After the mega hit singles of “Alive”, “Evenflow” and “Jeremy”, Epic Records wanted “Black” to be the 4th single, but Pearl Jam thought it to be too personal, so to ease the tension of those first 3 singles, the meditative and peaceful “Oceans” followed instead. Known at the time for stellar hard rock filled with tension, the band chose this quieter song to alleviate the pain built up from the other songs found on their debut Ten.
Pearl Jam swimming in “Oceans”
It was the first time Pearl Jam went against the grain, and definitely not the last, as releasing this quiet song amidst all the loud, aggressive, and pain-filled grunge on the airwaves at the time separated them from their contemporaries. It was released just in time for the holidays, December 7, 1992, a day after Alice In Chains’ “Angry Chair,” and a week after Nirvana’s “In Bloom”.
The left turn in releasing a calming song as the final single from Ten highlighted the range of Pearl Jam’s abilities and displayed a diversity that continued throughout their career by thinking outside the box. Amidst the chaos, there still could be peace just by enjoying nature’s wonders away from all the pain. “Know something’s left, and we’re allowed to dream,” Eddie Vedder sings. For some, early 90’s alternative rock and grunge usually was about negativity, so being ‘allowed to dream’ defied how the genre was defined.
Vedder remarked on the song in an interview with Seattle Sound in 2009…
“Someone asked me to put change in the parking meter for them,”. “I went and did that and then I came back and was locked out. It was drizzling and I wasn’t dressed for an outing in the rain. I had a scrap of paper and a pen in my pocket, and they were playing this song [inside]. All I could hear was the bass coming through the wall, this window that was boarded up. So I wrote the song to the bass. I wasn’t even listening to hear the song at first. When I heard a break, I’d start pounding on the door … trying to get out of the rain. So as I was doing that, I thought, fuck it, I might as well write something.”
As Eddie Vedder states after the performance on MTV’s Unplugged: “A little love song I wrote about my surfboard.”
Pearl Jam going against the norm by leading off their MTV Unplugged set with the quiet “Oceans.”
In the years that followed, Pearl Jam continued the theme of peace here and there, most prevalently on No Code, where the same tribal rhythms were sped up into polyrhythms on “In My Tree”, another song that took comfort from the pain by looking towards nature for relaxation and reflection. To get the unique rhythm for “Oceans”, drummer Dave Krusen used 3 tympanis and mixing engineer Tim Palmer used a pepper shaker and fire extinguisher for the exotic feel.
In an interview with The Line of Best Fit from 2016, Stone Gossard offered why this was his favorite Ten track:
“That probably sums up why I get excited about songwriting. It’s like open detuning where the first chord’s just straight across and it’s just two fingers that come on and off to create the whole thing and then it moves down one position and it moves back up. It has a tiny little change in it but it’s also got three big movements. What I love about music is aesthetic chords; the simpler the better and then another set that does something to those original chords. It’s a really simple arrangement.”
Jeff Ament also has “Oceans” as his favorite track on the debut as mentioned in the same article:
“When we recorded it, I thought we were pushing the envelope and that there was a lot of other places that we could take the music that we made. I also like the intro and outro music, which was a kind of art project that we did on a day where somebody was sick. That’s what I get most excited about, the stuff that’s just a little bit outside our comfort zone.