Ten may be classic rock today, but it's easy to underestimate how radical Pearl Jam sounded back in 1991, even with Nirvana ascendant. After several long years of hair metal dominance, here was a band that could jam stadium-large, texture their sound darkly and densely, and explode the blues-rock template. Here was a frontman with an entirely new stage presence, whose voice strained hard for sincerity and whose songwriting expressed grave self-reckoning without resorting to easy sentiments or self-glorifying choruses. Against the odds-- as well as against the band's wishes, apparently-- their debut became a phenomenon, an alt-rock figurehead as crucial as Nevermind in ushering in and defining the parameters for mainstream rock. Vedder's self-doubts ran as deep as Cobain's, but he expressed them bluntly and directly rather than poetically and obscurely. Oh and also, he's still alive.
Deeply invested in the cathartic possibilities of punk and classic rock, Pearl Jam seemingly made music as a form of self-therapy, an idea that took hold with nearly a decade of alt-rock acts to come. The band is routinely blamed for the self-gratifying Stone Temple Pilots, Creeds, and Nicklebacks that followed Ten, but the band naturally never set out to remake rock music in its own image. Suspicious of the hedonism of the arena rock that preceded them, Pearl Jam were a solemn band, and Ten sounds nothing if not entirely serious about animating Vedder's self-doubts. At times, it's a bit overwrought ("I don't question our existence/ I just question our modern needs"), but the earnestness with which Vedder sang and the band played these songs belies the decade's reputation as a period of pervasive irony. Ultimately, the 1990s wouldn't have been so bad if Pearl Jam's followers hadn't aped their self-seriousness so relentlessly.
Nevertheless, Ten remains impressive and occasionally moving 18 years later, even gentrified with a shiny reissue. The public perception of the album is watered down thanks mainly to the excision of "Alive", "Jeremy", and "Even Flow" as singles. The latter two may be the album's least remarkable tracks: "Jeremy" is the most pat Freudian psychodrama on an album full of them, and "Evenflow" romanticizes homelessness as spiritually transcendent. But "Alive" remains potent not only because Vedder touches on some seriously transgressive shit here (dead fathers, hints at incest, survivor guilt), but mostly because the band rock the hell out of that coda.
Today, Ten lives and dies by its album tracks, and while there are a few clunkers, most are pretty ballsy in their disdain for expectations. Granted, as a new band with few realistic prospects for the kind of success they quickly achieved, Pearl Jam were working with a very different set of expectations than the ones retroactively assigned to them. On songs like "Once", with its insistent breakdowns, and "Black", with strangely dramatic vocalizations, there's a hardscrabble dynamic that the band would be unable to capture on subsequent releases. "Why Go" is ferocious in its outrage, with Vedder delivering his most pained vocals, and Stone Gossard and Mike McCready match him on every song, translating Vedder's howls into messy, edge-of-the-precipice solos and paint-peeling riffs like the one that anchors "Deep".
In addition to the original album as produced by Rick Parashar and mixed by Tim Palmer, the new reissue includes a second disc, titled Ten Redux, that includes a new mix by Brendan O'Brien. A few of these new versions appeared on 2004's best-of Rearviewmirror, and O'Brien, who has worked with Pearl Jam on most of their subsequent albums, brings Vedder's ad libs to the forefront, sharpens some of the guitar riffs, and generally cleans up the murkiness. Sounding like 2005 rather than 1991, Ten Redux misses the point: The album's murkiness was one of its chief attractions, its flawed spontaneity feeding the songs' of-the-moment intensity. Ultimately, these new versions have less to do with Pearl Jam's music than with O'Brien's superfandom.
Ten Redux closes with a paltry six bonus tracks. "2,000 Mile Blues" is atrocious Jimi worship, "Evil Little Goat" is Vedder's best Jim Morrison impersonation, and neither "Breath" (here retitled "Breath and a Scream") nor "State of Love and Trust" sound as vital here as they did on the Singles soundtrack. These tracks are obviously intended not to overlap with 2003's Lost Dogs: Rarities and B-Sides, but flipsides like "Dirty Frank" and "Yellow Ledbetter" were surprisingly popular satellites orbiting Ten, played often on radio stations that didn't typically delve that deep into any artist's catalog and shouted at concerts by fans who weren't that fanatic. Their absence limits the reissue, creating an incomplete portrait of the band in its earliest days.
Ten deserved better than Ten Redux and the paltry bonus tracks. Fortunately, the reissue also includes a DVD of Pearl Jam's 1992 performance on "MTV Unplugged". The fashions are of course dated (nice fuzzy hat, Jeff Ament) and Vedder's stool-bound intensity can be fairly ridiculous, but the DVD is a useful and entertaining document of their intense live sets. Thanks to the tight rhythms of drummer Dave Abbruzzese and bass player Ament, the songs lose little of their momentum in this setting, which handily showcases the guitar interplay between Gossard and McCready. But this is Vedder's show-- a live, public debut for his idiosyncrasies. Taking the stage in a tight jacket and backwards baseball cap, he gradually unleashes himself during the show, first letting his hair down and then eventually losing the jacket. By show's end, he's balancing precariously on his stool and scrawling PRO CHOICE!!! on his arms with a Sharpie. Pearl Jam may have shunned the spotlight, but they were born showmen.
— Stephen M. Deusner, April 3, 2009~lee.