This week marks 19 years since the release of Pearl Jam’s fourth album, ‘Yield.’ Surely I am not the only one who journeyed through my teenage years with a soundscape frequented by Pearl Jam, and followed the ebbs and flows of their evolution over the last quarter of a century, that is stunned at how quickly nearly two decades have flown by.
Released On February 3, 1998, Pearl Jam’s ‘Yield’ marked a significant milestone in their career; specifically in terms of collaborations with each other and the songwriting process. Along with the twentieth century, the so-called “grunge” era of music marketing was coming to a close. Pearl Jam were the only one of Seattle’s “Big Four” bands that were still performing and making music, with Nirvana’s untimely demise with the death of Kurt Cobain, the disbanding of Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains going on indefinite hiatus.
As an album, ‘Yield’ was a sonic indicator of a band going through an extended period of self-reflection. It appeared that by the late ‘90s the band, who had initially struggled considerably with their seemingly overnight celebrity status, had grown more comfortable; not only within themselves but as a collective, as opposed to a frontman and his four backing musicians. In an interview with Billboard magazine promoting the release of ‘Yield,’ guitarist Stone Gossard recalled that “being able to pull back from all of that pressure helped give us the space to figure out internal problems, within the band and within us as individuals. We gave each other some time off from each other. Actually, it’s like we broke up but still made records.”
This breathing space ultimately resulted in an album that was noticeably less angst-ridden than the band’s previous four albums, and increasingly contemplative and reflective in tone, which is evident in tracks such as “Wishlist,” “Given to Fly” and “Push Me, Pull Me.” The song “No Way” clearly reflects the band’s newfound ambivalence towards fame and celebrity (“I’m not trying to make a difference/ I’ll stop trying to make a difference”). This new-found ease is also apparent in the album’s very title: ‘Yield.’ In the documentary film “Pearl Jam: Twenty,” Gossard recalls “we kind of stopped doing all the things that we felt like we were obliged to do in terms of press and in terms of feeling like we had to go on tour. We started making decisions based on whether we wanted to do stuff.”
Arguably one of the most significant contributing factors to this shift in worldview, however, was that the band as a whole helped to shape the album. At the time bassist Jeff Ament commented to MTV “I remember at the end of the last record [‘No Code’], he said “Y’know, this was really a lot of work for me, and next time, it would be great if I didn’t have to work so hard on the arrangements, and if people came in with more complete ideas, and even more complete songs, that would really help me out a lot”, and I think everybody took that to heart.” Frontman Eddie Vedder recalls in “Pearl Jam: Twenty,” that with the writing and recording of ‘Yield,’ it was “all five of us in there with our hammers and claws, banging it out.”
This was the first Pearl Jam album to feature a number of tracks with music penned by guitarist Mike McCready, Gossard, and Ament with the latter also contributing lyrics to several tracks. This newfound collaborative approach to songwriting clearly proved to be effective, as the band continued this approach on subsequent albums. There was also a desire amongst the band that the tracks should be more “accessible” than ‘No Code;’ which, although as an album includes several stellar tracks, appeared to have failed to appeal to much of an audience outside of the legion of die-hard Pearl Jam fans.
Perusing the virtually cobwebbed annals of the internet, it becomes apparent that responses to ‘Yield’ from both fans and critics were, and most likely continue to be, mixed. However, undeniably, the album’s diverse tracklist includes some noteworthy songs, beginning with the album’s opener, the unapologetic “Brain of J” (music by McCready and words by Vedder) packs as much of an aural punch now as it did when the album was first released, as does the groove of “No Way;” which still remain two of my favorite tracks on the album.
‘Yield’ also marked the band’s return to making videos. After delivering four videos for the singles from ‘Ten,’ the band made the conscious decision to step away from videos, in what appeared to an attempt to stick it to the record company. The band recruited Spawn created Todd McFarlane to make an animated video for “Do The Evolution.” Vedder revealed that the track, sung in the third person, was taken from the point of view of an individual who is “drunk with technology, who thinks they’re the controlling living being on this planet,” reminiscent of the theme of “Frankenstein;” the controller who is no longer able to control the things that they have created.
At the tender age of 20, with Pearl Jam having contributed significantly to the soundtrack of my adolescence since the release of ‘Ten,’ I attended both of the New Zealand dates for the ‘Yield’ tour in February 1998. It was the band’s second foray to New Zealand, and fortunately a much less frenzied affair than their first tour down under. Nineteen years later unfortunately, I don’t recall much about the shows other than having enjoyed them immensely, and having seen drummer Jack Irons and bassist Jeff Ament standing by the wharf outside the venue after soundcheck, and being to shy to say anything.
‘Yield’ also spawned the documentary “Single Video Theory,” which follows the recording of the album, was released later on in 1998, with the subsequent ‘Yield’ tour producing the live double album ‘Live On Two Legs.’
With the release of ‘Yield’ it quickly became apparent that the band were in no way trying to emulate the sound, or the success, of their previous albums. One of the defining characteristics of Pearl Jam is that each album has its own “sound;” its own personality, and pulse. Each album is its own entity. And ‘Yield’ was no exception.