Pearl Jam: Gods or a Cult?

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Pearl Jam
WRITTEN BY
David Marchese

Dig out your flannel, Pearl Jam fans!

Word came this week that the band is readying a deluxe re-release package of their first album, 1991's Ten, which is set to include remixes, demos, vinyl LPs, live material, extended liner notes, and a pair of vintage Eddie Vedder jean shorts.

You've got to hand it to the band. For all their obvious discomfort with the big rock machine, the guys have always gone out of their way to offer fresh product to their insatiable fan base (Vedheads? Pearl Harborers?).Yet somehow, they've never come across like a crass indie-indebted version of KISS. The Seattle quintet has mastered the art of maintaining its career without selling its soul.

Lord knows they could have. In today's flat sales-scape, Pearl Jam's early success seems like it took place in some magical land of milk, honey, and robust record sales. Nearly ten million copies sold of the debut. Six million for the follow-up, 1993's Vs. The following year's Vitalogy, racked up another five. It's hard to think of another rock band from the last twenty years that can match Pearl Jam's straight from the gate sizzle. Even rarer is the act that racks up a mega-selling debut and isn't playing state fairs two decades down the line. Just ask Hootie and the Blowfish.

For a while, it seemed as if Pearl Jam's desire to do things their way would be their downfall. In their weaker moments, bleary-eyed music-biz muckety-mucks might even argue that the band's integrity was its downfall.

A battle with Ticketmaster relegated Pearl Jam to playing the boonies for three years in the mid-90s -- exactly the time when they could have been filling stadiums. 1996's No Code was willfully weird and insular, favoring meditative moments like "Who Are You" and "Off He Goes" over the galvanizing punch of "Alive" or pop accessibility of "Daughter." Excepting the fluky hit cover of "Last Kiss," by the time of 1999's Yield, Pearl Jam's moment had passed. Releasing 72 live albums between 2000 and 2001 ensured it would never return.

Listen: Pearl Jam, "Off He Goes" (Live at Bridge School 1996)

It takes more than talent to become one of the biggest bands in the world. There has to be something special, almost mystical, in the group's style and sound and personality that resonates with the culture at large. Pearl Jam had that. Then they willingly gave it away.

Now, seventeen years after Ten, the last of the great grunge bands is essentially a latter-day Grateful Dead, revered by a large group of diehards and, at best, peripheral to everyone else. It's been a unique trajectory, one made even more so by the debatability of its direction.

Pearl Jam could have been gods; instead it's a cult. One whose genesis can be pre-ordered today from pearljam.com.

A lot has changed since 1991.

Watch: Pearl Jam, "Even Flow," from Ten

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