Pearl Jam: “Yield” (1998)

pj_yield_front_bigPearl Jam and Nirvana go hand in hand in my book: while both bands channeled the disaffected and damaged psyche of 1990’s youth, Pearl Jam’s (relatively) bright guitar sounds and Eddie Vedder’s melodic falsetto sharply contrasted with Nivana’s banged-out, distorted guitars mixed with Kurt Kobain’s raspy shriek. Both vocalists were power rockers and controlling presences in their bands, but my take on their approaches was that Pearl Jam was really holding onto pop power ballads in their earlier work where Nirvana seemed to hit you with an assault of feedback, lending more to a “What the f**k did I just hear?” experience than the more reserved and conventional Pearl Jam albums.

Interestingly, if you want to reduce that difference to a spectrum, both bands seemed to meet in the middle after their early records. Nirvana and Kobain (perhaps jaded and capitulating to the commerical success of their initial work) seemed to move more towards traditional stadium anthems, with Kobain even speculating just before his death (whether sarcastically or not) that the next Nirvana album would be a pop record. Alternately, Pearl Jam attempted to branch out into more experimental sounds after the death of Kobain and the decline of the first wave of grunge rock (at least, first major-label wave). The stadium rock of Ten (1991) and Vs. (1993) gave way to darker themes and sounds with Vitalogy (1994). The subject matter became more visceral, twisted, and isolated, making their previous attempts at probing the underworld (e.g. “Rats” on Vs. or “Master/Slave” on Ten) look tame by comparison.

Next came the zen koan that was No Code (1996), which came across as Vedder’s spiritual and existential musings. It had a very cabin in the woods / nature boy vibe and failed to produce major singles, leading to relatively “dissapointing” sales of only one million records. In the pre-file sharing era, this spelled a major defeat for a band that was riding high on two straight blockbuster albums. I’ll argue in other posts that all of these albums were great in their own way and that Pearl Jam pulled off the “grand slam” of recordings, debuting with four quality records that stand the test of time.

Here I’m going to talk about their return-to-form record, 1998’s Yield. Chasing the early success of the iconoclast Ten, Pearl Jam returned to the stadium anthem format. What I feel differentiates this album from other stadium anthemists that we are plagued with today (e.g. Muse, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, etc.) is the deeply personal and poetic lyrics that Vedder gives us combined with Mike McCready’s steady, but nuanced guitar work.


By this album, the band seems to have progressed to a much tighter and more layered configuration. Gone are the pompous intros of earlier albums, such as the opening licks to “Alive” or, later, the opening track on Vs. (“Go”) that subjects listeners to a false-start bass guitar solo and some cheesy guitar noodling, followed by the assault of McCreedy pounding out the bridge chords. On No Code, “Brain of J.” opens with a playful, two-second false start, and then McCready immediately launches into his shredding riff, and Vedder hits the ground running with rapid fire vocals that set a quick pace.

All the pacing is dispensed with on the second and third tracks however, almost like the band backs off a bit from that forceful opening volley. After that two-track break, Vedder unleashes his two strongest tracks lyrically: the parable “Given to Fly,” and a form poem, “Wishlist.” In the first, Vedder delivers an uplifting, didactic metaphor of physical transformation as a (hopeful) stand in for a worldwide spiritual awakening: A man who sprouts mythical wings “floated back down cause he wanted to share the keys to the locks on the chains he saw everywhere.” Clearly, the people of that (our) world are not ready, as they repel their winged friend until he becomes only a “strange spot in the sky” joined by the few that are willing and able to take that next step.

pj_yield_insertIn “Wishlist,” Vedder methodically rattles off a seemingly random sequence of “wishes” that initially sound like pompous writing, but upon closer inspection turn out to be images of perfect moments that the narrator has imagined to satisfy deep emotional longings. Some of them appear to have the heartland signature of Vedder (“I wish I was the full moon shining off a Camaro’s hood”) while others seem to be the desperate longing of a deeply isolated man hoping to feel some personal connection, no matter how insignificant: “I wish I was the souvenir you kept your house keys on.” The track pulses with energy, and it seems like Vedder barely restrains his vocal performance at times. Even the refrains and guitar solo seem restrained, in contrast to, say, the explosive catharsis of tracks like “Jeremy” from Ten.

That restraint is lifted in “Do The Evolution,” which both decries overabundant consumerism and portends the return to imperialism post 2001 (it also marks the first video since the widely acclaimed “Jeremy” years earlier). Vedder’s vocal performance on this track comes the closest to flying off the rails, with him truly channeling the consumer lust of the narrator by the final verse, screaming, “IT’S EVOLUTION BABY!”

“MFC” is an open-road song where the rhythm section of the band shines, driving the steady beat behind the propulsive guitar work and Vedder’s tightly paced lyrics. Immediately following are the haunting sounds of “Low Light,” which transports the listener to sitting on the hood watching the setting sun after the excitement of “MFC”‘s sprint down the highway.

The more literary “In Hiding” supposedly channels the writings of Charles Bukowski (according to Wikipedia). I didn’t hear the literary allusions on a relisten, and I certainly didn’t appreciate them as a teenager. It’s a serviceable anthem and gives Jeff Ament a chance to deliver a solid bass guitar performance.

