Kentucky must bear two contentious election cycles in a row right now. State and local politics in 2015 (mercifully over) and the presidential race in 2016, already odious and not even fully conceived. In the midst of all this throat-cutting clamor for power, er, uh, democratic pursuit of your trust and confidence, let’s talk about music. Let’s talk about an album that ought to be one of your favorites from the 90s (that decade now apparent as the last reel of warm, pulsing film before the atomizing storm of the digital revolution). Let’s talk about Yield, if not Pearl Jam’s greatest record, then one that captured a unique and wonderful moment in the evolution of the last great American band, one born in the dying light of an era we didn’t realize was over.
Yield is a proclamation of freedom, incongruously named for the act of giving way. Limitless potential hemmed in by the boundary of wisdom. To understand what makes Yield special, you need to know a bit about Pearl Jam’s history. Now, there is a full-length documentary about this story, but if you trust me to be your guide, here it is.
A brief history of Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam is a world-conquering band made up of five guys who never went on a conquest. In the capricious business of pop culture, the music these five guys cobbled together from the raw materials each brought with them was released into a public hungry hungry for a big emotional punch. Ten was a blockbuster. In the span of a single year, these young, earnest musicians were remade in the image of honest to God titans, expected to define a generation of American youth. But remade by whom? To what end? The music hadn’t changed. How could it? Pearl Jam had still only made their first record. No, the market changed around them, closing in like big teeth.
Imagine going from playing for a hundred people in a club to pouring your heart out in front of a literal sea of people just months later. Propose that scenario to any striving musician and they’re liable to say it sounds like a dream come true. They haven’t lived it, though. More than only the musicians dream this dream and some of the dreamers would just as soon roast your ambition on a spit and eat you alive. We call such dreamers ‘executives’, always serving up a banquet to the consumer. For a fee.
Building the brand
Executives make their living in the formless world of brands, empty notions ready to be inflated by what hot air the PR machine can generate, in this case from five guys making music in a room together. Executives are practiced in the art of appetite. Feed the creature what it wants and it will want more. A new band makes a popular record and the PR machine grinds into action. Radio play and music videos generate demand for a tour (hey, you get to play your music every night and isn’t that what all musicians are after?), which leads to the demand for more music to recapture the feeling of the live experience. Soon, the appetite for Pearl Jam was everywhere.
The thing about appetite, though, is that to be fed, it must consume, and we cannot consume anything without destroying it. This is true of everything I can think of: food, resources, God. So, in a very real sense, the appetite of the consumer is the appetite of the destroyer.
Executives measure themselves by how much they can feed this appetite and the brand is the tool by which they scale up production. A brand makes the band into an abstraction, a disintegration that separates their image from their actions. From bodily creature to ubiquitous entity. The brand is more than five guys making music together. It is what the band says and what is said about the band. It is what the band wears and who wears the band. It is the thrumming impression of the band that can be everywhere that Ed, Mike, Stone, Jeff, and [insert drummer’s name] cannot. A brand in full fledge can stoke the appetite—and the ensuing consumption (nicely monetized)—to amazing heights, which in turn gives rise to the music industrial complex.
For Pearl Jam to submit to such branding would mean their end. On a human level, it’s the end of being a neighbor and the advent of being a celebrity, an isolated object of curiosity and gossip. Anyone who performs for a living will be known without human connection, so some degree of celebrity is inevitable, but this can be inflamed to an unhealthy degree. The inevitable result of branding is such inflammation. Eventually, branding also ends the music, one way or another. To meet demand, the band would be expected to stop creating and start reacting, riding the market like a wave. Either the members grow increasingly bored until one leaves (they did start off as artists, after all), or the market begins to leave them behind and, in trying to keep up they find their creative muscles have atrophied and their ‘new sound’ falls in the chasm between imitation and retread. Either way, a band actively caught up in branding has begun the end of their vitality. Of course, the executives draw their vitality from a deep roster of exploitable talent cued up to slot right in when one band fails in endless succession. The machine churns on. Staring down this road, maybe not seeing it all clearly, but having the instinctive unease of an animal sensing a predator, Pearl Jam began to react.
Killing the brand
To the executives’ squealing delight, the golden goose did lay one more batch of solid gold hits: Vs. Their second album displayed ‘the Pearl Jam sound’ perfected. Distilled into a kinetic rush of guitar riffs and youthful solidarity. Vs. sold 1 million copies in its first week and was used to establish Pearl Jam as the hot commodity of 1992. Then their third album, Vitalogy, topped the Billboard charts on the strength of early-release vinyl sales alone (and this was in the barren age between the time CDs killed LPs and the late renaissance of the wax medium). But, on Vitalogy, we find a Pearl Jam already about the study of how to stay alive while being fed into the jaws of a ravenous market. It is a caustic, angry record layering obnoxious, thorny bits with heavy doses of blistering critique aimed at those trying to eat them alive. It’s also brilliant and the executives surely cried all the way to the bank.
