It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so I figure I might as well get one out before the oncoming holiday fuels further procrastination.
Artist: Pearl Jam
Release Date: August 27, 1991
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 13 Million
Why Was This Popular?
Because America Loves California (Sorry, Seattle)
As someone who was born in Seattle just before grunge really started to take off, it’s kind of hard to imagine that my once and current city was ever the center of the music universe, if just for a few fleeting years. Of course, circumstantial evidence (and every once disaffected Gen-Xer’s fond memories) would prove that grunge did indeed happen, it’s just that it’s always felt like this near-mythic thing that me and the people I grew up with have been living in the shadow of. Because despite technically being there — meaning in the Seattle area — when Nevermind hit (admittedly I was 2), I have no childhood memories of grunge or even Kurt Cobain’s suicide until several years later when VH1 educated me on the rise and fall of the Seattle sound.
Which has always made Pearl Jam a bit of a tough band to wrestle with, since I’ve always been fine with them, but never felt remotely interested in checking out any of their albums. Hell, they might be the most enduringly popular rock band to ever come out of Seattle, so shouldn’t I feel some sort of regional pride towards them? I mean, maybe not. After all, I feel no obligation to go out of my way to listen to Macklemore, though perhaps it is hometown pride that has kept me from hating the guy like everyone else who’s cool seems to. But getting back to Pearl Jam, I feel like I’m not alone as being one of the many Seattle music fans that doesn’t really care about Pearl Jam, while in turn I would equate being from Seattle and not liking Nirvana to the same as being from New Jersey and not liking Bruce Springsteen. Meaning that you either have shitty taste in music, or you’re just a giant contrarian douche.
Now, I’m sure you could easily settle the debate of why Nirvana instead of Pearl Jam remain the eternally respected icons of their era on the fact that Nirvana was just a better band, but I think there are other elements at play here. The glaring one I’d like to point out if we’re sticking with this whole regional theme, is that despite being a “Seattle band”, Pearl Jam was in fact fronted by (gasp) a Californian. And though it’s not like Eddie Vedder was Joe Hollywood or anything (he came from San Diego), I’d say it weirdly does hurt Pearl Jam’s cred, while also perhaps pointing out why Pearl Jam were able to achieve such a remarkable amount of mainstream success. Because as someone who’s spent a considerable amount of time living in both Washington State and California, I can tell you that despite sharing a coast and for the most part the same ideals, these two states are worlds apart when it comes to the idea of fame. In that it’s just not something that people from Seattle think about. Whether you’re playing in a band or working at Microsoft, the idea of becoming famous is a complete non-entity for Washingtonians, while grabbing a piece of the showbiz pie never seems completely out of the question in the Golden State.
Obviously I’m speaking in very broad terms here, but I think there’s still something to the idea that being fronted by a charmingly charismatic surfer dude surely made it easier for Pearl Jam to sell over 10 million records, while all of their non-Nirvana contemporaries failed to come even close to that mark. Because when you look at the scrappy, lumberjack-esque nature of the late ‘80s Seattle scene, there needed to be a certain kind of rock idol that would help launch this kind of music into the mainstream. Fortunately, grunge was given two — the misunderstood punk genius in the form of Cobain, while Vedder gave America’s teens a more traditionally stadium-ready frontman.
Did It Deserve To Be Popular?
I simply can’t credit all of Ten’s success to Eddie Vedder, since from the sounds of it, the album was (musically speaking) the brainchild of guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament. The two had previously played together in proto-grunge bands Green River and Mother Love Bone, and the album sees them honing in further on the anthemic, Hendrix-infused elements of the former band. And despite being borne from the Seattle underground, Ten certainly sounds huge, I’ll give it that. Though in hindsight, it sounds like the members of Pearl Jam have taken issue with the album’s reverb, but I don’t really have a problem with it, since I’m not someone who automatically thinks a song is bad just because it’s sounds big enough to fill a stadium.
Still, I am left wondering just a little a bit how exactly music that sounds this machismo-infused was ever seen as the music of the underdog. As the grunge history books (which will surely be issued in public schools in several years) would show, one of the grunge era’s greatest exports was the iconic Sub Pop “Loser” T-shirt. Grunge was supposedly supposed to be the first time the kids who got picked on in high school finally got something to rally around and feel like they were apart of something. But I don’t know, man. I listen to that pitch perfect guitar solo on “Why Go”, and it now sounds like something the jocks would play in the lockerroom to get pumped up for the big game.
But again, as a guy who’s often game for a big dumb rock album, I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. And to Pearl Jam’s credit, the lyrics on the album often delve into pretty dark territory with subjects like depression and teen suicide. The music also more often than not retains the kind of emotional murkiness that could only be forged near the waters of Puget Sound. But most importantly, there’s a good deal of hooks. Dark and depressing hooks sure, but hooks nonetheless.
Would I Pay Money For This?
Once I recognized that I was familiar with pretty much every song on side A of Ten, I realized my opinion of Pearl Jam was not going to change much from listening to the album in full. I’ve gotten a fair share of unintentional Pearl Jam in my life, and if you’re looking for straight-up rock music that sometimes feels a little generic, I’ll say you could do a lot worse. I realize that’s such faint praise that it borders on apathy, but whatever Pearl Jam. You’re still just fine, but not fine enough for me to actually spend money on you.
Next Time On The People’s Albums: I will show you my heart, make it real, and probably forget about it after listening to Supernatural by Santana.