The success of a truly flawless debut album is something to be heralded. A magnificent first effort propels an act into stardom; it amazes audiences and sometimes shocks them out of their musical stupor. “Where on earth did this come from?” they wonder. Take Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, for instance, an album with an undeniably unique mood, or Jeff Buckley’s timeless Grace.
Whilst the power of a brilliant debut has its benefits, it can also arguably be something of a curse, a difficult act to follow. No artist wants to rest on their laurels; they want to follow up with something at least as good as their prior release, if not better. Interpol did not achieve this with Antics, and while Jeff Buckley was cooking up something interesting with Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk before his untimely and tragic passing, it remains to be seen whether this would have been half as ground-breaking as Grace.
Sometimes, the difficulty of surpassing or meeting the genius of a previous record comes later in an artist’s career. Take Foals’ Total Life Forever, their sophomore studio album, a record flawless from start to end. But how could they ever top it? The answer is that they couldn’t, although undoubtedly, the success of Total Life Forever meant that Foals would stick around for some time to come — as they still are, and with good reason.
Another perfect example comes in Pearl Jam, the Seattle rock outfit and their debut album Ten, which came out in 1992. Again, this is a seemingly flawless record from top to bottom. A combination of perfect production, undeniable straight-up rock hits, the most delicious guitar solos you are likely to hear in the 1990s – let alone in the 20th Century – and Eddie Vedder’s dazzling ability as a vocalist created a truly unique album that continues to deliver today.
In ‘Even Flow’ and ‘Alive’, Pearl Jam released two of the finest singles that rock music had ever seen, serving as something of a homage to one of the greatest rock bands of all time, Led Zeppelin. On Ten, Pearl Jam resuscitated the guitar solo from the obscurity and mockery it had fallen into in the 1980s, with bands such as The Smiths and R.E.M eschewing it all together and ‘virtuoso’ guitarists like John Petrucci and Joe Satriani just taking it way too far. Pearl Jam made the guitar solo cool again.
With Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam had a vocalist with a natural sex appeal, as Zeppelin did with Robert Plant. Like Plant, this young kid Vedder could sing, and really sing, not merely in the dirty, grungy style of his contemporary Kurt Cobain — take the Plant-like yelp at the beginning of ‘Alive’ for just a quick example. Arguably the finest vocal moment of Ten – though there are several – comes in ‘Porch’. After the breakdown and guitar solo, the band builds up to speed until Vedder releases the line: “I know when I would not ever touch you, hold you, feel you in my arms, never again”. It’s a moment that never fails to make my hairs stand on end.
So too gone were the ridiculous sex-driven lyrics of 1980s hair metal bands. Ten was written with an unrivalled poignancy in the fingertips of Vedder, with ‘Even Flow’, for example, written from the perspective of a homeless man. ‘Alive’ concerns a mother’s physical attraction to her son following the death of her husband and was also influenced by Vedder’s childhood discovery that his stepfather was not his biological father. ‘Why Go’ features a woman in a mental institute; ‘Jeremy’ is the fightback of a bullied child, and ‘Deep’ is the story of a drug addict’s battle with substances. All these stories could quite easily be found in the blue-collar working-class literature of John Steinbeck or Raymond Carver.
Ultimately, Ten is an album that just hits you every single time. It’s a record you never get bored of, and you find nuances within it upon every listen. The big question is, how would Pearl Jam ever follow it up? How do you top a perfect album?
The follow-up to Ten came the subsequent year in 1993 with Vs., an undeniably ‘good’ album. All the elements of Ten’s success are there, say Vedder’s exquisite vocals and Mike McCready’s beautifully constructed guitar work. Dave Krusen had taken on drumming duty from Dave Abbruzzese and managed to deliver the same tight-as-hell drumming that had made Ten so downright rocking.
Yet, Vs. does not hit in the same way Ten manages to. Perhaps the beauty of Ten lies in the fact that it was indeed a debut and also that it’s just so damn difficult to pick out a single second of the album that ought to have been changed. By contrast, Vs. contains many moments when you are not dazzled but merely satisfied, for example, the album’s fourth track, ‘Glorified G’, which is a fine rock tune, but just that: ‘fine’. A similar effort followed in 1994’s Vitalogy, yet another ‘fine’ rock record.
Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo once opened up on the difference between their first album Weezer (The Blue Album) and their follow-up effort Pinkerton. He said that during the recording of Weezer (The Blue Album), as it was their first, they were utterly meticulous about every facet of the recording process. By contrast, on Pinkerton, the pressure to succeed was not half as intense, which resulted in an album that, while an undoubted Weezer classic, does not sound half as good as the first, at least not in terms of production. Perhaps Vs. and Vitalogy suffered similar fates.
Ten went on to be certified 13x platinum, one of the highest-selling rock records of all time. Vs. sold well, with over 950,000 copies in the first week of release alone. Vitalogy followed suit, with 877,000 copies sold in the first week. But arguably, those records sold well on the back of Ten’s success and Pearl Jam’s cementation as one of the best rock outfits of the early 1990s.
The closest Pearl Jam got to matching the awe of Ten was on their MTV Unplugged live album, which actually came out a year prior to Ten’s release and primarily consisted of acoustic versions of Ten’s tracklist. It features a young band on the verge of global success, knowing they had something in the bank that would turn them into stars.
A politically charged Eddie Vedder expresses his dismay at the state of ’90s American abortion laws during this exquisite performance, writing the words ‘Pro-Choice’ on his left arm during ‘Porch’. In fact, Pearl Jam occasionally performed under the name Dr Gunn, in reference to Dr David Gunn, a doctor who was killed by an anti-abortion activist.
Ten is, without doubt, Pearl Jam’s best record. You will be hard-pressed to find a Pearl Jam fan who would argue otherwise. It cemented their place as one of the best bands of the 20th Century and led to the success of future releases.
If you were to recommend a Pearl Jam album to a new listener, it would be foolish not to suggest at least beginning with Ten. It is a genuinely perfect work that continues to deliver today with its unique take on the grunge scene that was dominating popular music at the time – a true Ten out of Ten masterpiece.