Pearl Jam performing live on stage
Articles,  Song Meanings

The Meaning behind “Black” by Pearl Jam

“Black” by Pearl Jam is a song about first relationships and the struggle of letting go. The song sees the narrator, Eddie Vedder, come to terms with the memories of lost love, showing that they learned from one another. However, it also highlights the difficulty of dealing with the loss of such an important bond in their life.

Let’s take a deeper look at the full story this song tells!

The Facts Behind the Song

“Black” is the 5th track from Pearl Jam’s debut album, “Ten.” It is impressive that the song managed to chart despite never being released as a single. The reason the song was never released as a single was that Eddie Vedder didn’t want to lose the personality of the song due to overcommercialization.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Vedder said, “Fragile songs get crushed by the business. I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t think the band wants to be a part of it.” Despite this, the song would achieve mainstream play and hit number 3 on the Billboard mainstream rock charts.

To this day, the song is seen as one of the band’s best songs.

What Eddie Vedder has said about "Black"

Eddie Vedder singing in the 90s.
Eddie Vedder singing in the 90s. (Credit: Flickr)

Vedder has even admitted that the song “Black” takes a lot of emotional strength to sing. “Like ‘Alive’ and ‘Jeremy’ to this day — and ‘Black.’ Those songs, they tear me up.” It’s clear that Vedder throws himself into his lyrics and puts every fiber of his thoughts on show.

This quote is taken just after Vedder said he hadn’t performed the song in months. This was because the song requires 100% of his energy, and he hadn’t been feeling up to exerting himself.

“It’s about first relationships. The song is about letting go. It’s very rare for a relationship to withstand the Earth’s gravitational pull and where it’s going to take people and how they’re going to grow.” – Pearl Jam Twenty

It’s clear Vedder intended the song to be about the pain of letting go. It is safe to say the song creates the feeling of the world crashing down around you, this is simply due to the way Vedder emits the anguish in his vocals.

Looking into the lyrics of "Black"

“Black” masterfully blends melancholy, heartache, and the complex feelings that accompany the end of a significant relationship, resulting in a haunting but heartbreaking tone. The song establishes this emotional depth right from the start. The line “Sheets of empty canvas, untouched sheets of clay” sets the stage for a relationship that held boundless potential but was never fully realised.

As the song progresses, it delves deeper into the unravelling of Vedder’s relationship. “Now the air I tasted and breathed has taken a turn” vividly portrays how everything he once held dear has started to feel askew and unsettling.

This sense of deterioration is further emphasised. Lines like “All the love gone bad turned my world to black,” conveying that Vedder’s life has been overshadowed by the ruins of a once-promising love.

The true emotional climax of the song arrives when Vedder passionately exclaims, “I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky, but why? Why? Why can’t it be?”. These lines not only reveal the depth of his pain but also the conflicted thoughts of moving on. Vedder’s vocal delivery underscores the rawness of these emotions, making “Black” a powerful and unforgettable exploration of love, loss, and the struggle to let go.

See the full lyrics here.

the power of The Unplugged performance

It’s hard to call this performance a performance – it is a monumental moment in grunge history. This performance is Eddie Vedder and his bandmates at their absolute best. You can feel every ember of emotion, from the haunting backing vocals, heavy cymbal action, and mostly Vedder’s aching and meandering vocals that sound ready to burst at any moment. 

Eddie’s powerful vocals, and the gentle acoustic guitar, created a deep and bold contrast, especially to the band’s usual electric sound. This difference heightened the emotional impact of the song, making it even more poignant and unforgettable. When you think of MTV Unplugged, you are bound to think of Nirvana. However, this performance belongs in the same echelon. (That’s coming from a Nirvana MTV Unplugged die-hard.) 

As the song has no music video, this is the closest we can see to Vedder’s full emotion. I think we can all agree it is chilling. 

The Meaning Emitted by the songs composition

Every member of Pearl Jam contributes to the success of “Black.” All members are working in unison to create an overall feeling of heartbreak. The song is written in the key of A major, occasionally delving into its relative minor at points throughout the verses. The chorus of the track modulates to E minor, underscoring the emotional release that Eddie Vedder conveys.

The song’s introduction is marked by open compressed chords in the background, building anticipation until a bass slide unleashes the full texture of the song. Jeff Ament’s bass guitar provides a robust foundation to the song’s rhythm and groove. His playing goes a way in anchoring the band’s sound and enriching the overall musical depth.

Notably, the song features a Hammond organ throughout its entirety. This organ adds a subtle yet crucial element to the song’s overall sound, significantly enhancing its emotional depth and texture. While the organ doesn’t take a prominent lead role, it fills the melodic spaces within the band’s arrangement. This contributes to the song’s overall sonic richness.

The drums are structured to provide a consistent rhythmic backbone, with a focus on the cymbals. The prominence of cymbals adds an airy quality to the track while maintaining a sense of direction in the music, guiding the listener through the emotional journey of “Black.” Each instrument, from the guitars to the bass, organ, and drums, works harmoniously to create a musical landscape that captures the raw emotion and complexity of the song’s theme of love and loss.

The guitar playing

Mike McCready of Pearl Jam
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam (Credit: GabboT)

Both Mike McCready and Stone Gossard deliver their iconic electric guitar playing to the song. 

Mike McCready’s electric guitar work plays an important role in reaching the song’s emotional peaks. Interweaving expressive and emotive lead guitar lines between Vedder’s lyrics adds dynamic differentiation within the instruments, and infuses the song with more differentiation. 

For large moments of the song’s outro, McCready’s guitar is fully distorted, soaring alongside the backing vocals. During this section, he begins with variations of the vocal line, before fully detaching and emitting with full emotion. 

The Rhythm guitar of Stone Gossard opens the track with some intricate chord playing and strumming patterns. This performance completely accents the overall feel of the song. The chorus then is marked with heavily distorted chords that strike on the opening of each line. 

While this song might not have a hard-hitting riff like some of the other Pearl Jam songs, “Black” is still a testament to both guitarists playing. 

This is why the song has stuck

“Black” is widely regarded as one of Pearl Jam’s most emotionally charged tracks. This has meant that the song has become a timeless classic, celebrated for its musical craftsmanship and the fact it shows the band’s ability to convey emotion. 

The song’s enduring popularity and continued presence in the band’s live performances highlight its significance in Pearl Jam’s discography. Ten is one of the most influential albums of the grunge genre, and it is safe to say, that without “Black” the band may not be held in the same esteem as the greats of the genre as they are today. 

Head here to read more about the grunge genre…. What Genre Were Nirvana? A Definite Answer

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