Yield Turns 20

Yield Turns 20

I went to my first Pearl Jam show in 2006. They were my favorite band at that point, and I’m sure I was excited at the prospect of hearing their iconic hits live for the first time, long before the jaded “’Evenflow’ as bathroom break” attitude would have set in. But even then, there was a deep cut, a more unlikely highlight, for which I was holding out hope. My favorite Pearl Jam song was “In Hiding,” and I played out the possibility of them dusting it off the first time I caught them in concert, trying to will it into reality.

The guy sitting next to me was a 30-something history teacher from central Pennsylvania. He seemed mild-mannered and nice enough. We started chatting, the conversation soon revealing that we had a mutual love for and obsession with Yield. His eyes grew wide. “I’m so happy you feel that way,” he said, and then he reached into his pocket to produce a smooth grey rock. It was in the perfect shape of a yield sign, a couple inches long on each side. A few questions rolled through my mind, though rather than the obvious “Why?”, they were questions like: how security must’ve reacted to this, or why they’d let a man bring a rock into an arena show, or what lengths he might’ve gone to in order to smuggle it past security. “I bring this to every show in hopes that they’ll play ‘In Hiding,’” he explained. “It’s the Yield Rock.”

Maybe I owe that guy a thank you: About six or seven songs into the set, that bright, chill-inducing guitar intro to “In Hiding” rang out through the arena. I smiled. The teacher lost his shit, jumping up and down with the Yield Rock, screaming “Touch the Yield Rock! Touch it!” as he held it in his hands and brought it to each person around him so they could place a finger or two upon it, like someone holding a precious artifact during a religious ceremony. And like we were indeed at some kind of ritual, a transcendent collective experience, a state of ecstasy poured out through the arena as the band surged through “In Hiding.”

To the casual fan or observer, this anecdote might register as somewhere near “batshit crazy.” Who’s that passionate about Pearl Jam’s fifth album, one that arrived after years of them actively dismantling their own fame? But that’s the kind of devotion Yield inspires in a certain sect of the Pearl Jam fanabse. Since its release 20 years ago — on February 3rd, 1998 — it went from a dark horse candidate for many fans’ favorite Pearl Jam album to an album you’ll hear Pearl Jam diehards talk about quite a bit and quite fondly, as a release as enduring as their earlier, more legendary outings.

Yield has always been interesting for that reason, an album dismissed or unnoticed by plenty of listeners, lost amidst ’90s music history, and yet held up by fans as one of Pearl Jam’s crowning achievements. It has also become more important over the years beyond being the object of cultish fascination from some Pearl Jam fans. As time passed, it revealed itself to be something of a turning point for the group. The fifth album of 10, it’s the centerpiece not only of Pearl Jam’s middle chapter, but also between their early Alt Nation prominence and their classicist rock journeymen latter days. It’s the album that you can look back at and see everything before feeding into and everything after flowing out from. This is where they finally became more comfortable with themselves, and in essence you could consider Yield the album where Pearl Jam truly found themselves.

It had been a tumultuous path there. You know this part of the story: Pearl Jam released Ten in 1991 and Vs. in 1993, and were one of the biggest young bands on the planet. Eddie Vedder was positioned as a “voice of a generation” type luminary. And the band revolted against this, leading to the middle years phase of Pearl Jam’s arc, the one where they eschewed the monstrously big choruses and riffs of their earliest days in favor of more interior, exploratory albums.

After those early successes, Pearl Jam went about short-circuiting their own rockstardom with, amongst other things like their protracted battle with Ticketmaster, releasing albums like the seething and corroded Vitalogy in 1994 and the searching, adventurous No Code in 1996. By the time Yield arrived in early 1998, the band had succeeded: They still sold more records than most rock bands could dream of today, but their mainstream power, their relevance and the cultural moment they had helped define, were all mostly over.

There had been a lot of growing pains in the ensuing years, the long reactionary fallout to how the group dealt with fame and the industry. They were a little older and wiser by Yield, partially due to the apparent resolution of the power shifts that occurred over their first few albums. In Pearl Jam’s earliest days, it was a band controlled by Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, the two former members of Mother Love Bone who found Vedder after they’d already crafted some of Ten’s biggest songs. With Vitalogy, Vedder took the reins and creative control, a situation that led to both Gossard and Ament feeling alienated within the band during different recording sessions (Gossard during Vitalogy, Ament during No Code). One of the things the band talked about around the release of Yield was how Vedder had insisted he couldn’t take on all the weight; he wanted everyone to be contributing songwriting and lyrics. This seems to be the way they’ve worked ever since: Vedder as captain, but the group as a more balanced, level democracy.

That decision resulted in a collection of songs that displayed most of Pearl Jam’s pre-existent strengths while unlocking new ones, the band delving into moods and sentiments that were previously uncommon for them. Across Yield, the band still focuses on serious or at least contemplative themes, but they approach them with a new subtlety wrought during the soul-searching No Code. The overflowing, melodramatic angst of their grunge days was gone. And, as men who had weathered the storm as many of their peers fell away, Pearl Jam now wrote in a more reflective manner, while also allowing themselves to go places they never visited before. They allowed themselves, on occasion, to be unabashedly euphoric.