In 1973, Wendell Berry wrote the greatest poem ever. It closes like this:
“As soon as the generals and politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
—Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front
In 1996, Pearl Jam released No Code and supported it with the most hard-headedly alienating tour they could. Boycotting any venue affiliated with Ticketmaster, contrary to the eventual non-monopoly findings of congress, left only a frustrating string of out of the way places hardly equipped to handle the logistics of hosting the most in-demand concert ticket in the country at the time. Now, No Code is not a bad record. Time has been very good to it, actually, but in 1996, it was the most un-Pearl Jam record imaginable. As for the tour, only the most hale and hardy fans had the fortitude to find and attend the shows. They may have been richly rewarded, but the tour was not a success in any business sense. Critics and executives alike thought Pearl Jam had lost their minds, committed career suicide on the day of their coronation. Pearl Jam™ was dead. The music industrial complex moved on (to boy bands. While Pearl Jam was confounding its predators like a fox, Lou Pearlman was manufacturing N*SYNC to put a stake in the heart of rock and roll). Pearl Jam blew up the brand. The dust settled and there was a band, freed of expectations.
What’s to love about Yield?
Despite the titular instruction of No Code (do not resuscitate), Yield was Pearl Jam’s resurrection. The loosest, most confident and enjoyable record in their now 10-album catalog. This is my love letter to my favorite album, not just by my favorite band, but by any band.
What makes Yield such a delight? It’s all in the timing. For one thing, there’s the matter of the band’s internal dynamics. They had actually become friends. (Given their brush with blinding stardom, it’s forgivable that it took them seven years.) This combined with their musical familiarity lends the record a tightness that comes across totally effortless.
Mike McCready and Stone Gossard truly find a great blend as a four-armed guitar monster. Gone is the standard division of labor (Stone’s arena-sized riffs driving Mike’s blues-drenched soloing). Instead, you have a record stacked with great guitar parts woven into a perfect tapestry. They spent Vitalogy and No Code dismantling the Pearl Jam™ guitar logic and Yield is the fruit of good labor.
Eddie Vedder’s voice is also at its on-record peak. He had matured past the soaring baritone that made early Pearl Jam so iconic (and then so imitated, and then so parodied), and he hadn’t yet reached the point where years of screaming his lungs out on tour took their toll. He’s singing at the peak of his dynamic and tonal range and it’s like a vintage tube amp—ranging from warm and rich to a broken-up growl depending on how hard he hits it. If the last time you heard Eddie Vedder sing was “Daughter”, you owe it to yourself to listen to “Brain of J”.
Then there’s the rhythm section. Admittedly, this is the area in which I am least articulate, but I will say that Jack Irons is my favorite of Pearl Jam’s many drummers. Instead of Dave Abbruzzese’s always huge all the time playing or Matt Cameron’s overly-intellectual approach, Jack Irons is expressive, a little off kilter, and always locked into exactly what the song needs. Alongside, Jeff Ament isn’t putting on a bass technique clinic. He’s just laying down a bottom end that’s so consistently spot on that it’s almost subliminal.
As an aside, the political timing of Yield is also just right. Midway through Bill Clinton’s lame duck presidency, the political anxiety of the W. years wasn’t even foreshadowed yet and the H.W. years were far enough past that Eddie Vedder was able to look away from his clear political enemies and explore. He’d also shaken the industrial demons from his back, and so he writes from a place of freedom he hadn’t experienced since he wrote the lyrics to Ten as a complete unknown. All of that earnestness is back, but matured and more contemplative. Lyrically as well as musically, the energy is consistently high and the gloom is consistently absent.
It’s all in the timing. Pearl Jam finally found some breathing room and all of that extra oxygen has the engine firing on all cylinders. There wouldn’t be Yield without the four records of frustration that came before it. The limitless potential purposefully surrendered makes this record what it is. That theme of retreat surfaces again and again. In “Given To Fly”, maybe the best Pearl Jam song of all, on “In Hiding”, and most poignantly in the album closer, “All Those Yesterdays”. “Don’t you think you ought to rest?” The song opens with the question that set the tone for all of Yield. After years and miles of fighting each other and an army of demands with hard-headed tours and albums, Pearl Jam finally got to a place where they could do what they do best, what they had always set out to do: make a rock record. The relief and joy is palpable. Yield is the sound of a dead band washing away their yesterdays. I love it so.
* * *
 All that money attracts a multitude of feeders. Besides the record label with its army of lawyers, accountants, and marketing departments, there’s media. Radio stations. TV networks. Magazines and other print outlets. These all use the band to attract eyeballs, eyeballs that will also look at ads, ads that pay the bills. Then there’s concert venues and promoters who make a killing selling seats and beer. And, of course, all of these have their own lawyers, accountants, and marketing departments.
What is the influence of the music industrial complex? The easier it is to define and sell to a market, the more smoothly the music industrial complex runs and with less waste (I.e. money spent failing to attract the wrong audience). So there’s a lot of pressure to easily and effortlessly match music to audience. This pressures the musicians to make easy-to-package songs and it pressures the audience to conform to easily charted zones of taste. This is why you get so many disparate bands lumped under a term like ‘grunge’—a term they did not choose for themselves— and why you have so many bands that sound suspiciously like established artists. This is also why you are so aggressively sold a particular image to aspire to: the image carves a market segment out of the population. The ease of making money leads to all kinds of subtle attempts to turn people into either markets or products, which is a reduction.