In advance of Pearl Jam’s new album, due next month, I offer a review of their recent remastered and remixed release of their debut album,
Sometimes I wish that we could access all the information in our brains as computers would, so we could track the metadata of our lives. Am I the only one who wants to know what song I’ve heard the most (I’m betting “Happy Birthday” or some Christmas standard), what movie I’ve seen the most (Something starring Chevy), etc.?
If you set aside birthday and holiday music, I imagine that Pearl Jam’s Ten would pop up as the album I’ve listened to the most. Between hearing the singles on the radio for 17 years, seeing the videos for the first three singles for a year or so, listening to the album constantly for 18 months, and then hearing the songs on the dozen or so live CDs and DVDs I own, the first 11 songs that Pearl Jam released almost certainly qualify as the collective work I’ve spun most often.
That said, I would imagine I am like most dedicated Pearl Jam fans: while I consider the album to be their classic work, I don’t consider it to be their best.* And, to be honest, after 17 years I’m kind of sick of most of the songs. Thus, when the band released a remastered version of the album last March, I didn’t rush out to get it. I’m always leery of remastered versions of classic albums. Even if the band is trying to make it “sound the way we meant it to sound,”** the differences are often too subtle to notice or distracting. When you’ve listened to something for nearly 20 years, it’s hard to hear it in a new way.
** I think most hard-core Pearl Jam fans would list either Vs. or Vitalogy as their favorite. I bounce back-and-forth between those two.
*** Isn’t that what every band says?
However, a couple friends who are also big fans picked up the new version and suggested that I would probably like it more than I expected, especially if I focused on the second disk, dubbed Ten Redux. Unlike the first disk, which is a straight remaster of the 1991 album, Ten Redux is a remix of the original songs. It’s not just cleaned up, but deconstructed and then reconstructed.
I noticed that the two-disk Legacy version of the updated Ten was available at Target for $10, so I picked it up a couple weeks ago. I’ve been listening to Ten Redux a lot since then. My friends did not lie: it’s pretty good.
The changes are indeed subtle, but certainly noticeable. The elements of each song that blended together in the past are now isolated, giving the album a live-in-the-studio feel. There is an energy, a shimmer that wasn’t on the original disk, but the fundamental sound remains the same. Take a song like “Porch,” for example. It was a rocker to begin with. With the remix, though, it’s cranked up to 11.
This new sense of separation affects the vocals, as well. There is an edge to Eddie Vedder’s voice that was missing on the ‘91 disk. For a collection of songs that is already full of anger and emotion, that edge adds a new sense of drama. This is most noticeable in “Alive,” where you can almost see Vedder spitting the lyrics out between gritted teeth.
The process doesn’t always work, however. “Jeremy”* is the one song where the changes are almost too distracting. In the final third of the song, the vocal that was most prominent on the original mix has been reduced, the backing vocal brought forward, and the result takes away from what had been a brilliant moment of musical chaos.
** Can we talk about “Jeremy” for a minute? It is famously the song that caused Pearl Jam to stop making videos. Legend has it that another musician told Vedder that the video ruined the song for him. “It’s too artsy,” Eddie was told. Added to the band’s desire to pull back from the media onslaught, they cited the video’s massive success as a reason to cease making further videos. They wanted people to remember their songs, not the images associated with them.
Fair enough. But that’s a shame. “Jeremy” is a stunning video. One of the greatest ever. Artsy? Sure. But freaking great art. It remains one of the iconic moments in 90s music.
I do understand the band’s view, though, about wanting to be remembered for their music. If you take away the video, the meaning of “Jeremy” can be ambiguous. How exactly did Jeremy speak in class? Is that a metaphor? Or is he a kid who never said anything and literally opened his mouth and let words come out for the first time? While some forced editing by MTV kept some ambiguity in the video (They wouldn’t show Jeremy with the gun in his mouth. Without that image, the next scene, in which his classmates are frozen, covered in blood, it isn’t obvious whether he shot them or himself.) the meaning has been narrowed down significantly. I suppose that’s one good thing about MTV turning into reality show hell and rarely showing videos anymore: we can assign our own meanings to songs rather than having one forced upon us.*
Another downer is the bonus material. Pearl Jam has always been a big B-side band. Their Lost Dogs collection, released in 2003, brought together most of their best B-sides and unreleased tracks. Between the single B-sides and Lost Dogs, most obsessive fans own just about everything that was recorded in 1991-92. In an effort to offer something new, there are some early mixes of “Breath” and “State Of Love And Trust,” which both appeared on the Singles soundtrack. Neither version compares to what ended up in the movie. Other bonus tracks are those that never made it past the embryonic phase. But only a minor quibble since most people who care already own most of the non-album material.
Casual listeners may not notice much of a difference between Ten and Ten Redux. But those of us who have memorized every growl and guitar flourish and drum fill will find lots of new sounds to commit to memory. Most of those sounds are good. And for $10, it’s worth it if you are or were once a fan. It’s helped me to remember that fabulous summer of 1992, when the music world was changing, and fall back in love with one of my favorite albums ever.