Pearl Jam’s “Ten” – Morgan and Bailey give tribute

“And wherever you’ve gone

and wherever we might go,

it don’t seem fair… today just disappeared.

Your light’s reflected now, reflected from afar.

We were but stones: your light made us stars.”

– Pearl Jam, Light Years

No, that quote is not from Ten. It came a number of years later, after Pearl Jam had miraculously survived the pathetic and traumatic death of Grunge, which floundered and crashed to the dirt in the wake of Cobain’s suicide like a monster severed from its head. It’s a nice stanza, though; nice because it shows a thoughtfulness and appreciation outside of self effacement; because it suggests that the group never intented to drive Grunge into the ground and then give up and go home; because it stands testament to the virtuosity and integrity Pearl Jam brought to the game in the early nineties, exploding with Ten as a launch pad for whatever organic path was waiting for them beyond it. Unlike almost any other seminal album of the Grunge era, even Soundgarden’s phenomenal portrait of pain, Superunknown, Ten wasn’t a dead end. It was a beginning.

The album opens with a contemplative quagmire of bass, percussion and electronic sounds. This instrumental forms a primordial motif that bookends the album (and returns at the album’s midpoint, Jeremy) and gives the album a primal, ethereal quality. In his 1991 Rolling Stone review, David Fricke comments that the album “hurtles into the mystic at warp speed” and when we listen to the qualities of the album’s opening track, Once, we can see why.

Pearl Jam: Once

It’s like a burgeoning consciousness awakening at the bottom of a swamp. It slowly begins to rise to the surface, gradually gaining momentum before exploding to the surface and causing the surrounding swamp gas to ignite with its meteoric fury. In a 1993 interview lead singer, Eddie Vedder, revealed that Once formed the middle piece in a musical triptych, composed of Alive, Once and, the B-Side to Jeremy, Footsteps. Together they tell the story of a young man whose father dies. The boy is physically identical to his father and his mother, presumably mad with grief, begins to make sexual advances on the boy. The boy, with his dead father and oedipal relationship with his mother, grows up into a disturbed young serial killer. Finally he is caught, executed and goes out with a litany of curses against the world that wronged him. If you think this is grim subject matter, then you’re on to something, but this is all par for the course for Vedder.

Vedder’s truest talent, besides his animalistic vocality, is his ability to translate the strange and depraved stories (mostly fictional at that) that he tells with his lyrics into solid and infallible chunks of trans personal human truth. Why Go is about a teenage girl sent by her own mother to be locked up in a mental institution, presumably for being “too real”. Maybe Vedder needs these specific social gripes to get him to his magic place, but the bottom line is that when I listen to Why Go, all I hear are the base emotions behind it: anger, pain, displacement, loss. I can’t relate to no crazy girl – but I can relate to these things. Although maybe I’m giving the guy with the mic too much credit: if music is the language of the soul, isn’t it more likely that it’s Gossard, McCready, Ament and Krusen who are speaking these themes to me? Pounding out pain in the beat of the bass, shredding my senses like so many fretboards? Food for thought.

In an SBS special on albums that changed the world, a lackey for Madonna or some such declared that Grunge “didn’t do much for music”. What he was referring to is one of those delightful reversible arguments that can be used powerfully for both the yea and naysayers – it’s incredibly sad and dark. The negative take on this, the one that techno boy here was probably on board with, is that it depresses you. What they won’t tell you in the Spice Girl Appreciation Society is that depressing music, if done right, can positively inspire. It can make you feel less alone. It can sweep you up in its arms of doom and get you singing the gospel of the damned. Black people have every right in the world to feel furious and depressed; blues and hip hop can’t speak to us pasties like it can to them. Grunge was the anthem of the unrighteous disillusioned; Ten was our rainbow flag.

Pearl Jam: Jeremy

Jeremy is a perfect example of what it is that makes Ten special as well as Vedder’s ability to cut through the abstract of our societal traumas. It is an intersection of Vedder’s casually powerful lyrics, grim subject matter, sprawling sing-a-long melodies and the band’s intense, layered musicality. This is not only a quintessentially 1990’s or Grunge song, it is a quintessentially American song and an American song perfect for the time of its release. While the Columbine shootings at the end of the decade have become the iconic American School shooting event of the 1990’s, there was a particular climate in middle America during the 1990’s which resulted in a range of school shootings. Vedder touches on many of the things that were cited as contributing factors to the occurrences of the Columbine and other school shootings, years later. Apathetic parents, bullies and a disturbed mind left unattended are Vedder’s checklist for how such a tragedy could occur.

