Review Summary: "Tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I'll be..."
Debut albums typically come in two fashions. The first being that the album explodes and all of a sudden you're one of the biggest bands in the world (Led Zeppelin, The Doors and of course Pearl Jam) or it barely warrants any attention and the band suddenly rises to fame eight or nine years later (The Red Hot Chili Peppers didn't achieve mainstream success until BSSM which was their fifth album). Pearl Jam was a lucky enough band to attract mainstream attention from their first album Ten-but not immediately. Released in late 1991, only after the explosion of Nirvana in mid-1992 did Pearl Jam become a household name with hit singles like "Even Flow" and "Jeremy". The only album to feature drummer Dave Krusen, Pearl Jam was at an amazing time in their careers, just young men with a dream and a few distortion pedals making in-your-face rock songs and heartfelt ballads better than almost any band out there at the time. In the 21 years since its release, Ten has sold 13 million copies in America alone and is one of the best-selling debuts in music history. Obviously it must be good right? Well the answer my friend is yes, this is one of the finest records of the '90s and one of Pearl Jam's all time best, in my opinion only beaten by their 1994 effort "Vitalogy".
Unlike other PJ records where loads of different influences were displayed, Pearl Jam jumped into this record ready to rock their audience's faces. Even the ballads rock pretty hard at times (with the exception of "Oceans" which is pretty much the only soft song on the album) and the guitars are at their soloing prime, whereas soloing took a back seat on future releases with more mature, riff-oriented songwriting. Dave Krusen is a fantastic drummer, utilizing a subdued technique not requiring loads of technicality like the abrasive and wild Dave Abbruzzesse or the extremely technical Matt Cameron. He has some especially good drum tracks on "Why Go" and "Once", in which he uses a very syncopated open hi-hat rhythm along with some offbeat snare hits, leading the bass along in contrast to the guitar's straight palm-muted strumming. He also knows when to take a back seat and just let the music control itself-his soft percussion on "Black" or his use of the timpani on "Oceans" are prime examples, with Krusen doing soft rolls on the timpani behind Vedder's scat-singing and the beautiful arpeggios. Bassist Jeff Ament once again never ceases to impress on Ten, carrying a groove that cannot be stopped. Every time you hear an Ament bass line you simply want to kick back and tap your foot. Maybe his most famous performance is on this record-the opening bass line of "Jeremy" was forever engrained into minds across the world after that song blew up and catapulted the band into superstardom. He also offers some more soft, melodically-inflected playing on "Garden" and one of the grooviest bass tracks I've heard in alternative rock on the massive single "Even Flow". The mixing was done perfectly so every single glorious note of Ament's bass guitar can be heard crisply and clearly, and you can soak in every second of its goodness.
Pearl Jam had an unusual lineup for an alternative rock band, using two guitarists, lead guitarist Mike McCready and rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard, who at the time was the band's principal songwriter. The guitars on this album are nothing short of jaw-dropping. The riffs are heavy, unrelenting, distorted and rocking, but they carry a fantastic sense of melody so that every song has some sort of point other than to rock your socks. Using two guitars was a marvelous idea-McCready's high squeaky notes soaring over Gossard's chugging riff in opening track "Once" is a definite highlight of Ten's 53-minute running time and will definitely be one of the top things you remember about the album after your first listen. The guitarists' ability to create a hard-rocking verse and then transition into an anthemic melodic chorus is also admirable: take a look at "Jeremy", arguably PJ's most famous tune. Led by Ament's bass groove, the verses soon kick in with the guitars interplaying over one another while we hear the depressing anecdote of a boy who commits suicide in front of his class ("I'll admit that I do remember/picking on the boy/seemed a harmless little f*ck") or "Alive" with Gossard playing an acoustic guitar for this exceptional ballad. The final 2 minutes consist of a solo by Mike McCready, and it's easily the best solo he ever performed with the band. Maybe even the defining moment in his career, when that solo arrives at a concert the audience will blow up like extras in a Terminator movie: it's that good. Vocalist Eddie Vedder is at the top of his game hear, taking his signature vocals to their extreme as he delivers some of the finest vocals he ever performed on tracks like "Alive" and "Black". The final minute of "Oceans" simply consists of Vedder scatting along to the lush acoustic background, and even when he's not singing any actual words he's still establishing an emotional connection with the listener. His pleading cry of "RELEASE ME" on final track "Release" is both uplifting and heartbreaking, two conflicting emotions the band's music will often make you feel.
Vedder's lyrics are equally impressive if a bit depressing and off-putting at times: writing masterfully about loss in "Black", and a young boy's suicide in "Jeremy" (which was based on a true story) are some of Vedder's best lyrics, but his true triumph comes with the Mama-Son trilogy, three songs about a young boy's life and how utterly f*cked up it becomes (note: the third song, "Footsteps", is on the Lost Dogs compilation album). Part one, "Alive" begins with a young boy learning that what he thought was his father is actually his stepfather, and that his biological father died without ever seeing his son ("Son, she said/Have I got a little story for you"). The boy's mother soon goes absolutely nuts because the boy grows up to look exactly like his biological father, driving his mother to the point where she rapes her son. This messes the boy's brain up beyond repair, and in "Once" he eventually grows up to become a serial killer ("I got a bomb in my temple that's about to explode/I got a sixteen-gauge hidden under my clothes".) He is eventually taken into custody and executed in the final song "Footsteps" where he reminisces from beyond the grave about where his mother went wrong and destroyed his life. A truly powerful collection of songs.
The only really out-of-place song on the album would be "Deep" which is sort of disjointed and muddled after following up three of the most emotional pieces on the album, since it's simply just a hard-rock song. I think it could have easily been replaced by album outtake "Yellow Ledbetter" which went on to become one of their most famous songs anyway. I feel I've described the album pretty well so far to someone who hasn't heard it, however I cannot end this review without talking for a short bit about "Black". "Black" is by far the greatest song Pearl Jam ever wrote, and one of the most powerful listening experiences I've had in my 26 years of existence. "Black" is the story of a failed relationship, which may sound cliché but with Vedder's writing prowess it becomes one of the most harrowing listening experiences you'll ever have. This is 6 minutes of raw emotional pain, and it doesn't let up for one second. The lyrics make you empathize with the man telling the story even though he most likely doesn't exist, and lines like "and now my bitter hands cradle broken glass of what was everything" bleed pure sadness. The song is also extremely proficient musically-the piano during the final minute really adds an emotional touch with the guitars switching keys between verses and choruses while the bass plays a high, melodic line. "Black" is a flawless song representing a near-flawless album that will be forever etched in music history. I guess what I'm trying to say is, get this album immediately.
Recommended tracks: (asterisk signifies best song on the album)