Albums Worth Listening To, Pearl Jam,Ten

10 Feb

There were two bands that brought grunge into the mainstream, Nirvana and Pearl Jam.    Both bands, curiously, got into similar problems once they became mainstream.  Both found the commercial track uncomfortable, and while we all know what happened to Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder took a different path, one which I find interesting.  The other part of this story is while both bands got huge in a very short time, most of the bands that followed who imitated grunge chose to emulate Pearl Jam rather than Nirvana.  Sludgy guitars, emotive voice, baritone–it’s just stylistically easier to phone in than Cobain’s snarl.

Which hurt Pearl Jam in the long run, because to this day third rate acts choose to imitate the worst sides of Vedder’s bellowing style, which makes people tend to throw all of them in the garbage at once.  It also doesn’t help that most of the people that I know who still like Pearl Jam like them out of a sort of nostalgia, which isn’t what I think the band is going for at all.   If I was going to give America some homework, I would make them listen to all the music that came out in 1989 to 1990, particularly in the top 40, so you can see how startling this music came off at the time.  The late eighties was so completely commercial that–with a few exceptions–music would only be about positive things, love or sex or partying.  There was literally nothing that was talking to people on the emotional level.

That’s the thing with Pearl Jam, Ten–it’s remarkably sincere, and not in that fake I am Jesus sincerity that Bono has.  It sounds like an album that would come out of some music group-therapy session for extremely screwed up people.    So you’ve got mom issues, you’ve got violent tendencies barely caught in check, you’ve got outsider syndrome, you’ve got homelessness, you’ve got a story of a kid who cracks and shoots himself at school, hints at incest, desperate craving for connection, and worries of being too broken to have that connection.   The thing is, this isn’t an “American Horror Story” where it revels in that darkness, but more like therapy.  You can almost smell the paperbag coffee in styrofoam cups and stale cigarette smoke.  The idea being that letting out this darkness will, if not fix someone, at least get those angry feelings out safely.

That’s why I forgive this album for having disjointed imagery, and stories that hop from broken person to broken person, because it’s the expression that counts, I mean who knows what the heck evenflow is anyway (I’m sure there’s whole websites dedicated to that very question, but you get my drift.)    Also, there’s a political side to it, though we can’t see it now, but in Reagan’s America, there was often an attitude that people who were unsuccessful did things to earn it.   Telling these stories of broken people who all have been abandoned by society is a sort of response to that (and a message that could use today.)

If there is a song that I think shines above them all (and I think they’re all good) it’s “Black.”  Here Eddie Vedder’s  dirge for being broken comes out as the main theme, after the first half of the album veers (effectively) between anger and despair.  The song sounds tender and gentle, full of melancholy, slowly building up to an anguished cathartic confession of love.  One of the themes that comes up in this album is that Vedder is singing to an unknown “you” that he’s separated from, that he once loved.

While the first half of the album has all the anthems most people would know (Alive, Evenflow, Black, and Jeremy).  The second half of the album seems to be about really digging into that darkness–more of the songs are describing a state of mind rather than telling a story, as if all the feelings have been accessed and we’ve reached the height of the storm, with “Deep.”  Again, it’s very much like Therapy, with “Oceans” reminding us that we’re in a safe place, and the chance of reconnection with others  as the reason to go through all this angst.

And we end at “Release” which is the prayer for Release, to his Dad, who has taken a godlike figure in Vedder’s head.   In the middle of this album Vedder mentions that he’s on a window-ledge, and in this song he is stepping away from the ledge–the self-destructiveness is gone, at least for now, and he waits for release.  It really sounds like someone who’s been through all this emotional trauma reaching a revelation–of being too tired to be self destructive anymore, and just letting go.  Also, because of all we’ve been through up to this part of the album, this release feels earned–he’s done the work to get there.

Honestly, I believe that the conceit of this album works beautifully, at the end of it I feel like I’ve been on an emotional journey.   That’s how Ten is so very different from its imitators, Ten feels sincere, it sounds like guys getting things off their chest, sometimes long-held secrets, in a non-judgmental space.  Compare this with Live or Nickelback, where there is no level of revealing the self, of looking inward, or of confessing anything, it turns into pointless fist-pumping music that ultimately gets very silly and pretentious.  That’s what people hated about grunge, that tail end, with fake emoting and phony suffering.    What I’m asking you to do is to forget the grunge style for the space of this album, and listen to it just like a work of art.  There’s stuff there for you, I promise.

One thing I do have to say is that while I say that Vedder is expressing all this stuff, it’s clear here that the whole band is involved in this statement, and if there ever was a band that grew to function as a support system, Pearl Jam would be it.  It’s funny that almost from the very beginning Pearl Jam were seen as the sell-out band, and that somehow sticks to them to this day, despite the fact that their pop-culture moment was very uncomfortable and rather short lived.    You can’t have catharsis through MTV or with an audience of ten million–it’s too impersonal, and I feel like, Pearl Jam, at heart, were a band that really would have been much more comfortable being a higher end local band that did gigs around Seattle.  Not a bar band, but with an audience small enough that they can connect to them more.

Also, I have to say the remastered edition takes away the one problem I had with the original, which was the sludgy sound (honestly, it sounded like Pearl Jam had put a sock over the microphone or something).  Really good.

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