As rock stars, Pearl Jam had to learn on the job. They got turned into icons before they ever got to come on as human beings, and they were stuck in the role of grunge poster boys before they had a chance to get their own voices together. From the beginning, Pearl Jam knew how to whip up a big, blustery rock sound. But they sounded confused about what to do with it. They never had much knack for high-speed punk-rock riffs, and their songwriting got bogged down in overblown, chestbeating angst. For all Eddie Vedder’s sincerity, he was always auditioning too hard for the Troubled Childhood All-Stars. Like the rest of the band, he seemed stiff, as though he was afraid no one would take him seriously if he got caught having fun. Eddie wasn’t only the Low Self-Esteem Club president; he was also a client.
But Pearl Jam started to lighten up on 1994’s Vitalogy and 1996’s No Code, and Yield is the payoff. They want you to hear Yield as an album rather than as a pop-culture event, distancing themselves even further from their anthemmongering, trauma-sharing, flannel-flaunting youth. Pearl Jam might not be the generational spokesmodels they used to be, but they’ve grown up to be a looser, livelier band, writing sharper tunes to fit their dense, intricate guitar fuzz. Before, the band’s best songs were the change-of-pace ballads: the brawny acoustic strumming of “Daughter,” “Nothingman” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” Yield marks the first time Pearl Jam have managed to sustain that mood for a whole album.
There’s not much bluster on Yield, and even the rockers have an uncommonly easy touch that’s new to Pearl Jam. Ever since they hooked up with ex-Chili Pepper drummer Jack Irons on their excellent Neil Young collaboration, Mirror Ball, they’ve gotten more nimble at revving up the tempo. Raveups like “Brain of J” pile on the guitarmagazine effects without overpowering the power chords. But the ballads are the real attention getters on Yield: Slow-motion melodies like “Low Light” and “In Hiding” give Vedder a chance to luxuriate in the nooks and crannies of his ruggedly handsome voice, the band’s trump card. “Given to Fly” even takes its tune straight from the ultimate album-rock radio ballad, Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” an audacious bit of pop recycling as clever as a prime Puffy sample.
As you’d expect, Eddie Vedder is still the star of the show, and Yield offers plenty of new chapters in the ongoing story of Eddie and his tortured soul. The big difference in these songs is that Vedder is singing more frankly than ever about his life as an adult. He’s always been one of the few males on the radio who can sing about women without coming off like a jerk, and on Yield he even tries to sing a few carnest love songs. The amazing “Faithful” begins as a fairly conventional critique of religion and turns into passionate testifying about a marriage. The gentle power-pop nugget “Wishlist,” a silly love song that Vedder composed solo, might be the simplest song Pearl Jam have ever done. But it’s also the most moving. As the guitars buzz and hum around him, Eddie rolls out some outrageously playful valentine couplets: “I wish I was the souvenir you kept your house key on/I wish I was the pedal brake that you depended on.”
Pearl Jam’s old-school audience might not forgive them for wanting to grow up. No Code was a relative commercial flop, suggesting that lots of their fans were waiting for “Jeremy Part II,” “The Wrath of Jeremy,” “Jeremy Goes to College” and “Jeremy Takes Manhattan.” New-jack-grunge merchants like Live and the Verve Pipe have been only too happy to move in on the hell-is-for-children market. If Pearl Jam’s smaller place in the universe bothers them, though, you wouldn’t know it from the confidently graceful craft of Yield. They’ve always conducted an uneasy public dance with their audience, desperately building up their pop myth when they aren’t desperately backing away from it. By stripping down their mammoth riffs on Yield, they show that they’re smart enough to remember what happened to windbags like the Alarm and Big Country. But Yield also shows that Pearl Jam have made the most out of growing up in public, and that they’re leaving lumberjack chic behind.