Albums that changed my life – ‘Ten’ Pearl Jam

Albums that changed my life – ‘Ten’ Pearl Jam

June 16, 2018 0 By Glenn McDonald

An essay outlining why Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’ is an album that changed my life – first in a series of essays about albums that have had an undeniable impact on the person I have become, and why I love them. Come on a track by track journey as I re-listen to ‘Ten’ and reflect on the impact it had on my life.

‘Ten’ by Pearl Jam is an album of such magnitude that it feels as though nothing that I could say about this album could contribute substantively to its enviable musical and cultural legacy. It is an album that for many disaffected and angst ridden middle class teens dealing with the emotional and physical turbulence of adolescence, resonated and provided an accessible entry point to the ‘grunge’ music scene that grew out of Seattle’s underground punk, hardcore, and garage scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is an album that for Pearl Jam, was commercially the ‘right’ album at the ‘right’ time, garnering them both praise and criticism, and an album that provided savvy music journos and record label execs with a tangible example of the ‘Seattle sound’ that they would inevitably seek to commercially exploit and replicate.

For me however, it is an album that I was introduced to at around 13 years of age as I was beginning to develop my own musical taste, diverging from the fairly safe music of my parents, and the dominant blues/country rock I was exposed to in the small country town that I was living in at the time. I had been a guitarist for several years, and had been looking further afield since discovering the guitar styling of Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and others, and seeking something a little punchier. I enjoyed the musicality and riff based rock of some of the more popular ‘hair metal’ acts such as Def Leppard, Iron Maiden and Mötley Crüe, and I’d had some exposure to some early Seattle acts such as Mother Love Bone and the Screaming Trees on community radio during trips to Melbourne. I had also by then heard some of Nirvana’s Sub Pop recordings, and Bleach. I knew of Faith No More, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as I had seen their albums at Au Go Go and Gaslight Records in Melbourne although I wouldn’t say that sound had hooked me at that stage.

As the opening congas and ethereal feedback began on ‘Once’ I knew I had found something special. Eddie Vedder’s speech is mixed masterfully  into the background of the opening track by Rick Parashar of London Bridge Studios, serving as an anticipation-building prelude to Stone Gossard’s simple yet rousing guitar introduction. This leads into Dave Krusen’s (early Pearl Jam drummer) understated and functional funk rock beat and Eddie’s opening words ‘Iiiiiiiiiii admit it, what’s to say’ and the moment that I began a several decade-long appreciation and love of Pearl Jam. I still consider this track to be one of the best ‘track one side ones’ of any album that I own. For reference, others include Round Here by Counting Crows, Cherub by Smashing Pumpkins, Enter Sandman by Metallica, Midnight Oil’s Beds are Burning,  So Far Away by Dire Straits, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, and NWA’s Straight Outta Compton.

From there, the album builds momentum with the ‘Even Flow’ eventually released as the band’s second single following Alive. Stone Gossard’s humbly described “simple riff in D” enters the track with drums and bass heralding the arrival of a genuine ‘balls the the wall’ grunge rock track. Eddie’s vocals are simple but gutsy as always and his signature vowel manipulation is evident on this track. Eddie gives Stone and Jeff some room to move and the relationship between bass, rhythm guitar, and lead guitar is magic at work. The drums-bass-guitar trio in the refrain are accompanied by Mike Macready’s soaring guitar solo, which frequently features in YouTube “best Pearl Jam guitar solos” compilations. The background vocals and delays used by Rick Parashar give the track presence, and create anticipation as the track peaks and ebbs, especially at around the 3:30 mark as the bridge gives way to another chorus. Eddie flexes his vocal chords a few last times as the track concludes, but not before Macready can smash out another quick solo.

