Pearl Jam’s ‘Yield’ — The Album Where They Grew Up
From the moment Pearl Jam broke through to the mainstream in 1992, it seemed that they -- and especially frontman Eddie Vedder -- wanted nothing to do with being at the center of the cultural zeitgeist. Sure, they worked hard to get there, but this was in the midst of the alternative rock boom, and getting too popular went against what the scene was supposed to stand for. Having debuted on a major label (not an indie) with the slick-sounding Ten, they pretty much had to defend their cred from the get-go. And Vedder seemed especially hurt when the band was famously slammed by Kurt Cobain in Rolling Stone.
On top of that, the frontman went from being unknown to being on the cover of Time magazine; that would be a difficult transition for anybody. To the chagrin of their fans (and even some of the members of the band), they rarely did interviews, didn't shoot videos and, due to their infamous battle with Ticketmaster, rarely played shows. They were at the eye of the pop culture hurricane, and they weren't interested.
And then, the hurricane moved on. By 1998, younger fans looking for aggressive, guitar-based music were likely turning to the so-called "Nu-Metal" bands, like Korn and Limp Bizkit. Louder guitar rock was seen as off-putting by the trendier, hipster crowd who preferred the likes of Pavement, Modest Mouse and Belle and Sebastian. And alternative rock radio veered towards much safer bands; the Goo Goo Dolls, Fastball, Marcy Playground and Semisonic dominated playlists that year. And the bands from Pearl Jam's scene had faded: Soundgarden broke up, Screaming Trees were on the verge of splitting, Alice In Chains and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were in limbo and Jane's Addiction had already finished their first reunion and went their separate ways. And, of course, Kurt Cobain was dead. The days of Pearl Jam's pop cultural dominance were fading into their rear view mirror.
So they wanted the industry to leave them alone, and by '98, they got their wish. Now what?
For all of Vedder's obsession with punk rock and its impossible-to-live-up-to ethos, Pearl Jam didn't burn out, fade away, implode or call it day, as the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, Minor Threat and so many others did. Instead, they may have taken inspiration from some of their classic rock idols with decades-spanning careers. In 1997, Pearl Jam opened a few shows for the Rolling Stones, and while it's clear that they never would have been comfortable trucking Stones-level productions around the world (the Grateful Dead seemed to provide their touring and business model), perhaps Vedder and co. were impressed by Keith Richards' undeniable cool. By '97, the Stones guitarist was in his 50s. And if the Stones' recent output didn't quite live up to, say, "Gimme Shelter" or "Street Fighting Man" or Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street, Richards still added a lot of songs to his catalog in his later years: "Thief in the Night," "You Don't Have To Mean It," "The Worst," "Thru and Thru," "Slipping Away," "Wicked as it Seems" and "Take It So Hard," among others. He wasn't just cool; he was artificially viable. Richards may have worried about his band's artistic direction at times. But he didn't appear to worry about credibility; he didn't have to. His credibility was pretty unimpeachable, and his place -- and the Rolling Stones' -- in rock history was undeniable.
The same was true of Neil Young, who served as a "true north" beacon to Pearl Jam for much of their career. By the late '90s, he was three decades into his career, and his recent albums -- 1996's Broken Arrow, 1994's Sleeps with Angels, 1992's Harvest Moon, 1990's Ragged Glory -- actually added to his legend. It's likely that he was interested in playing to younger audiences; it's also likely that he didn't care at all if Maximumrocknroll or other indie-rock standard-bearers approved of his artistic choices.
After a few years of chasing a certain type of approval that was unlikely to come to them, Pearl Jam seemed to understand that they were in a rather fortunate and rarified position. They were a rock band from a scene that no longer really existed, they still had a legion of fans, and -- if they played their cards right -- they still had years ahead of them. Yield was the first step down a path that very few bands are able to travel on: a path that saw them becoming adults together, and adding songs to their discography that mattered to their audience.
Pearl Jam's three prior albums -- 1993's Vs., 1994's Vitalogy and 1996's No Code -- all debuted at number 1 on the Billboard charts. Yield, meanwhile, debuted at number 2 (held out of the top spot by the Titanic soundtrack, which seemed like a metaphor for audiences choosing an album shooting for maximum appeal over a band of reluctant rock stars). And where the three previous albums sported covers designed to look at home in the window of mom-and-pop record shops next to the latest indie label releases, Yield had the sleek look of a Pink Floyd album cover. The album's sound, was similarly hi-fi.
"Given to Fly" was the lead single, and provided a contrast to the more artsy No Code; this was a song designed to be an arena anthem. Vedder's lyrics were uplifting, and were about transcendence ("But first he was stripped and then he was stabbed / By faceless men... well, fuckers, he still stands / And he still gives his love, he just gives it away / The love he receives is the love that is saved"). The music -- composed by Mike McCready -- wore its Led Zeppelin influences on its sleeve. Maybe a bit too much, actually: when McCready interviewed Robert Plant for SiriusXM's Pearl Jam Radio, the frontman quipped, "I mean, how many times have you played 'Going to California'? Oh sorry, whatever your song is called." Ouch. Regardless, "Given to Fly" has gone on to become one of Pearl Jam's setlist staples. Like U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name," it always elevates the energy level of both the audience and the band.
Radio responded positively to the song: it was a top 40 hit, a top 5 alternative hit, and it topped the mainstream rock radio charts. But radio's interest in the band tapered off after that. Which is unfortunate, because there's a lot to love about the album: "In Hiding" is one of the highlight. The lyrics, penned by Vedder, sees him realizing that sometimes, you've got to recharge. After coming out of hiding, he sings,"It's been about three days now / Since I've been aground / No longer overwhelmed and it seems so simple now." It's a rare rock anthem about how to be an adult; the soaring Stone Gossard-composed music enhances the message. The Vedder/Gossard team shines on the album; they also co-wrote one of the album's few punk rock moments: "Do The Evolution." (They even agreed to do a video for it, albeit one that they didn't appear in). Jeff Ament, meanwhile, penned one of the band's greatest ballads and most underrated songs, "Low Light." And Vedder's "Wishlist" is one of his finest moments. It's also a song that a younger man simply couldn't have written: you can't look back at life until you've lived a bit.
It was Gossard, though, who had the last word: he wrote "All Those Yesterdays," which closes the album (other than the hidden instrumental which follows it). Like "Wishlist," it's a song that a younger person just couldn't have written; he's looking back at choices made by a friend (or a bandmate? or himself?). But you can't write a song like that until you've made a lot of choices. But Vedder sings Gossard's lyrics as if they were his own: "You've got time... you've got time to escape / There's still time... it's no crime to escape."
On Yield, though, Pearl Jam learned that while escape - via breaking up, retiring, or worse - was certainly a choice. But it's more difficult, and braver, to keep going and see what lies ahead. Happily for Pearl Jam and their fans, what lay ahead was decades of great new songs, and an seemingly endless road of epic concerts that were, perhaps, better than their earlier performances.
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