This song was specifcally inspired by a story Eddie read about a girl from Chicago who was institutionalized by her mother after her mother caught her smoking pot, but I'm sure it resonates with anyone who has ever felt alienated from their parents because they felt like their parents were prone to overreaction and just didn't "get it." In live performances the song's culminating lyric "Why go home?" often becomes a crowd sing-along part, as it reflects a sentiment that has surely been expressed by anyone who has experienced the frustrations and alienation from their parents that the song speaks of. To me the most striking element of the song and that lyric, specifically, is that even when targetting it as a place to be avoided, it's still "home."
Black: I could probably write 2,000 words about this song if I had the space and time to do so, as out of all the songs I have ever heard in my life, it is the one that most closely resembles a piece of poetry, in addition to being my favorite song on my favorite album by my favorite band.
Thus, limiting my thoughts on it to an appropriate length will prove quite challenging. This song is about unrequited love, a man so desperately in love with a woman, who for whatever reason can't or won't be with him. The song is highlighted by two extended metaphors: art and the cosmos. What starts out as a pristine relationship with unlimited potential ("sheets of empty canvas, untouched sheets of clay"), a relationship so pure that the cosmos themselves ("all five horizons revolved around her soul, as the earth to the sun") have preordained it in the eyes of the speaker, has been "washed in black" to the point that even the air he breathes "has taken a turn" and even the innocent sound of children laughing makes him sear. The feeling of rejection and lost love has overshadowed everything good about the relationship and about life more globally, as "the love gone bad" has turned his entire world and existence to "black, tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I'll be," leaving him to disconsolately wonder, "of what was everything?" Was everythinng I "taught her" and gave her, everything we experienced together, all for naught? The song ends with a concession to reality but one last plea of false hope as in the most touching lyric I have ever heard, Eddie sings, "I know someday you'll have a beautiful life, I know you'll be a star in somebody else's sky, but why can't it be mine," final words that when tagged in live versions together with the words "we belong together" over the final guitar chords prove to be truly heartbreaking.


  1. As a child, it never sat well with me that there were 11 songs on this album. It's called Ten Dammit!

  2. That is a very reasonable criticism. One thing I can guarantee: if Coldplay ever releases an album titled as a number, the album will have exactly the same number of songs as that number.

  3. does it bother you that staind's aaron lewis sings a better version than eddie's original?

  4. Nicely done- for me I think there are 3 different ways to approach music; the objectively great (zep, beatles), subjetcively great (for us PJ, MMJ etc) but there is also the category of music that has a personal/emotional impact on us either because it was an important aspect of our youth or it played a vital role in an essential moment of our lives. I think that PJ has grown over the years, musically and lyrically and certainly Ed has grown as a human being and has shed that unbearable angst from the early 90's. As a result, I think that subjectively my favorite albums are Yield and VS- they are the most musically dense (although No Code and Vitalogy are oh-so-close). However, because of the vital role that Ten played in my youth it's songs will always have a special place in my heart. Oh, and black is the best song ever written.

  5. I couldn't agree more about the way Eddie has evolved over the years from what many saw as a young punk who was angry at the world into a person who seems much more at peace with himself and the world around him. Despite still seeing many problems and being angry about them, he doesn't let them consume him and the result is a performer who is almost angelic to watch, who exhibits a sense of realness and sincerity that is unparalled.