One of the things that set Pearl Jam apart from the other ‘grunge’ bands for me was their sheer musical talent. The members of Pearl Jam clearly took pride in their musical ability, and were not afraid to indulge in musical creativity within traditional musical structures and conventions. Unlike other grunge era bands that experimented with alternative tunings, timing, and instrumentation Pearl Jam were generally a 4/4 rock band that played using power chords, major-minor changes, and simple alternating minor pentatonic and major scales. I loved that about them and still appreciate how they managed to make me feel so much from such simple and relatively tried-and-tested musical foundations.

Track 3 on the album is the first single ‘Alive’, which was then, and is still today considered by many music critics, musicians, and Pearl Jam’s friends and musical collaborators as one of the greatest tracks to come out of Seattle. The song is musically impressive but perhaps the greatest aspect of this song is the lyrics. Eddie’s lyrics tell the story of a mother’s relationship with her son following her revelation that the man he thought to be his father was in fact not his father, and that his father had passed away a few years prior. The son understandably takes the news hard but responds with the mantra “I’m still alive” which is repeated as the chorus. Since its release, Eddie Vedder has commented on the changing interpretation and meaning of the song however one of the things that I loved about this song initially was the dual meaning of the chorus. On one hand the son pleading “I’m still alive” as if he wished he weren’t, on the other, a defiant rallying cry of survival despite the adverse circumstances, something that I could relate to as an adolescent. I have also played this song to countless people during the course of my career as a covers artist and pub musician and it never fails to rally a crowd of punters, which is the mark of an exceptional piece of creative art.

Why Go follows Alive opening with a simple drum beat and psychedelic wah-affected guitar. Percussive guitar follows with Eddie’s articulated and syncopated vocal style as the lyrics tell of a women trapped in a psychiatric institution. I always loved the way that Eddie repeated the words “why go home” with enough ambiguity to make me sometimes hear “why go on”, which is a poignant message considering the context of a song about mental health.

The song Black opens with a simple jangly electric guitar and the bass guitar rundown that is a familiar challenge to anyone that has ever tried to play this introduction in a cover band. If a band plays this introduction well, you know that they have done some serious rehearsal and are musically ‘in sync’ with each other. This is a song that is lyrically and musically emotionally evocative, rising and falling with Eddie’s melodic vocals, background piano, Macready’s understated ‘less is more’ guitar fills and Dave Krusen’s metronomic repetition of the ride cymbal giving the song an unusual treble pulse, rather than relying on the kick drum to give the song its drive. The song reaches a crescendo with Eddie’s emotional cry during the bridge of “I know some day you’ll have a beautiful life, I know you’ll be a star, in somebody else’s sky by why, why, why can’t it be, can’t it be, ooh mine”. For anyone pining for a lost love after a breakup, these words surely resonate and accurately depict the pain of knowing that somebody you loved will be fine, just not with you. This was a song that I listened to while reflecting on unrequited loves, lost loves, and partners that had moved on, and it is still one of my favourite songs to play and sing on guitar. It is responsible for my belief that good music can evoke emotions through lyrics, music, fills, repetitions, and most importantly, the space between the sounds. This song is truly a sum that is greater than its parts.

As if you hadn’t experienced enough of an emotional thrashing by this point in the album, the track ‘Jeremy’ enters with a simple bass riff accompanied by a sustained harmonic melody on guitar and a ride cymbal. Starting innocuously enough, Jeremy soon reveals its themes of childhood neglect and the devastating consequences that it can have on others. Jeremy, the central protagonist who “ruled his world” is guilty of the egocentrism that all adolescents are at least once, and is something that I could definitely relate to at the time. Vedder then changes tack and posits himself as the protagonist in the story as he continues “clearly I remember, picking on the boy” to reveal how we can sometimes perceive our hostility towards others as benign, although it may have far-reaching consequences that we are oblivious to. I related to this as I think perhaps sometimes I lashed out at other students at my school as a result of my own insecurities. The song continues to ascend lyrically and musically describing the tragic event of 1991 when Jeremy Dell shot himself in front of his class as referred to subtly in the lyrics “Jeremy spoke in class today”. The chorus repeats for effect and then the iconic ‘hoo hoo hoo’ enters in the background as Eddie improvises around the themes and phrases of the song thus far. I’m not sure if I knew at the time about the story surrounding the track and its inspiration, and I had yet to come in contact with suicide and mental health issues. I am sure this track contributed to my understanding and empathy towards those experiencing mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, as did the music of so many artists that I respect and enjoy.

