Do The Evolution: Pearl Jam’s Yield at 25
Is it the band’s best studio album?
Why mince words when you’ve got a blistering-hot take? Yield is Pearl Jam’s best album.
I accept protests from the Vitalogy clique, though I’m gonna ask how many times they’ve sat through “Stupid Mop” in the last quarter-century, and for my money, the Crazy Horse-rusted No Code is just a few hairs behind. Ten loyalists better get their mind right, though, with that questionable hits to filler ratio and ill-fitting reverb.
On the right day, No Code is their ragged glory, beautiful, and ramshackle, alternating leisurely wanderings like the opening “Sometimes” with careening cherry bombs like “Hail, Hail” and so forth. I’d put its highest highs (“Off He Goes,” “Smile”) up against anything they’ve done. But it’s a little insular, a little low on victory. It was infamously kind of a bomb during their peak years, and even though they’ve become a fan-favorite kind of band, I like them with more wins on hand, and on the follow-up they came to play, splitting the difference between their waning (interest in) megastardom and their clear jones for journeyman esoterica.
Yield is both Pearl Jam’s last great album and their last full-length with real hits; the tepid Binaural failed to capitalize on their biggest hit ever, that ubiquitous “Last Kiss” cover, and they followed their hero Neil Young off of contemporary AOR into a permanent state of rabid-fan service: Big enough to do whatever they want and releasing physical CDs of entire live tours for the heads to squabble over.
They bridged the gap between Phish’s subcultural monopoly (where the diehards on the bus go nuts for, like, “Leash”) and Fugazi’s (where they introduce the AOR masses to econo-jamming legends from Sleater-Kinney to Dismemberment Plan). Integrity and variety is the hook. Not only did Yield have tons more of both than their newest radio replacements Creed, who debuted a year earlier with an explicitly anti-abortion song among others, but so did Stone Temple Pilots. So let’s salute Pearl Jam for fighting for their dwindling space in mainstream rock one last time.
Let’s start with those hits. “Given to Fly” was one of Eddie Vedder’s final transmissions from a messianic perch, a “fable” he envisioned as a “20-page cardboard children’s book,” a hell of a thought for a tune that ends with its central character stripped and stabbed “by faceless men,” and admittedly, I had no idea the word “fuckers” was muttered somewhere in there until researching for this piece. Only this guy could mumble his way through a soaring anthem, and one often accused of biting Zeppelin’s “Going to California” at that. The song has both grandeur and gravity, appropriate for its protagonist given wings and shot back down to earth. But most importantly, it felt like a single in ways that the band had resisted releasing straightforwardly since Vs. five years prior. (The two biggest hits off Vitalogy, “Better Man” and “Corduroy,” became radio fixtures but the album’s three officially released singles, “Spin the Black Circle,” “Not for You,” and “Immortality,” confusingly, did not.)
VIDEO: Pearl Jam “Given To Fly”
The endearingly simplistic “Wishlist” was even more of a sure shot, with palm-muted picking as delicate as “Every Breath You Take.” Then they pulled the schzoid singles switch one final time in a career of weird selections: On mainstream rock radio, the dreamy-anthemic “In Hiding” was taking off at the same time the raucous postpunk of “Do the Evolution” was storming MTV with PJ’s first music video since “Jeremy,” an animated dystopia courtesy of Spawn’s Todd McFarlane, complete with crying babies on conveyor belts getting their heads stamped with UPC codes. Neither was officially released as a “single.” Perfect.
What I love most about Yield is that it’s Pearl Jam’s best-sounding album. Nasty little opener “Brain of J.” is a Mike McCready riff tempered with Brendan O’Brien’s dry, Rick Rubin-ish production. “No Way” and “All Those Yesterdays” are granted room to choogle in oddly Beatlesque ways (think “Come Together” and “Penny Lane” respectively), building and intensifying without an explosive payoff like, say, “Faithfull,” which flits between placid verses and bluesy-grunge choruses. This is top-tier deep-cut rock candy; even the far-out “Push Me, Pull Me” improves on most of Vitalogy’s experiments for sheer music alone — harmonies on the title, some kind of Dark Magus-era Miles in the groove. The singles all have real takeoff, layering dreamy guitars and vocal dynamics that could fill a canyon.
There aren’t any perfect Pearl Jam albums, thanks to the grating “Tremor Christ,” but the meandering “Pilate” could be worse, and the dumb interlude known as “red dot” is over before you can find the skip button. Subtracting those four minutes would leave a near-flawless 45-minute collection that touches on everything from Daydream Nation (the main riff of “MFC”) to “Tuesday’s Gone” (the Beggars Banquet-ready “Low Light’). Riffs, solos, grooves, choruses, softs, louds, and goofs are balanced in total harmony. All that’s missing is a sense of chaos and maybe, just maybe, some of the emotional gestalt that Ten fans gush about in Oedipal tragedies like “Release.”
VIDEO: Pearl Jam “Do The Evolution”
The thing is, Pearl Jam was never really a “grunge” band. They were born classic rockers who happened to be in Seattle at the right time, exuding punk and Bowie and Neil and Who and even funk (the fuck do you call “Even Flow” and all those wah solos?). Their hits alone span Hendrix (“Yellow Ledbetter”), ‘50s crooning (“Last Kiss”), and an under-talked-about Southern-fried influence (Stone Temple Pilots even modified the twang of “Dissident” for “Big Empty”).
Yield situates them properly in their legacy, alongside U2 and R.E.M. as humanitarian big idea men who make a point of fucking around a little more on each outing. It’s got a democratic feel structurally, a road-warrior attack as music, and growing-up-with-their-fans vibe spiritually. Do the evolution.
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