Guitarist Stone Gossard wrote the music for the song, which he titled "Dollar Short", in 1990 when he was still a member of Mother Love Bone. According to Gossard in an interview for Pearl Jam's VH1 Storytellers special, Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood had even sung on it. After Wood died of a heroin overdose, Gossard and his bandmate Jeff Ament started playing with guitarist Mike McCready with the hope of starting a new band. "Dollar Short" was one of five tracks compiled onto a tape called Stone Gossard Demos '91 that Gossard, Ament, and McCready circulated in the hopes of finding a singer and drummer for the group.
The band, then called Mookie Blaylock, recorded "Alive" during a demo session at London Bridge studio in January 1991. The version recorded during this session would later appear on the group's debut album, Ten, and on the promotional "Alive" EP. During album mixing sessions in England in June 1991, mixer Tim Palmer had McCready add to the song's outro solo. McCready recorded a number of attempts at the solo, and Palmer edited them into a composite version. The guitarist was unsatisfied with the result, so he made another attempt at the solo. "He had another go at it", Palmer recalled, "and got it right away. There was no piecing together to do; it was one take."
Another song that was on the instrumental demo came under the title "E Ballad". Vedder wrote the lyrics for this piece while he was on his way to Seattle to meet the band. "Black" became one of Pearl Jam's best known songs and is a central emotional piece on the album Ten. Despite pressure from Epic Records, the band refused to make it into a single, feeling that it was too personal and the feeling of it would be lost by a video or a single release. Vedder stated that "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 part of it." Vedder personally called radio station managers to make sure Epic had not released the song as a single against his wishes. In spite of this, the song charted at number three on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and number 20 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart in 1993. The popularity of "Black" gained it everlasting rotation, putting it amongst Pearl Jam's most enduring songs.
The stark lyrics by Vedder for "Even Flow" describe the experience of being a homeless man. The subject sleeps "on a pillow made of concrete" and panhandles passersby for spare change. In addition to being illiterate, he may also be mentally ill, as he "looks insane" when he smiles and struggles to keep coherent thoughts ("Even flow, thoughts arrive like butterflies/Oh, he don't know, so he chases them away").
At Pearl Jam's March 28, 1994 concert at the Bayfront Amphitheater in Miami, Florida, Vedder introduced the song by saying, "I thought I'd throw in a bit of street education while you still have an open mind....Right across the street there's a little homeless community that lives under the bridge. You should just know that those people ain't all crazy and sometimes it's not their fault. This song is called 'Even Flow'."