The track Oceans is a song that I come back to at various times in my life. At times it seems almost too intentionally anthemic in nature, with excessive reverb-soaked guitars, and military inspired drum beat. Bordering on indulgent it is a track that I need to be in the right mood for. When I love it, I love it. The bass guitar, walking a melody over the simple clean guitar’s major chord progression.

Following Oceans is the song Porch, a straight forward rock song with a driving power-chord verse, ascending chorus, Krusen’s everpresent pulsing ride cymbal and Eddie’s emotive vocals. What sets this track apart from the others on the album is the almost three minute long guitar duel between Mike Macready and Stone Gossard as Jeff Ament and Dave Krusen maintain the foundation of the track. I am not sure if the track was improvised or penned as each time I have heard Porch performed live, Gossard and Macready seem to add something I haven’t heard before. This track provides inspiration for me as a guitarist and is one that in my thirty plus years of playing, I still can’t quite get right. That is the type of playing that separates superstars from us mere mortals.

The album changes pace somewhat here with the introduction to the melodic and vocally sparse track ‘Garden’, a track written by Gossard and Ament. Garden features one of the greatest lyrical moments on the album as Vedder cries “I will walk, with my hands bound” as the guitars, bass, and drums soar to match this intensity. Vedder continues with passion that he has described as trying to match that of the Who’s Pete Townshend, and the intensity of Gossard and Ament’s arrangement.

As the penultimate track on the album, Deep uses the opportunity to flex some serious rock muscle. The track is another full-blown rock classic with genealogy firmly rooted in drums, bass, guitar riff, guitar solo, screaming grunge vocal foundation. As a stand-alone track I never really loved or hated it, for me it was more of a set up to the final track of the album.

The album ends with the track Release, a melodic guitar and vocal based track that is an appropriate end to a lyrically empassioned, musically passionate, and emotionally taxing journey. Release allows the listener a place to ‘come down’ after the journey that is Pearl Jam’s ten. With some memorable lyrical moments including “I’ll ride the wave, where it takes me”, a literal and metaphorical reference to Vedder’s love of surfing (and mine) and surely his desire to see where this ‘Pearl Jam wave’ would take him. During this final album track it feels as though Eddie has given all he can, although using everything he has left as his disposal, he summons the long-sustained notes of the chorus to match the slow build of the guitars, bass and drums. The song finally subsides by following Vedder’s vocals with the remaining members of the band playing at equal level and intensity, and then fades to a single electric guitar, which is apt considering how fundamental the electric guitar is to this album.

Following Release is the ‘hidden track’ (yes they were a thing before streaming services and mp3s) Master/Slave, an ethereal jam track featuring vocals, congas, drums, triangle, and a repetitive bass riff inspired by the Beatles’ octave based riff from Come Together. The track is fundamentally an instrumental track that in my opinion, allows the listener time to reflect on what they just experienced. At least the first time I heard the album, I needed some time to comprehend what I had just heard and still today, when I listen to this album from start to finish, I need the space of Master/Slave to reflect on what I have just heard.

Ten is truly one of the greatest albums produced by any band and is definitely an album that changed my life. It influenced me as a guitarist, songwriter, musician, and a person. The empathy and emotion in the lyrics, and the passion and dedication evident in the musical compositions has encouraged me to strive for better, both musically and personally. I am truly grateful for this album and the impact that it has had on me cannot be understated. I have seen Pearl Jam four times since this album came out and it is always a treat to hear tracks from it. (G)