Twenty years ago the musical landscape was a much different place. Bands like Poison, Ratt and Motley Crue were on their way out, and Guns ‘n Roses was the dominant force in the world of “hard” rock. All that was about to change though, with the arrival of a slew of bands from the Pacific Northwest. Two of these groups would take up the mantle for a generation, and Nirvana and Pearl Jam would put hair metal to rest for good and even wrest control of the “rock” crowd away from Guns ‘n Roses.
Pearl Jam gave the world “Ten” on August 27th, 1991. A little over a month later, Nirvana released “Nevermind” and a sort of creative rivalry was formed. To this day, many Nirvana fans don’t like Pearl Jam and conversely Pearl Jam fans may not be enthralled with the works of Nirvana. Though the two bands really didn’t sound much alike other than distorted guitars and youthful angst in the lyrical content, Pearl Jam and Nirvana ushered the “grunge” or “alternative” eras in together. For a time you couldn’t watch MTV for a full hour without seeing at least two videos from each band.
It cannot be understated how immensely popular and groundbreaking Pearl Jam’s debut was. Much has been written, by me even, about the impact of Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” but the fact remains that Pearl Jam’s major label debut opened just as many doors and influenced just as wide a cross-section of people. Everyone wanted to wear flannel and garble their words. In fact, Eddie Vedder was so beloved and so iconic that when Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots hit the scene, he was accused of aping Eddie Vedder’s styling. Clearly now there’s almost nothing that Vedder and Weiland have in common, but back then anyone who came out and sang with a slightly mumbled and sort of affected vocal styling was immediately accused of trying to steal some Pearl Jam lightning for their own bottles.
“Ten” is twelve tracks of blistering rock and roll, stripped of the theatrics of hair metal, but with all the attitude. Vedder’s raw emotion cuts through on tracks like “Even Flow,” “Why Go,” Alive,” and of course perhaps the most famous track on the album, “Jeremy.” The story of a disturbed teenager who freaks out in his class room, the song and video for “Jeremy” became almost as important as the band themselves. The video, in fact, was so dark that controversy sparked over it, and different cuts had to be made for when it was aired earlier in the day.
Years later, the emotion remains, and the album still holds up under intense scrutiny. Paced perfectly, starting with a track that takes time to develop (“Once”) and closing out with “Master/Slave,” Pearl Jam hit every note perfectly. Upon re-listening to the album for this article, the song “Black” still sticks out as being particularly beautiful. The way that Vedder’s vocal plays so perfectly against the jangling guitars work of Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament it’s absolutely spine-tingling even to this day.
Though their sound has moved beyond what it was in their first two or three albums, Pearl Jam’s contribution to recorded music will be forever secure thanks to “Ten” and their follow-up to it, “Vs.” Vedder, Gossard and company are still alive and kicking today, though maybe they aren’t toppling mountains anymore. However, when one helps to blow up Mt. Everest, how much more should they be expected to do?