“Push me, Pull me” carries on the somewhat regrettable tradition begun on their previous album of including at least one spoken word track. In my opinion, these tracks are the low point of every album, and they always come across as pretentious and unnecessary. Vedder’s poetry is much better served when it is poured into a form, as described above, and when given license to run in free verse sounds too much like amateur hour at the beat poetry lounge.

The album wraps up with “All Those Yesterdays,” not perhaps the strongest finishing track PJ has ever delivered. It builds to a wild guitar run and Vedder’s harmonized voice repeating the titular lyrics, then is followed by the hidden track which is an odd, vaguely Hasidic sounding folk guitar piece. The most positive thing I can say about the hidden track is that its sour-sounding guitar managed to jolt me awake a couple of times when I fell asleep studying for an exam.

Yield houses some of the most recognizable middle-period singles for the band and lofted them back to their previous heyday of a solid alternative radio staple. In terms of inventiveness and cohesion, it doesn’t approach Vitalogy, which I consider to be their masterpiece both lyrically and sonically.

OK, gotcha, next please:
Weezer: Weezer (The Blue Album) (7.31)
Stone Temple Pilots: Core (8.7)
James: Seven (8.14)

My music history

077Before I kick off my project, a bit of background.

I came of age musically during the alternative rock era of the early-to-mid-1990s, which meant as a rural teenager that my favorite bands were (by default) Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. I modestly expanded my interest over the years with the help of my college-age brother Brad, including a brief obsession with Phish (for better or worse), but I mostly stayed in the alternative arena until file sharing sites like Napster arrived and I made the trip to my local state university (UIUC).

Once there I slowly expanded into indie and experimental rock while still maintaining a tie to my alternative roots. I’m not sure if it was good or bad, but the “resurgence of garage rock” happened around my sophomore year (~2002), so for several years I listened to bands like The Strokes, The Walkmen, The White Sripes, etc.

In my junior year my apartment was burglarized. I lost most of my expensive and highly movable possessions, but the worst loss was my CD collection. Most of my friends suffered the same fate at some point. For some reason, CDs were highly valuable (probably pawn shops paid $1 a piece or something like that), and almost everyone I know stupidly packed them in cheap black binders, which allowed burglars to easily swipe years of painstaking accumulation in a convenient carrying case. Not to mention the many thousands of dollars that each 200 CD binder represented (most will remember the laughable age when albums retailed for $16+ a pop).

What seems so funny to me today is that digitization, while it has arguably reduced the quality of music we listen to, has made accessible almost the entire pantheon of music to anyone willing to spend a paltry $5 a month. My 1994 self could never have imagined the vast panoply of music that nearly anyone can access with minimal funds and effort.

What I was left with after the robbery was a huge banana box full of empty jewel cases, relics that I initially kept in order to replace my lost collection. Much of my tastes had changed in my ten years as a music consumer however, and after the laughable concept of ten percent annual “depreciation” was applied to my collection I quickly realized that my renter’s insurance settlement would never come close to providing the funds necessary to restore my entire collection anyway.


Over the next 30 weeks or so, I’m going to try to go back and listen to some of those albums and try to think about how I came to own them, music and technology, and whether I would still scrobble, share, or otherwise play this album in the physical or virtual presence of others.

Coming up first: Pearl Jam Yield (1998).

New music project: #30yearsin30weeks

083Well, I’ve kind of hit the wall with movie reviews as I’ve not been to a new film in theaters since Star Trek earlier this year.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking a lot about history and graphic novels. I’ve been slowly slogging through Kuznick and Stone’s Untold History (2013) and I’ve been gearing up for my upcoming return to teaching after a yearlong hiatus by tackling Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home (2006) and Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner (2008). But I’m not really interested in writing about any of that right now.

Hence, music.

Last year I did two major things in terms of music:

  1. I accepted that I was probably done purchasing physical albums forever and made the transition to cloud music;
  2. I also quickly realized that I was using said cloud to replay well worn albums and that I was essentially wasting the access I purchased to millions of tracks by artists I had never heard of.

I made it my goal to listen to one new album per week in 2012 and, for the most part, I succeeded and came up with a respectable list of some solid new albums. However, this year due to various work and personal obligations, I fell behind early and never really caught up on my new music listening.

As I also turned 30 recently (and will soon be [shudder] 31), I thought it might be fitting to look back at the music I loved in my middle/high school, college, and early graduate years and see what I think about it now. I did a little bit of this when albums of my youth were rereleased in 20th anniversary editions, but I wanted to up the ante for my blog by structuring my reminiscence.

Marcel Proust I am not, but one major epoch in my music listening life was when my entire collection was stolen in college, and as such I have decided to structure my work around that event.

I’m calling this project #30yearsin30weeks, but the actual time frames are pretty arbitrary. I may give up on this relatively soon depending on how busy I get or how my interests shift. Seeing as I started this blog on a faulty premise, I’m not too concerned if I f**k this one up. Also, while I’m devaluing my own self worth, I’m no music journalist and writing the first entry has taught me just how deficient I am in the vocabulary of rock criticism, so the first twenty or so weeks might be a little rough.

My entry tomorrow will give some background on my music listening history, and then I’ll kick off my reviews.