Monday, August 6, 2012

A Guided Tour of Ten: Once

[A Guided Tour of Ten]
Ten is truly an epic album—the scale of it may turn some people off who prefer the more narrow and private feel of some of the later albums but I think it is hard to deny that this is a grand record in the best sense of the word—one that has a lot to say, and wants to say it loud to make sure that the message doesn't get lost. You can hear the influence of The Who in that regard here more than any other record. Yet at the same time there is an intimacy to the songs—while they are about other people, and the music is larger than life, there is a very personal connection made. Much of this is through Eddie's voice, but you are asked to inhabit the people in the stories, to feel what they feel. They are stories, but the stories are about you. It is really a remarkable feat, and one of the things that makes Eddie one of the best vocalists of all time.

It is also worth saying a bit about what Pearl Jam means as a band, and what separates them from their peers (and what made that clear right off the bat). All of the grunge standard bearers wrote for disaffected people, but it was a type of disaffection that differed from the punk movement ten years prior. That was music written by outsiders. What made grunge different was that it was written for people on the inside who still felt disaffected. In a lot of ways it was rap/punk for white middle class kids who technically had what they wanted but still felt like something was missing. The music was a search to find out what that missing thing was. And it was the effort put into the search that really made Pearl Jam stand out. The other bands tended to look only inside themselves to find what was missing. From the beginning there was a social/political dimension to pearl jam's music—a desire and a need to confront the outside world, so as to figure out what went wrong, why we aren’t living what was promised (to paraphrase Angel), and above all else what we can do about it.

If you were going to sum up the lyrical theme of Ten in one word that word would be betrayal. The music of the early 90's was written for the children of the children of the 60's. The first great wave of rock music from that period was music that at its heart wanted to be transformative. It wanted to right the wrongs of the world and serve as a source of inspiration and emotional strength for the people who were going to do it. Then they grew up and gave the country 12 years of Regan and Bush. Instead of idealism you had a vacuous hedonism and a glorification of greed. The next generation of children, growing up in that aftermath, came of age in the shadow of the failure of their parents' revolution. They felt cheated somehow. There was a sense that a great promise had been lost, and people had no idea where it went or what could and should come next. This was the mindset that animated at least the more thoughtful members of ‘generation x'. All the great grunge bands spoke to that experience—all were in some way attempting to deal with that feeling of betrayal and aimlessness. The problem is that most of the music was nihilistic and either wallowed in or celebrated its pain. Pearl Jam was really the only band of that period to try and rise above it, and what made the early records so magnificent was not just that they expressed so powerfully the rage, anger, fear, and insecurity of the time, but that almost all the songs had a moment of light, a way out. 

Later records (really starting with No Code) begin to crystallize what that way out might look like. In the early records it is there more as a promise—a shadowy hope for future redemption. What was clear was that it was going come about through the community created through music. If we can come together, we might somehow find it. But again, on Ten there are no answers yet (it is Breath that articulates this most clearly among the early songs)—just the hope that the answer is out there, manifested as much through Eddie's voice and the music as through the lyrics. The catharsis isn’t intellectual—it is emotional, and experienced with a powerful immediacy. This is really the source of Eddie's charisma, especially in those early years. He is not particularly well spoken, especially in real time, and is shy and retiring. But when he sang you KNEW, in a way that few other singers could capture and convey, that he felt what you felt, was looking for answers with you, and that if we just stuck with him, and with each other, we would find them.

Anyway, onto the record…


The album begins with the master/slave dreamscape, deep, warm, and foggy, with a voice moaning behind the murky veil. The music is searching and meditative, until inside the opening buzzing riff of Once cuts through it, heavy, angry, and violent. It is a really powerful contrast

Once serves as a warning—it is a song of self-destruction, a song for the frantically lost. At this point it isn’t clear there is a way back, so the key becomes figuring out how to stop ourselves before we reach this point. Something is terribly wrong with the singer, who is in the midst of a profound existential crisis that finds him utterly cut off from the rest of humanity. We are never quite sure what happened to this guy, and it is not clear that he knows either—the buzzing of the guitars do a great job mirroring the distractions in his head, and in his life. You might find answers in the depths of master/slave, but they will not be found here. Now it is too late—he makes the claim that the past holds no pain, that whatever has happened to him is gone and in the past, but the chorus exposes the lie—full of hurt, anger, and regret. Once upon a time the world made sense, but that time is gone, he doesn’t know how to go back, and the consequences are severe. He can no longer understand himself, love himself, or worst of all, love others. He is disaffected, cut off, and suffering. Most of the characters we meet in Ten are alone, but never really alone in peaceful quiet where one can reflect and begin again. The isolation is rife with anger, fear, and the intimation of violence (somewhat overdone in this song but the sentiment is important)—the anger of a generation ready to inflict harm if it cannot figure out what to do next (harm to itself, harm to others, or both. Once upon a time he had a place. Now he belongs nowhere, and to no one, which segues nicely into Even Flow

Even Flow 
Why Go 


No Code 
Riot Act 
Pearl Jam