Sunday, August 29, 2021

Ten at Thirty



 A couple of years ago I was out to dinner with several friends.  A classic rock station was playing in the background, and the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar came up in rotation. It was followed by R.E.M.’s Man on the Moon, a song about holding onto the innocence time strips away.  About halfway through the song I had a horrifying thought.  When I was in high school Brown Sugar felt old. A relic of a bygone era.  Something no longer vital. A song with nothing to say, whose value lay entirely in nostalgia.  But after some quick math I realized that more years had passed between the release of Man on the Moon and this dinner then there were between Brown Sugar and the release of Man on the Moon.


And now Ten is thirty, which means Pearl Jam is thirty.  And yet, somehow, Ten still feels as fresh and vital to me as it ever did.  And even though who Pearl Jam is and what they mean has evolved over time (their music, its themes, and my relationship with them), Ten retains a timelessness seemingly at odds with how firmly rooted it is in the early 90s.  The reverb-soaked production, the unapologetic hugeness of the sound, the furious angst embedded in the songs, even the much-parodied sound and performance of Eddie Vedder himself.  Ten should be dated, and yet I find, after thirty years, it remains the Pearl Jam album I most return to.  And while I don’t want to dethrone Vitalogy, if I’m honest, it might be my favorite.


The albums strengths remain undiminished.  Ten contains the strongest collection of memorable riffs in the catalog, alongside some of the most full throated, unselfconscious, unapologetic performances of their career. This was the only time they could be Pearl Jam without fear of repeating or parodying themselves.   Everything was new. Every moment swung for the fences.  Every second bore the weight of a lifetime of things to say and only one chance to say them. One of the highlights of so many of the best songs on Ten (Alive, Black, Jeremy, Oceans, Porch) is that the band was not afraid to linger in an emotional space even if they weren’t sure where it was going.  So many of the songs clear their final chorus and just explore the moment with an unstructured primal intensity, and even though he was out of lyrics, Eddie’s voice weaved in and out of the music, tying those final moments to the stories and the emotional journey that had carried them there. It not only made the music impossibly cathartic, it made it personal, intimate in a way that belied its hugeness.


Ten works because Eddie’s voice bridged those contradictions. It collapsed the distance between intensely private performances and the communal experience of them.   His voice gave the songs clarity even when the lyrics were obscure and the delivery jumbled.  It embodied the way in which an experience is felt as real and powerful even when it cannot be fully navigated, deconstructed, or explained.  Even songs that deal with incredibly specific experiences (Alive, Why Go, Jeremy, Release) could feel universal because of the power of those performances.


The music you encounter as a teenager or young adult is bound to linger in your consciousness. It gets baked into your formative experiences, and provides the emotional vocabulary you use to process a time when everything is new, every moment formative, every experience the most important in the world.   And Ten certainly benefits from that – at least for me, who was 14 when it came out.   But its continued power and relevance in my life isn’t just nostalgia.  I have my nostalgic attachments, and I know what they feel like.  This is something else.


The guiding theme of Ten is about grappling with betrayal – the constant disappointment and crushing hostility of a world and the people in it failing to live up to their obligations.  And yet Ten never quite lingered in those spaces.  It pushed back. Unlike so many of their peers, the music never stopped looking for a way out, and never stopped believing that, together, we would find it.   It gave the album a righteousness that was intoxicating.


Thirty years later, my generation can lay no claim to righteousness.  Our legacy is one of failed promises and squandered opportunities.  We are no longer victims of the wickedness in the world.  We own it, or at least abet it. But I still believe we can be better.   Just a few years after Ten, around the time he was turning thirty, Eddie penned the following lyrics:


All that’s scared comes from youth

Dedications, naïve and true

With no power, nothing to do

I still remember, why don’t you?


The world makes it all too easy to forget.  But every time I put on Ten, I remember.