Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Art of the Album: Pearl Jam - Yield

PJYield What You Need to Know: How many “back to basics” albums can one band have? Pearl Jam seems to be going for some sort of record – just about every album the group has put out since 2000’s Binaural has been hailed as a return to roots for a group that can’t quite regain the relevance of its early work and pretends not to care.

And then there’s 1998’s Yield, hailed as something of a return to form by critics of the uneven Vitalogy and No Code, but never quite as self-conscious about it as efforts like Backspacer would later be.

Yield is more straightforward than its immediate predecessors and its immediate successor, which means it’s habitually either forgotten or underrated by critics. They’re making a mistake – this is one of Pearl Jam’s most listenable albums.

The Songs You’ve Heard: It’s hard to say whether you’ve heard much – Yield was released to relatively deaf ears, since each effort up to that point had gone to greater and greater lengths to alienate everyone who picked up Ten and Vs.

You’ve definitely heard “Do the Evolution,” probably because you’ve seen it – the bizarre music video is a touchstone of many an early adolescent’s life, and it’s the perfect backdrop to a noisy rocker that always seems just a stray note away from falling apart.

Pearl Jam albums tend to split up nicely into “rockers” and “ballads,” and this one’s no exception – on the “things you might conceivably have heard” end of the spectrum, we’ve got “Wishlist,” a quiet, introspective piece that’s pretty endearing, if just a little too cheesy for my taste.

The Songs You Haven’t: Yield is probably the last Pearl Jam album where the rockers are as convincing as the ballads – they’re fewer in number, sure, but they’re as crunchy and loud and immediate as anything on Vs. If “Do the Evolution” isn’t proof enough, “MFC” is built around a hummable (hummable! from Pearl Jam!) riff and a driving beat, and “Brain of J” opens the album with a bang.

On the ballad side, “Low Light” is a definite high point with its soothing harmonies (harmonies! from Pearl Jam!) and waltz time. Also consider a trio of soaring mid-tempo songs: “Faithful,” “Given to Fly,” and “In Hiding” are all of a piece, quiet-verse-arena-rock-chorus songs pretty much tailored for live performance.

I’ve also got to mention “No Way,” which I cannot describe my appreciation for – its pace could be described as meandering, its riff could be described as boring, its lyrics could be described as uncharacteristically melancholy. And yet, its one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs, in its way more mesmerizing than any other song they’ve done. Maybe it’s not rational? But we here at Charge Shot!!! have never professed to be rational.

Why I Like It: I don’t think Yield is going to change your mind about Pearl Jam’s body of work if you’re not already partial to it, having as it does many of the qualities of their other albums – Mike McCready’s masturbatory guitar solos, Eddie Vedder’s mushmouthed mumbling, a strong blend of classic, arena, and alternative rock. For all that, I’d still describe Yield as a Pearl Jam album for people who don’t care much for Pearl Jam.

On this album, the band turns in a set of songs that are its most consistently tuneful and accessible, and I’m not one of those guys who uses “accessible” as a pejorative descriptor. Gone is the self-righteous, occasionally screechy anger of their early albums, and the blandness of their modern-day efforts hasn’t yet arrived – this album showcases the band in a good place, comfortable with themselves but not yet forgetful of why people listened to their music in the first place.

It’s got problems (“Given to Fly” more than borrows from Zep’s “Going to California”) and it’s got clunkers (“Push Me Pull Me,” the stupid minute-long untitled throw away song right in the middle of the album), but song for song this is one of my favorite Pearl Jam albums, whatever its critical reception.

Desert Island Tracks: “No Way,” “Do the Evolution,” “Low Light