August marked the 20-year anniversary of Pearl Jam's Ten. Yes, for 20 soul-crushing years we've listened to Eddie Vedder mumble. Which is somehow even worse than Jeff Ament's endless procession of silly hats. Somehow Pearl Jam enjoy more acclaim than ever these days; it seems that mediocre rock bands, like ugly buildings, become respectable if they stick around long enough.
How did they get to be so boring? Let's explore their pedigree. Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard (is there a douchier name?) played in a group called Green River alongside Mark Arm and Steve Turner. The latter two went on to form Mudhoney. Ament and Gossard jammed with some dudes from Malfunkshun, a band even more terrible than its name, and later formed Mother Love Bone, who are most noteworthy for straddling the fence between grotesque '80s glam rock and pretentious '90s grunge rock. Eventually, the pair found self-important San Diegan Eddie Vedder, a name which has terrified children ever since.
Critics lumped Ten in with grunge, despite the fact that it has nothing in common with grunge standard bearers Mudhoney, the Melvins, Tad or Gruntruck. Grunge never had much homogeneity, but Pearl Jam can't be explained away as an outlier. Ten sounds more like if your dad's classic rock cover band decided to give the “kids' music” the old state college try.
If Ten sounds like rehashed AOR bands, their public image represented the worst of major label committee think. Vedder played the brooding, tortured frontman, constantly brushing hair from his face, affecting shyness that would make the most twee indie pop bands blush. The others stood around like grinning simpletons in Body Glove shorts and bajas. Collectively they mouthed all the shibboleths about gun control and “white male dominance, maaaaaaan …” Seriously, who did they think they were fooling?
A lot of people, apparently. Ten sold almost that many million copies. The singles are merely pedestrian, but the album cuts are downright embarrassing. It's amazing the band did anything other than play a grunge band in a made-for-TV movie. Performing “Black” at a coffee shop open mic should be grounds for a restraining order. “Why Go” becomes irritatingly repetitive upon a single listen.
Vs. followed two years later. Another unremarkable collection of tracks, it sounds composed by a GrungeTron 3000. “Daughter” takes a stand against the all-too-controversial topic of incest. “Animal” deals with the pressures of fame — or gang rape, depending on who you ask.
In 1994, Pearl Jam attempted to branch out with Vitalogy. Released on vinyl before CD (so edgy!), lead track “Spin The Black Circle” is a paean to records. If Edison could have heard this song he would probably have never invented the gramophone, just to save us from the horror.
What are Pearl Jam up to these days? Still sucking hard, still badly ripping off better bands, still trying to be relevant, still preaching and posturing, still letting a muppet bleat over boring riffs. In an ever-changing world, it's good to know that there are still some constants.