‘thoughts arrive like butterflies …someday yet, he’ll begin his life again’.
When I first saw the album artwork for Pearl Jam’s Ten, I saw the top of a desperate scramble for survival, hands grasping each other desperately in a frenzy to ensure their own preservation, blind to all else. Folding the sleeve notes out, they formed a small poster. The grasping hands turned into the five members of Pearl Jam standing in a circle, each with one foot meeting in the centre and a hand held aloft, hands united in front of a giant backdrop reading PEARL JAM.
This is the first time I noticed and was drawn to that the constant contrast between hopelessness, burn–out, rebirth, uplift and euphoria that runs through Ten. It places me in mind of empty skate parks, and this is where I’m listening to it, on top of the local bowl, with the winter night turning my notebook pages and the low–flying planes always somewhere in sight. This is a dark, and at times, cold album, with self–exposing, solemn lyrics about depression, homelessness, abuse, loneliness, suicide, murder and long–held hurt. Brooding individuals pace through it, narrating the songs from their nadirs, recounting broken families, haunted pasts and presents, but also epiphanies, speaking of hope and catharsis. Major riffs butt up against despondent lyrics, and songs like the minor key Once lead into the rocking Even Flow, and the major key Alive leads into the shout–along, punk Why Go.
As this suggests, one of the striking features of Ten is how it turns destructive emotions into positivity, even beyond the concept that any act of creation is an act of hope. Even Flow manages to find hope in homelessness (‘feelin’ maybe he’ll see a little better, set of days/Someday yet, he’ll begin his life again’) and Garden, which alludes to both materialism and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, finishes on a note of defiance (‘I don’t show/I don’t share/I don’t need, what you have to give’). The lyrics to Alive, in which the narrator finds out that his father was not actually his father, and that this man had already died, were written by Vedder in a semi–biographical vein, considering it to be a curse to be alive after learning this information. But when huge crowds began to sing it back to him, the euphoria of these performances, with people celebrating the relatively simple act of just being alive, became the song’s newer, redemptive and uplifting meaning. Another example of this dichotomy is Jeremy, the lyrics of which Eddie Vedder wrote after reading a newspaper story about a school shooting, and from it created part of a glorious, top–of–the–mountain anthem. Final track Release wipes the slate clean with the wonderfully understated lines ‘I’ll ride the wave/to where it takes me’. It’s obviously about Vedder coming to terms with never knowing his father for who he was, but on a wider scale it is about love.
Ten is a cathartic album, and after listening to it I feel born again, like I’m coming back up a new person. Skating around by myself in the dark, the line ‘I will wait up in the dark/For you to speak to me’ resonated deeply, and the line from Even Flow, ‘thoughts arrive like butterflies’, resounded; this album is just that, a time for contemplation. It is not a transcendent listen, like some of the others albums I’ve written about, with its societal concerns and gritty details. But it does hold hope for the future.
I am cold but invigorated.