Black, by Pearl Jam


Musicians can’t hide. Their creative and artistic development is laid bare before our ears and eyes. While they may achieve early success due to their passion and energy, it is often their later recordings make transparent an artistry that is truly a work in progress. The beginning of a creative statement that develops and matures before our eyes and ears.

Listen to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” from Meet The Beatles from 1964, and then “Come Together” from Abbey Road in 1969. Both are excellent songs, but they are a world a part in terms of sophistication and creativity.

Listen to “Everybody Loves You Now” by Billy Joel from his 1971 Cold Spring Harbor, and then “The River of Dreams” off 1993’s River of Dreams album. Early in his career, Joel sounds tinny, not fully developed, maybe even a little unsure of himself. Late in his career, his sound is lush. His music is fully present, complete and beautiful.

Consider the early recordings of the band Pearl Jam. Rising out of the ashes of other bands in various stages of demise in the 1990 Seattle grunge scene, Pearl Jam recorded and released the their first album, called 10, in 1991. I don’t know that I have ever heard such a fully developed artistic statement from a band on their very first album. The song “Black” from 10 is a savage orchestral opus that builds in intensity, passion and beauty with a sophistication and maturity that sounds like a band deep into a long career, not the fifth song from their first album.

“Black” begins with a lone electric guitar playing a simple rhythm, sounding like it is being put through some sort of synthesizer. It sounds far away. A distant cry. We hear the distinctive wail of Eddie Vedder. A piercing high bass note comes in and pokes the atmosphere. The drums gently crash around us. Vedder begins to sing.

“Sheets of empty canvas
Untouched sheets of clay
Were laid spread out before me
As her body once did
All five horizons
Revolved around her soul
As the earth to the sun
Now the air I tasted and breathed
Has taken a turn”

Vedder’s voice is deep and rich, but the words of pain and loss sound like they are being physically wrenched from his chest. A lead guitar weaves a gentle melody while another guitar keeps the song glued together through a consistent rhythm. The gentle guitars then turn heavy. Vedder growls. The drums grow heavy. The song becomes a little louder. A light piano offsets the guitar fuzz as the song becomes wider, bigger.

“Oh and all I taught her was everything
Oh I know she gave me all that she wore
And now my bitter hands
Chafe beneath the clouds
Of what was everything
Oh the pictures have
All been washed in black
Tattooed everything”

And once again the song grows quiet. Small. Percussion carries the song while the guitars gently swerve in and out. The rhythm finds a space between airy ballad and heavy metal anthem. What began as a simple tale of reflection quickly buries deep in sadness and regret. We hear the beginnings of a repeating piano melody.

“I take a walk outside
I’m surrounded by
Some kids at play
I can feel their laughter
So why do I sear
Oh, and twisted thoughts that spin
Round my head
I’m spinning
Oh, I’m spinning
How quick the sun can, drop away”

The words are hard to understand. Painful words can be like that. They can also be poetic. They can be tender. He wakes up, and no one is sharing the bed with him. She is gone. All he sees are “sheets of empty canvas.” She was everything to him. The world revolved around her. His memories of her are black with sadness. Kids laughing remind him of the pain. We can imagine him rocking back and forth in sorrow as we listen to him sing. The sun drops away. Everything he sees, everything he experiences, is tattooed with her face…with her memory.

The band is full volume now. The piano repeats the languishing melody. Vedder is moaning out the lyrics. The guitar joins the piano melody along with a chorus, voicing the melody with the piano and guitar. The band is one. Everything is locked in as the song reaches it’s peak.

“I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life
I know you’ll be a star
In somebody else’s sky
But why
Why can’t it be
Why can’t it be mine.”

The last song on the first side of their first album. A band in its infancy, having barely begun writing, recording or performing. Who were they? What would they become? I suggest “Black” tells us everything we need to know, because as good of a band as Pearl Jam would become, they were never better than this.

Written by Eddie Vedder and Stone Gossard
Performed by Pearl Jam
Released August 27, 1991

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