We are introduced to Jeremy as he is drawing a picture of himself atop a mountain, with all the trappings of an adorable children’s painting: a “lemon yellow sun” and Jeremy with his “arms raised in a V”. It is only revealed in the last line of the verse that beneath Jeremy (standing in a victory stance), at the bottom of the mountain, “Dead lay in pools of maroon”. So, in effect, we’re introduced to Jeremy as he’s drawing a picture of himself, towering above the mutilated corpses of his enemies. This would surely be of concern to most parents but, as Vedder points out in the bridge, “Daddy didn’t give attention/To the fact that mommy didn’t care”. This is promptly followed by the surprisingly reflective perception of one of Jeremy’s bullies:

Clearly I remember
Picking on the boy
Seemed a harmless little fuck
But we unleashed a lion
Gnashed his teeth
And bit the recess lady’s breast

This articulates perfectly the capability of bullies to never understand just how bad bullying is. The bully generally ignores Jeremy, except when he sees an opportunity to exploit him for entertainment. He is, at best, a fond memory of an entertaining moment when “that weird kid went crazy”. The flippant tone suggests little more than bemusement at the “harmless little fuck” who “bit the recess lady’s breast”. Conspicuously absent are the adults in this situation. We only hear about Jeremy’s parents as a distant, uncaring presence and there are no teachers or school staff, aside from the afore mentioned recess lady. This is a picture of a kid who, despite giving the world plenty of warnings, isn’t heard. This absence of adults and societal apathy is rammed home in the video clip for the song, in which everyone but jeremy is completely static and unmoving. It is this that makes the choice of singing “Jeremy spoke in class today” in the chorus (as opposed to “Jeremy blew his head off in class”) all the more powerful. Jeremy has been ignored all his life and the only statement he can make that people will listen to is one that he makes with a gun. This lyrical style, steeped in sublimation and symbolism, is a defining characteristic the album. Vedder has an ability to convey a sense of powerless pain and desperation which, when it combines with Gossard’s compositions, perfectly reflects the feeling of impotent rage which plagues everyone at some point in their life. The feeling that something is desperately wrong , there is nothing you can do about it and nobody seems to care. Which brings us squarely to Black, the emotional and, arguably, musical centrepiece of the album.

Pearl Jam: Black

This is the miserable break-up song. While many have written about the anguish of loosing a lover none have articulated the pain and wretchedness of the experience like Vedder has in this song. For this man, the woman he lost was central to his existence. She presented a cosmic gravity which provided him with a stability which he could find nowhere else. This is first illustrated when he says “All five horizons revolved around her soul/As the earth to the sun”, placing her at the centre of his universe, with him as a mere planetary body revolving around her. The metaphor of her as his “sun” is a persistent contrast to the world of black void that he now inhabits. This is very much a song about standing bitterly bewildered as you begin to pick up the pieces of your broken life. Vedder manages to convey the the cornucopia of negative emotion that one experiences when someone you love leaves you. He oscillates between bitter and defensive when he says “all I taught her was everything” but almost immediately begins to despair at “how quick the sun can drop away”. There is a genuine, heartfelt anguish that cannot be ignored in this song. The haunting motif in the chorus of a disintegrating life turning black is one which is hard to be unaffected by. Of special note is the second chorus in which his “bitter hands cradle broken glass/of what was everything”. The memories of his life with this woman have shattered in such a way that any contact with them is excruciating, as if he were holding a shattered glass. The tragedy is, no matter how much it hurts, he can’t let go. Ultimately, the song reaches a crescendo in which he pleads:

I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life,
I know you’ll be a sun in somebody else’s sky, but why
Why, why can’t it be, why can’t it be mine?

This is the distilled desperation of the dumped. She broke his heart, his world is destroyed and all he wants to know is why? Despite everything that happened, his love for her is so monumental that the only thing that can undo the hurt is the impossibility of getting her back (which no doubt compounds the hurt considerably). Beyond this incredibly sad and beautiful plea there is nothing else to say. The final minute and a half of the song’s vocals are a keening melody of nothing words, a cathartic expulsion of pain and regret.

Ten‘s parting words are, very wisely, gentle and wistful. That’s not too say they’re not powerful: I’m sure the argument could be made that they’re some of the most powerful on the record. They comprise a lyrical letter to Vedder’s father, or the father of a character Vedder has created, and they are given to us in the aptly titled last track Release. The song is the most understated of them all (a trend that would be continued on the group’s follow up album Vs and its last track Indifference) and the beauty part is that the lack of bells and whistles lets you see just how fucking perfect these musicians are for each other. They mill and swirl around Vedder’s exposed and broken heart, threatening at several points to explode but always pulling back at the last moment (most of this is achieved through feedback control, but to put it into technical terms sullies it). The lyrical content is unusually introspective, even for Vedder, in that there’s no external force at work at all, no hitchhiker about to get fucked up, no mothers trying to seduce their sons, no bullying or rape or breakups. There’s just sadness… and at long and longing last, an expressed want for that sadness to end. “I’ll hold the pain,” enunciates Vedder, making very sure we hear him because this is the important part. “Release me.” Grunge was a good ride while it lasted, but here in its microcosmic record, we see the ending before Kurt Cobain ever did: no one can hold onto hurt this huge forever. Sooner or later, everyone needs release.

Now, go and listen to the album.

If you don’t have it, you can obtain a copy here.

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~ by baileysmith on September 2, 2008.

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