Pearl Jam’s Ten is an iconic album of the ’90s for so many reasons. The Seattle scene and what many would soon call “grunge” was about to erupt. And, for better or worse, these grunge-era groups would soon turn the music industry upside-down. Scruffy-haired, plaid-wearing, Docs-shod musicians were about to be the ‘norm,’ and for a few years, to paraphrase Kurt Cobain, teenage angst would pay off very well.
For Pearl Jam, however, their work danced the fringes of grunge’s teen angst world. Oh, they could still bring the angst (see: “Jeremy” music video for some classic angst face), but it wasn’t their bread-and-butter. While Ten gave a voice to a new generation, there was a lyrical and songwriting maturity that elevated their work beyond what much of the scene was producing at the time.
Released on Aug. 27, 1991, Ten has since gone 13x platinum with more than 10 million albums sold — a feat that few other albums have reached. The album garnered many favorable reviews, with critics calling out the dramatic rock vocal style of lead singer, Eddie Vedder, and the “infectious” ’70s-style guitar riffs. Unlike other albums to come out of the Seattle scene at the time, Ten had a much more polished sound. For many, this style didn’t sit well, even with Vedder himself who later admitted he struggled to listen to the album due to its over-produced mix.
From the album, only four songs were released as singles: “Alive”, “Even Flow”, “Jeremy”, and “Oceans”. While the singles didn’t have great chart success in the U.S. or internationally, they became iconic within the genre. The music video for “Jeremy” was particularly iconic, winning four MTV Music Video Awards, and even 15 years later, an episode of How I Met Your Mother made reference to its memorable final scene.
While Pearl Jam became popular due to the album’s success, their meteoric rise to fame was less welcome by the band members themselves. As a result, they rarely agreed to interviews or television appearances, nor would they produce many music videos for their singles on future albums.
The Magic of Ten
What’s particularly magical about Pearl Jam’s Ten is how it all came into existence. Following the death of their friend and bandmate, Andrew Wood, less than a year earlier, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament started jamming and writing music together again. They dealt with their grief the best way musicians know how — by playing music. The duo, along with Mike McCready and Soundgarden (and future Pearl Jam) drummer, Matt Cameron put together a demo tape. That tape made it into the hands of San Diego surfer bum, Eddie Vedder, who laid down lyrics for the tracks in a matter of days.
Listening to the album today, it’s impossible to tell that the separate elements of these songs were written in completely different worlds and in completely different corners of the country. Yet this is where that elusive, untouchable ‘something’ about Ten comes from. It’s relatable, it taps into something deeply human and real, and even with the individuals coming at the music from totally different contexts; they somehow latch onto something universal. This is part of the magic of how the album, created by relative strangers, was able to connect with people around the world.
I’m Still Alive
As Ten turns 25, it’s hard not to feel old. When the album came out, I was, funnily enough, 10 years old. I would discover it a few years later and repeatedly play it until I knew every song, every note, every lyric, every breath. Listening to Ten, and the rest of Pearl Jam’s music, shaped my teenage existence. It created a world where loneliness and despair and angst and whatever else my teenage feelings decided to be that day had a place to just be. I could sing at the top of my lungs, dance and play air guitar, or quietly pour out angsty teenage poetry that no one should ever see. Ever.
Looking back at the album and realizing how many years Ten and Pearl Jam have been a part of my life makes me feel old. But it also makes me feel proud. Pearl Jam’s messages, whether lyrically or through their public personas, have always been positive. The band’s music often reflected their openly feminist views. They also brought important issues to the fore regarding racial inequality, homelessness, mental illness, domestic abuse, women’s rights, and other societal concerns.
Today, to some people new to Pearl Jam, Ten may sound a little dated. However, part of that is due to how relentlessly copied Pearl Jam’s style became. Throughout the ’90s, bands and singers would often mimic Eddie Vedder’s deep Bob Dylan-esque mumble. Like growing up with condensed Simpsons-ized versions of classic films, returning to the original can sometimes feel off-putting. But growing up with Ten and Pearl Jam’s entire music catalogue in my life, it has become part of who I am. For me, Ten is the sound of my youth. It is the sound of growing up. It is the sound of becoming myself.