With most of the press focusing on that other grunge album’s 20th birthday (Nirvana’s Nevermind), it seems that this anniversary has been met with far less fanfare and adoration. Sure, Pearl Jam is throwing itself a festival in honor of its birthday and has a soon-to-be-released documentary boasting renowned director Cameron Crowe. But for the most part, the media coverage has leaned far more heavily on Nevermind, professing its cultural significance and profound impact on the music scene. Nirvana is undeniably deserving of such praise and will be seen, for right or wrong, as the progenitors of grunge who encapsulated the feelings of the disenfranchised youth of their generation. Yet to place Pearl Jam and Ten as a footnote to that conversation is to divest the band of its rightful place in the history of rock music.
Released on August 27, 1991, Ten was similar to Nevermind in that it did not gain immediate success upon its initial introduction. However, it eventually peaked at number two on the Billboard chart and by February of 1993, it had actually sold more copies than Nirvana’s iconic second release. Twelve million albums later, Ten remains Pearl Jam’s most commercially successful record, and the band has gone on to sell around 60 million albums worldwide throughout their career. Admittedly, commercial success is not always an accurate barometer of lasting cultural impact. Besides the successful sales, what else can be taken from Pearl Jam’s debut twenty years later that warrants it considerable acclaim alongside Nirvana?
The main case for Ten’s lasting cultural significance is Pearl Jam’s ever-enigmatic frontman, Eddie Vedder. The frantic guitar riffs of Mike McCready on opening track “Once” signal the world’s proper introduction to Vedder, and the vocalist bursts through the sonic landscape with an acerbic, tormented yell that jars the listener to full attention. A voice seemingly molded for hard rock, but a voice not devoid of variation or range. At once sepulchral, ethereal, beautiful and angry, Vedder is able to induce an authentic catharsis from the audience, an authenticity that few artists are able to achieve. Through his raw, emotive vocals, he is able to channel the emotion of an unstable manic-depressive, a heartbroken lover or a human being yearning to hear a deity from the darkness. In each moment, the listener believes and feels the emotion of each protagonist. Whether he is tackling issues such as mental illness, abuse, jilted love or a relationship with God, Vedder does so without cliché or posturing. Like Cobain, he not only embodied his generation’s attitude but also continues to impact those even younger than his band’s 1991 album.
It seems, ultimately, the link that connects both Nevermind and Ten is pure, raw emotion. Nevermind will always be seen as the more provocative statement, the penultimate record of one of the most troubled artists in American history. Nevertheless, allowing an album of considerable impact and accomplishment to fall by the wayside would be a true mistake. Both need to be adequately celebrated and remembered on their anniversary for what they were, what they meant to music and what they meant to their generation. To put it simply, honest and authentic emotion, in the hands of irrefutably talented musicians, is utterly timeless.