Sharps and Flats: Pearl Jam

Published February 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

One of the saddest truths about rock 'n' roll is that a band can make the most wonderful music imaginable, but if its members lack charisma, that stellar music has little hope of being heard. Conversely, bad music made by strong but evil personalities is a sure-fire winner, and the '90s have proved that with their abundance of such ugly types. Considering that the idea of a rock band that even hints at having a moral center is practically antithetical to the entire era, the career trajectory of Pearl Jam -- who have refused to make videos, instituted a hopeless antitrust suit against Ticketmaster, eschewed drug addiction, affairs with models and so on and so forth -- has been brave beyond measure.

Unfortunately, moral character only gets you so far in life, and the truth is that despite being the most morally uplifting and personally charismatic band of our time, Pearl Jam has actually not made a great record since "Ten" in 1991. Indeed, in the past five years, the band has seen its sales base diminish from multi-platinum to, well, less, although this may have more to do with their lack of videos than lack of singles. Because one of the original tenets of grunge was "small is beautiful," Pearl Jam has seemed perfectly comfortable -- nay, pleased -- with commercial self-sabotage. Its fans, however, may have been getting a little restless. For them, "Yield" will come as a great relief.

"Yield" is Pearl Jam's fifth LP (sixth, if you count "Mirrorball," a collaboration with Neil Young), and it's a rich vein of work with many songs that Pearl Jam fans will appreciate, and not a few that will impress even their critics. Rest assured, however, that the record is not called "Yield" because the band is, at long last, yielding to the mainstream; it's more about yielding to the right of way -- and letting the traffic (read: Bush, Silverchair and so forth) pass by. Pearl Jam has always made an effort to take the road less traveled, and this time, at least, that offbeat route is a distinctly pleasurable one.

"Yield" begins with "Brain of J," an "RVM"-ish romp that refers to JFK. "The whole world will be different soon," sings Eddie Vedder, and the thought (as usual) worries rather than reassures him. Vedder excels as a songwriter when he tells stories about other people: "Jeremy," "Daughter," "Better Man" and "Why Go" are all hugely compelling narratives, made all the more powerful by the intensity of his delivery. Except for the single "Given to Fly," "Yield" doesn't contain anything remotely like those songs. The oddly phrased chorus of "Pilate," for instance, starts, "like Pilate, I have a dog/(who) obeys, listens, kisses, loves ..." a reference, perhaps, to the complex nature of loyalty. But there are some phat grooves and a few very effective choruses, as when Vedder sings, "I'm not trying to make a difference -- stop trying to make a difference" on "No Way," and the keening arc of "In Hiding," an album highlight (and its effectual end).

Vedder's lyrics here range from stream-of-consciousness to sudden flashes of genius -- and the music has a similarly casual feel to it. Many of the best Pearl Jam songs in the past have been hugely anthemic, but it's an impulse the band itself seems to distrust and fight against. On "Yield," as before, Vedder seems to be deliberately avoiding large hooks -- i.e., "hits." The feeling of the album more often approximates that of "Elderly Lady Behind the Counter in a Small Town" from "Vs."; and the song "Low Light" (by Jeff Ament) is extremely REM-ish. Elsewhere, Vedder seems to be singing in a higher register than usual, which has the effect of lessening the intensity (some would call it pomposity) of his voice.

Lyrically, however, the man's in fine form. "Do the Evolution," a song that iterates the anti-violence theme of "Glorified G," begins with a pithy kicker: "I'm at peace with my lust/I can kill, 'cause in God I trust." On "Pushme Pullyou," he storms, "I'm like an opening band for the sun," while on "Wishlist," a gorgeous ballad that may become (yet another) Pearl Jam signature tune, Vedder sings, "I wish I was a messenger and all the news was good ... I wish I was the full moon shining off a Camaro's hood." "I wish," he continues, "I wish I was the pedal brake that you depended on. I wish I was the verb 'to trust' and never let you down." It's a lovely thought in a lovely song; and just the kind of sentiment that elevates Pearl Jam's musical sensibility well above its ilk.

By Gina Arnold

Gina Arnold is a columnist at the East Bay Express in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of the book "Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense" (St. Martin's Press).

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