Editors note: Veteran journalist Charles Cross edited the Seattle music weekly The Rocket from 1986 to 2000 and covered the rise of the city’s iconic ‘90s scene, which included Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.
I think of Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut album, “Ten,” as the equivalent of the 19th-century writer Mary Shelley’s most famous novel, “Frankenstein.” Shelley wrote a number of books, but it’s hard to imagine that any of her other novels will ever outsell or outshine “Frankenstein,” which is pretty much what can be said for Pearl Jam’s musical output after “Ten.”
Pearl Jam may release more music yet, but it is nearly certain that “Ten,” with sales of more than 13 million copies, will remain its biggest monster. My feelings on “Ten” have shifted, in part because I’ve seen Pearl Jam live so many times. Now I think about the songs in their concert versions, not the studio tracks. “Alive” lives in my memory complete with a crowd swaying.
A band that sounds huge on stage sounds small when I put ‘Ten’ on my stereo.
Pearl Jam has always been better live than in the studio, and “Ten” is “Exhibit A.” The album is full of songs that became rock anthems, but not a one is better on “Ten” than in concert. Most of that is because the production of the reverb- and overdub-heavy record feels dated. Some of the tracks on “Ten” were cut 70 times in the studio, robbing the performances of spontaneity. The result: A band that sounds huge on stage sounds small when I put “Ten” on my stereo.
I wrote the Pearl Jam entry in the 2004 “Rolling Stone Album Guide,” and Pearl Jam fans clobbered me on the Internet for giving “Ten” only four out of five stars. I ranked it lower than three of the band’s bootlegs. I also called the production “derivative.”
Pearl Jam seems to agree. Stone Gossard told Total Guitar in 2002 that “Ten” was “over-rocked” and blamed the excessive overdubbing for “killing the vibe.” The guitarist wrote it off to the band being studio novices at the time.
Eddie Vedder told Rolling Stone in 2006 that he could listen to all of the band’s past catalog except “Ten,” due to reservations he had about the sound. Pearl Jam never used the same producer or mixing engineer again.
I still rank “Ten” below the studio albums “Vs.” (1993) and “Vitalogy” (1994) (and below live bootlegs), but those many live shows have given me a new relationship with “Alive,” “Black” and even “Jeremy.” Gossard’s songwriting chops, Mike McCready’s guitar riffs, Jeff Ament’s bass and even Vedder’s lyrics pack a different, harder punch.
Most surprisingly of all, I find myself singing along in the shower the day after Pearl Jam concerts to “Even Flow.” It was the most overplayed Pearl Jam song of the ‘90s, and perhaps suffers the most from the “Ten” production woes. Yet McCready once singled out “Even Flow” as a personal favorite because of the crowd energy it generates live. Little wonder it’s the most-played Pearl Jam song, performed at 844 of its 1,034 shows to date.
Some of my initial struggles with “Ten” were due to timing. The album officially came out on August 27, 1991, which also just so happened to be the day that Nirvana’s powerhouse single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released to radio. That convergence contrasted the two bands, and in a way tarnished how I felt about “Ten.” “Nevermind” felt like a breakthrough with its mix of moody acoustic ballads and ultra-melodic blasts of punk. In contrast, “Ten” didn’t create a new idiom so much as follow the template of a ‘70s classic rock album.
A lot has been made of the Nirvana versus Pearl Jam “rivalry.” In Seattle during the early ‘90s, I was editor of Seattle music magazine The Rocket, and we gave both bands their first press notices. Nirvana made the cover before Pearl Jam (and more often), but there was never any animosity between the musicians that I witnessed, despite Cobain throwing Pearl Jam some shade in a couple of interviews.
In late 1991, Pearl Jam was still on the rise, and on one tour opened up for Nirvana (who were opening up for the Red Hot Chili Peppers). It took “Ten” almost a year to reach the upper reaches of the charts, but once it arrived in late 1992, the album dominated classic rock radio and a monster was unleashed. The first two singles from the album were only available in the U.S. as imports, but that didn’t stop radio from hammering away on the album.
It went off the rails in 1993, when Pearl Jam outsold Nirvana, and “Vs.,” the band’s follow-up to “Ten,” smashed records by selling nearly a million copies in the first five days. By then most Seattle music fans had self-selected as either Pearl Jam fanatics or Nirvana fans. I sliced things more thinly, and posited the opinion in lengthy reviews that you really had to see Pearl Jam live to get the band. By 1993, Pearl Jam was far more popular in the American heartland and Europe than it was in Seattle.
Even Cobain softened on Pearl Jam in the last year of his life, and at the 1993 MTV Music Awards he and Vedder slow-danced together for a moment.
“Vs.” and “Vitalogy” were greater artistic achievements as each came closer to the band’s live energy, and Pearl Jam became a different band in concert in 1998 when Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron joined as drummer. Though the songs remained the same, Pearl Jam had a second life. Gossard once told me that Cameron had basically saved Pearl Jam by reigniting Vedder’s passion for the band and bringing a harder edge to the rhythm section.
Even Cobain softened on Pearl Jam in the last year of his life, and at the 1993 MTV Music Awards he and Vedder slow-danced together for a moment. That image, and the fact that Vedder appeared on “Saturday Night Live” after Cobain’s death with a “K” written above his heart, broke the myth that you couldn’t love both bands.
A 2009 rerelease of “Ten” with producer Brendan O’Brien’s remix greatly improved the record’s sound. Still, when I hear the original versions on the radio, it’s strangely comforting, even if I once joked that the album would’ve been more accurately called “Seven and a Half.”
If I’m still conflicted about “Ten,” that might be appropriate given a scene that appears in Cameron Crowe’s 1992 movie “Singles.” In the film, Vedder, Ament, Gossard and actor Matt Dillon — playing a Vedder-like lead singer named Cliff Poncier — hold up a copy of The Rocket. They pretend in Crowe’s script that they’ve received a mixed review.
Vedder, who can barely keep a straight face in his first acting role, tosses the magazine aside. Dillon then utters a line that sums up much about Pearl Jam’s history, that Seattle era and a “Frankenstein” monster of an album that can’t be stopped, wherever a Seattle critic ranks it.
“We will not retreat,” Dillon/Poncier says. “This band is unstoppable.”