Rewind to 1991, the high-water mark of grunge. In a provincial outpost of Our Price, something makes me reach past the album featuring the baby’s tadger to the purple one with the human maypole. As it turns out, a good choice. I loved Ten back then, and a quarter-century later, that righteous anger and jaw-breaking riffage holds a magic that Pearl Jam have never quite matched. I could be happily marooned with any one of these 11 songs, but if you’re putting a gun to my head, here’s how they stack up for me.
I put up with Deep back in the day, mostly because I couldn’t afford a Discman, and my Walkman’s fast-forward button usually chewed the tape. In the iPod era, though, my knee-jerk response to that fruity opening flourish is to move along. The stalking, wah-drenched groove and pummelling beat is decent enough, but on an album of such riches, ‘decent’ brings up the rear.
It was a live highlight, of course, with Eddie Vedder using the instrumental break to straddle the gantry, swan-dive into the crowd and generally give Pearl Jam’s tour management the cold sweats. On the album, though, I’ve mostly sucked the juice out of this two-chord thrasher.
That eerie intro riff was required learning for the bedroom guitarists of the nineties, and the way the bass slopes in beneath Vedder’s shamanic moan is a moment of malevolent genius. But by the time Garden wraps up, I’m ready.
In a flash of rehearsal-room serendipity, Ten’s slow-burn finale was born when Vedder improvised his vocal over Stone Gossard’s shimmering riff. It’s the perfect sun-setter on Ten’s tempestuous tracklisting, but, honestly, I could have done without the Master/Slave instrumental reprise tacked on the end.
7. Why Go
Sandwiched between big-hitters Alive and Black, Why Go was kinda overlooked at the time, and that’s probably why its furiosity still sounds so fresh. Vedder’s spitting-mad vocal was sparked by a news story about a teenager sectioned for minor drugs offences, but it’s Jeff Ament who deserves the backslaps, for both writing and driving the song on twelve-string bass.
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A musicologist might argue there isn’t much meat on this two-minute vignette (even Gossard admits “it’s just two fingers that come on and off to create the whole thing”). Still, for me, Oceans is a work of strange, glowering beauty, and gave Ten’s first indication that Pearl Jam could shift gears. “We thought it was important to pick the weirder moments,” noted Ament, “because we wanted to be able to explore those areas further down the line.”
What’s that you say? Alive should be in pole position, and I’m a towering arsehole with shit for ears? Well, maybe. The trouble is, I’ve heard Pearl Jam’s signature tune too many times now: that riff has been blunted by ubiquity, to the point where it’s practically the alt-rock Layla. But if I imagine myself unjaded, hearing it for the first time, then, yes, Alive is obviously a stone-cold classic, from Gossard’s stadium-ready intro lick to Mike McCready’s spring-heeled solo (which he admits, incidentally, that he stole from KISS’s She).
4. Even Flow
Pearl Jam themselves seem to have a problem with Even Flow, generally agreeing that they flogged the spark out the original demo with too many takes (“Not sure why we didn’t use that one,” said original drummer Dave Krusen, “but I know it felt better”). For everyone else, the version that made it onto Ten was a belter, driven by that muscular-yet-snake-hipped riff, and managing to sing about homelessness without getting up your nose.
When Texas teenager Jeremy Wade Delle shot himself in front of his classmates on January 8th, 1991, the seed was planted for what remains arguably Vedder’s most powerful lyric. The blood-spattered MTV video was sensationalist, but the song is deathless, from Ament’s opening chimed harmonics to the bereft outro. Strange to think that Jeremy almost didn’t make the cut for Ten, the band struggling to balance the dynamics. “But this was an instance,” remembered Ament, “when persistence paid off.”
Epic apparently badgered the band to release Black as the fourth single from Ten, but the lineup dug in their heels, helping the song to its enduring fan-favourite status. It’s a bit of an odd one, Black, alternating between rock’s most jaunty verse and most gut-wrenching chorus, but when Vedder delivers the devastating pay-off – “I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky, but why can’t it be mine?” – you’ll feel a cold shiver of recognition. Stunning.
During the false start of the Master/Slave instrumental – which burbles away pointlessly for the opening forty seconds of Ten – it was only natural to start fishing for your receipt. Then a key turns in the ignition and Ten’s whip-crack opening salvo leaves the blocks, Vedder in character as a vengeful maniac with pedal to the floor and “sixteen-gauge buried under my clothes”. A song to make your neck bristle and your fists bunch, it announced Pearl Jam as a band to treasure, right out of the blocks.