A number of years ago I was finally promoted into the “grown ups” Christmas gift swap. No longer would I be relegated to purchasing Lego sets for my ten and 11-year-old cousins, I was now a member of an exclusive club of old people.
I’m not entirely sure what the first gift I gave in the swap was, probably clothes or something. But I vividly remember the first gift I received — a vinyl copy of Pearl Jam’s debut album “Ten.”
My aunt and uncle, the gift givers, pleaded for the three of us to head to the basement record player as soon as dinner was finished.
As soon as the yuletide meal was wrapped up we ran to the basement — much in the same way I did when I was given a new set of Hot Wheel race cars in the Christmases of my childhood.
I carefully dropped the pristine vinyl onto the record player and as the needle dropped we all sat in meditative silence.
The first song on the album began with some weird hypnotic percussion while Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s frontman, hummed and made weird noises. For a moment I thought to myself “what the f–k is this?” The hypnotic elements went away as shredding guitars and crashing drums broke through.
My question remained as Vedder began his signature lyrical delivery, a kind of muttering that’s also somehow screaming. The vocals are loud, the words are incomprehensible.
The chorus came in, “Once upon a time I could control myself / Once upon a time I could lose myself.”
A mysterious gift began with a mysterious song that began mysteriously and continued being mysterious. Regardless of my continued confusion, I was immediately hooked.
Much like those tuning into hip AM radio alt-rock stations of the time who were introduced to Pearl Jam with some of the bands strongest songs all coming in their debut album, “Alive,” “Jeremy,” “Even Flow” and “Black” — a song which I will sing, in its entirety, with the same passion and intensity regardless of the setting.
I quickly added the album to my Spotify library, because vinyl records are a relatively inconvenient audio format and ran through “Ten” several times a day in the year following.
I became entranced by Vedder’s vocals, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready’s guitars, Jeff Ament’s bass and Dave Krause’s drums. Krause would leave the band almost immediately after recording and check himself into rehab for alcoholism, but man could that guy play some drums.
Soon other songs from the band’s vast catalog would become ritualistic listens.
“Better Man,” a song that stuffs all the core emotional aspects of Pearl Jam’s music — angry, depressing and romantic — into one amazing song. The song’s opening lines — “Waitin’, watchin’ the clock, it’s four o’clock, it’s got to stop” — sound perfect when performed in Vedder’s voice or when you’re a few Corona Extra Lights deep and you decide to just yell it instead.
“Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” a song whose title is exemplary of the poetic storytelling within it. A storytelling style which rivals the best of country music, a genre known for its storytelling.
“Corduroy” was a song I was first introduced to by Bill Simmons, who delays his sports analysis each episode by saying “but first our friends from Pearl Jam” and then playing a live version of the song.
“Yellow Ledbetter” continues the trend of incomprehensible Vedder vocals, but who cares really. Who needs to understand what he’s saying when you can just match the murmuring with whatever nonsense.
For me, that Christmas gift has been the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.
The catalog of Vedder and Co. offer up some sick tunes to groove out to, to bang your head to, or to wallow in your feels to.
I anxiously await the day I can go see them live and mumble incomprehensibly along with Vedder and thousands of other incomprehensible mumblers.