I approach this song somewhat hesitantly. It’s not the sort of thing to casually pontificate on with my morning coffee, but here I am, it’s time, and it’s time to close out Ten. As it’s my final entry for Pearl Jam’s monumental first album, and “Release” was the final track on said album, it might be worth a few words at first just to talk about what that record meant to me, if such a thing can be done.
I was only 13 years old in 1992, (the dates are fuzzy, but I don’t think I can claim to have known about Pearl Jam when Epic first released Ten; it probably took a few months and videos for me to become aware) and rock and roll meant nothing to me. It had nothing to do with me. I was as obsessed with music as at any point in my life, maybe even more, but the rock music I’d had exposure to was corny and dumb, or so ultra-aggressive and macho that it didn’t make sense to me. Guns ‘n’ Roses, Pantera, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Metallica; these were the bands that my friends and peers were into, all of which bored me to tears, or frightened me. I didn’t pay attention to classic rock at the time, both because I didn’t listen to those radio stations, and because I really wanted to identify with something current, of my own generation. I listened to hip-hop. I can’t say I had any greater personal identification with A Tribe Called Quest than I would have with “Love in an Elevator” but at least it sounded good.
Pearl Jam (and Temple of the Dog by extension) was the first rock band that resonated with me for a number of reasons. First there was Ed’s voice, the voice I wanted to have a singer and as a male in general, one that seemed to signify both strength (of character, not biceps per se) and intelligence, what I equated with masculinity. Then there was the music, a spin on guitar rock I could somehow get behind, more interesting, more melodic, more earnest, less crass, less juvenile, less commercial. Then there were the lyrics, which made me want to become a writer, phrases and verses that went far beyond babes and booze, examining the self and the world in the ways to which I was beginning. I bought the cassette version of Ten at the mall, and to this day I don’t think I’ve played any album more times in succession. I remember lying on my bedroom floor next to my little boom box and just flipping the tape over and over and over. And I never looked back.
I have wonderful parents, and had a great childhood. Although I was plenty angsty, confused, hormonal as a kid, I didn’t really have much to rebel against. But music nonetheless felt like a powerful escape from whatever problems I was having, mainly relating to other kids my age, having desperate crushes, and trying to define myself in relation to my family, friends, peers, in ways that were my own and not how others perceived me. Ed’s struggles when he was that age are fairly well-publicized, particularly with his step-father, that bastard who married his mama. And surely the Who, Neil Young, the Ramones, Fugazi, all played a part in providing him with an escape from a difficult home. But for all of the attention on that aspect of Ed’s youth being the impetus for his creative life to follow, I propose that something else integral to Ed’s story is the real engine behind his art, and the foundation for this argument is “Release”.
“Oh dear Dad / Can you see me now? / I am myself / Like you, somehow.” This couplet, elongated in song, is the mitochondria in every cell of Ed’s work. To know his father only as a family friend, a musician, and to find out their relation only after that man’s death… that reality, if it can be imagined by those who haven’t (mercifully) experienced it, cannot be underestimated as artistic motivation. You’re a kid with a passionate, fierce love for music, and then you find out that your real father was like you, somehow; what a bittersweet revelation. For the first time in your life perhaps, you make sense, you fit, even though the person who completes your picture is now gone. Everything you do is now colored by that knowledge. Whether or not any musician’s song is autobiographical means very little to me in and of itself. A song doesn’t need to be “true” in that sense to be great. But knowing the circumstances surrounding “Release” does add something to the song, even though the poetic phenomenon of addressing someone who can’t otherwise respond is universal and timeless. “Release” is Ten‘s most honest display of artistry, not because the song is personal, but because there is such little artifice through which the meaning is conveyed. Lines like “I see the birds in the rain” and “I’ll wait up in the dark for you to speak to me” isn’t complex syntactically, or layered symbolically, muddying the waters, yet they still express their meaning in beautiful ways. Best of all, they allow the listener to experience emotions that aren’t explicitly stated.
“Release” is deserving of all kinds of adjectives: proud, sad, hopeful, mournful, longing, nostalgic, pensive, lonely, desparate, many of them contradictory but all the more real for it. The song doesn’t have to work hard to get me to feel this things; it simply does. Art is generally most powerful, to use a teaching cliche, when it shows rather than tells. “Release” shows me a piece of someone else’s life unlike my own yet like it, allowing me to empathize or not, relate or not, understand or not. “Release” doesn’t care what conclusions I draw regarding how I feel about it. It’s just there. The music, born serendipitously out of Stone Gossard tuning up and testing out his guitar, is similarly unconcerned. It doesn’t work hard to be beautiful. It sweeps in at the end of Ten, or the beginning of a concert with relaxed determination and gradually gains in intensity. Jeff Ament’s bassline is one of his most memorable, the drums providing a steady yet unobtrusive backbone. Whenever “Release” is played, it’s like the band is sharing the same brain. If any song from Ten survives the whims and forgetfulness of time, “Release” is a safe bet to sound as powerful as it first did in any era. It’s a song that no matter where the band is, or Ed is, will always draw on that inexhaustible inspiration, that reason both for being and for keeping on.