So let’s be honest, grunge music had a bad reputation going in. As far as pure music talent goes, grunge is a slimier version of punk rock. Play loud, play mean, play like you want to piss off your parents. The alternative rock movement from the wet west of Seattle did not become rock’s new norm on accident, but it wasn’t easy for people to accept it at first. Even “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the monster single from Nirvana that sent grunge into the stratosphere of pop culture, was surely mislabeled as scrappy garage rock on the first listen. But what people didn’t know was that grunge was just a label for the new alternative rock band. It could go deeper, sound thicker, and demand a serious ear on first listen. It just so happened to be released a month before Nevermind.
Ten, the debut studio album from the quintet Pearl Jam, is grunge rock at its most professional and perhaps most serious. The force of drummer Dave Krusen (the first of five drummers the band has had in their life span), bassist Jeff Ament, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, and frontman Eddie Vedder had the sonic punch of bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. But Ten sounded a bit more crafted, a bit crisper, a bit more focused, a Led Zeppelin to Nirvana’s AC/DC. Pearl Jam didn’t sound like they wanted to go against the norm of rock music, instead taking all the most memorable elements of their influences and fusing them together. Ten was the band’s mission statement and, on its 25th anniversary, it still sounds incredible.
From the creeping opening of “Once,” there’s a sense that this is going to be different. Then they rip into the actual song, with Krusen’s hammering drums and the twin guitars of Gossard and McCready. From there, it’s gangbusters: “Even Flow,” “Alive,” and “Why Go.” The two former are two of the band’s best known songs for different reasons. “Even Flow” is both U2-esque Americana storytelling about a homeless man and a hint of furious Southern rock, with McCready doing his best Stevie Ray Vaughn impression with the solo. “Alive” is a soaring power ballad led by Gossard’s instantly-iconic riff. It’s one of those rare songs where everything just clicks in the right place, from the twin guitars and bass perfectly in sync with each other to Vedder’s subdued growl. “Why Go” is the odd ball in the trio, with its winding bass groove and scratching guitars turning into calculated chaos. That seems to be the theme of Ten, a mad dash of earworm riffs and a fistful of drums led by a lead singer that sounds like Jim Morrison with less spiritual pretensions.
Ten doesn’t get as preachy as Pearl Jam would later in their career. The slower moments on the album are more personal, especially for frontman Vedder. “Black” is a heartfelt ballad about a broken heart where he is the standout part of the song. His voice is soft and close to cracking, especially when the song reaches its climax. “Garden” is an equally impressive ballad with some more impressive guitar work, going for picking instead of chugging riffs. The closer is “Release,” which ironically has opened many Pearl Jam shows (especially the one at Fenway Park I saw a few weeks ago). It’s the soaring moment when listener and band merge together into one unique experience, with the plucking riff building with the rest of the band and Vedder howling to the heavens. It showcases the power that Pearl Jam has: no amount of blind rage or annoyed attitude can beat genuine emotion and grace in a song. Pearl Jam excel at creating feeling in their music in the most basic way possible. The only real moment of preachiness or pretension is arguably the album’s best track: “Jeremy.” It’s a great combo of the band’s furious playing abilities with their talent for restraint in service of the song’s narrative, in this case the true story of a boy who shoots himself in front of his classmates. Pearl Jam have never been a singles band, but you can tell they wanted “Jeremy” to stick out. Ament’s bass line and Krusen’s drums hit like a KO punch while Godard and McCready actually hang back. The focus is Vedder’s storytelling, and his jaded delivery is him wagging his finger at the neglectful society Jeremy (and surely many other kids during the era) suffered through.
Ten is a testament to why Pearl Jam have been around for as long as the record has. There’s no frills, no flash, no fanfare: just five guys colliding with each other and their instruments throwing jabs. It’s an alternative rock boxing match and it’s still thrilling to hear.