It was not “heavy” enough for metal heads. It was not “alternative” enough for the grunge crowd. It was not “mainstream” enough for Billboard (until sales could no longer be ignored). And even today, it’s not Pearl Jammy enough for the hardcore Pearl Jam fans that think the record was an overly-produced stadium rock record, which is how some members of the band feel about it. In the history of alternative music, Pearl Jam’s Ten is itself a misfit.
Rick Parashar produced Ten in 1991 and it has sold almost ten million copies, most of which were purchased in an era marked by free file-sharing or single-song platforms such as iTunes. The album is impressive in sheer numbers alone.
But I don’t measure a record’s impact by its sales figures. Few albums transcend music and tie me emotionally to the art the way Ten has. The arrival of the Seattle sound of the early 1990s coincided with the arrival of my adulthood, bringing both the exhilaration and fear of that time. Many records take me back into the past. Blues for the Red Sun by Kyuss is one such recording which I talked about here. The personal impact of Pearl Jam’s Ten is hard to describe because it goes beyond the music. Sure, the vocal stylings of Eddie Vedder have been lampooned and early Pearl Jam spawned a decade of worthless douchebags trying to cash in on it. But before all of that happened, Ten defined a generation. Nirvana gets most of the credit for crystalizing and defining what it means to be part of Generation X, but Pearl Jam did the heavy lifting. Vedder put such emotion into the music that it’s not hard to figure out why Pearl Jam is one of the few bands around that survived that era. His angst and raw delivery was something I could identify with in my early 20s, raging one moment, as in “Why Go”, and deeply troubled in another, as in “Jeremy”. Being about the same age, I felt like I was friends with Vedder through the music and related to his often cryptic and dark lyrics. Parashar brought an ethereal quality to the recordings which you can hear if you listen closely. The reverb on Dave Krusen’s floor toms is spectacular while Stone Gossard’s combination of Strat and Wah nod to Hendrix in a way that is respectful rather than imitative. Jeff Ament’s bass holds it all together with Mike McCready’s textures floating throughout.
Thousands of words have been written about this band and thousands more about this record. I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard before. I recently listened to Ten from start to finish and I felt transported back to 1992 when I was chasing a girl (still my wife), wrestling with thoughts of doubt and uncertainty about my livelihood (still do), and feeling that paradoxical struggle between childhood and adulthood.
I hope you have your own Pearl Jam Ten, a recording that makes you smile, warms your heart, and tugs at your core, reminding you why music matters.