Pearl Jam

album cover

"Thoughts Arrive like Butterflies"

Reading the lyrics of the middle section of "Alive," one of the eleven great rock songs on Pearl Jam's debut Ten, you might think they're from a dark existential play by Albert Camus:

Is something wrong she said
Well of course there is
You're still alive she said
Oh do I deserve to be?
Is that the question?
And if so, if so,
Who answers? Who answers?

Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam's singer and lyricist, wrote "Alive" when he was pumping gas in San Diego, and had time to reflect. The song was inspired by his own life: When he was a teenager, his mother told him that the man he thought was his father was actually his step-father, and that his biological father had died years before. The interlude is Vedder's attempt to capture the waves of conflicting feelings that hit him that day: He said later that the song's protagonist is "still dealing with the death of [his] father." And, Vedder added, he feels puzzled and burdened by the knowledge that "I'm still alive."

That refrain was widely misheard as an inspirational message—not the first time that would happen to this staggeringly creative five-piece from Seattle, which followed Nirvana to stardom in the wake of the grunge explosion.

"Alive," and virtually everything else, on this rousing debut, goes straight for the jugular—Pearl Jam's rhythm section links the majestic brawn of Led Zeppelin to the righteous fervor of the Who to the visceral, distorted, frayed-nerve guitar attack that made Seattle famous. Vedder, meanwhile, isn't nearly that straightforward: He favors obtuse, encrypted lyrics, and though it's easy enough to parse the general subjects of "Jeremy" (the meanness of kids) or "Once" (guns), his stories don't always unfold in linear fashion or end with a tidy summary. This is one reason Ten—and much of the band's subsequent work—remains so captivating: It's just cryptic enough to get you thinking and not so brainy that it forgets to rock.

Genre: Rock
Released: 1991, Epic
Key Tracks: "Even Flow," "Jeremy," "Alive," "Why Go."
Catalog Choice: Vs.; Yield
Next Stop: Screaming Trees: Dust
After That: Days of the New: Days of the New
Book Pages: 588–589

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