There are a couple massive songs on Yield, songs that do occupy a certain standing in the band’s catalog even for the people who don’t rank the album itself highly. One of them, “Given To Fly,” exemplified the euphoria that crops up occasionally on Yield. As the name implies, the song soars, lifting off in a way that feels like a swell of endorphins when placed alongside the harder-won catharses of their early anthems. “A wave came crashing like a fist to the jaw,” Vedder sings as his voice jumps up in intensity and the drums tumble and the guitars switch from the suggestiveness of their initial, mild undulations into huge, crashing distortion. It had been a few years since fans had heard Pearl Jam deliver a moment like this, and they’d never quite heard them deliver it this way; it sounds joyous.

“Given To Fly” also exemplifies that, after years of breaking down and rebuilding their songwriting approach, Pearl Jam were amenable to writing some of those giant hooks once more, intentionally taking Yield in a direction that was more accessible, more direct, more open. They were rewarded with “Given To Fly” becoming a hit and living on as a setlist staple. The same goes for “Do The Evolution,” the scathing political satire that is, perversely, also one of the catchiest songs Pearl Jam ever wrote.

At the time, songs like these and the album’s more polished rock sound resulted in people looking at Yield as a potential return to form after Pearl Jam’s brief foray into the wilderness. But 20 years later, knowing that Yield would sit between No Code and the bleary one-two of 2000’s Binaural and 2002’s Riot Act, and that those records would in turn be followed by the straightahead classic rock of Pearl Jam’s last few albums, Yield feels different. It’s the gleaming middle chapter in a set of middle-era albums that often feel dusty and frayed. But at the same time, it didn’t sacrifice the creative momentum of those other middle albums in some misbegotten bid to reclaim mainstream dominance.

Besides pillars like “Given To Fly” and “Do The Evolution,” Yield shoots off in all sorts of directions, part of which you could likely credit to the band’s collective mindset at this point but also to the simple fact that they were all bringing in material. There is the surprisingly groovy and moodily infectious “No Way” sitting alongside “Faithful,” a song begins and ends quietly but is one consistent eruption in between. There’s the twilit drivetime song “MFC,” where the band showed their love of R.E.M. There was room for left-turn experiments like “Push Me, Pull Me,” a more listenable detour than, say, Vitalogy’s “Bugs.” Vedder delivers most of the track in a resonant spoken word, with lines that are sort of ridiculous but also poignant — “I’m like an opening band for the sun,” he says at one point, an apt summation of the band’s sound across Yield.

One of the notable aspects of these middle years albums was Pearl Jam’s increasing skill with balladry. There are beautiful songs on Ten and Vs., but on albums like No Code and Yield, the more introspective moments are often the peaks. There was the gorgeous, flickering “Low Light” towards the album’s end, but more important was “Wishlist.” A straightforward and simple song, it’s one of the most beloved and effecting tracks in Pearl Jam’s catalog, featuring a restrained but emotive vocal from Vedder as he makes his way through a lyric that works off a single conceit but nevertheless finds ways to twist and turn away from your expectations of where it might end up. It’s one of the songs that epitomizes the growth that had occurred by Yield, the fact that the band knew how to be quiet and make it just as impactful as the weightier material that had come before.

The masterpiece of the album remains the song that once inspired a grown man beside me at a Pearl Jam concert to jump in the air screaming with a yield-shaped rock in his hands. Amongst those Pearl Jam fans who love Yield, perhaps no song stands as tall as “In Hiding.” And, more broadly speaking, “In Hiding” is one of the signature tracks from albums that, for some time, went under-represented in Pearl Jam’s story, a song they could bust out in a setlist and have people react as fervently as they would to anything else. As Gossard explains in Yield’s accompanying making-of documentary Single Video Theory, it was a song he had to sell the band on initially. When I interviewed him in 2013, he reflected on what made the song special to him, what made him fight for it: “The melody sounded familiar but it didn’t sound like a complete rip-off. You want your riffs to evoke something for you, so it usually means you’ve heard some element of them before, but at the same time you reconfigure it in a way that makes it feel like it’s a new take on it.”

That sentiment gets at the core of what “In Hiding” does: It’s one of those songs that, when you hear it for the first time, feels like something you could distantly recall from childhood, a past life, something. And then the beauty it unveils as it goes on is flooring, reorienting what you thought was going to be possible when the song began.

All the elements are perfectly calibrated: The guitar figure that opens the track like a sunrise, the chiming guitars and piano parts interlocked in the verses, the way the pre-chorus seems to have taken the song to its highest point and then the chorus comes in with that obscene power that arrives with big choruses that feel like an airstrike that drops out of nowhere even if you by then could guess what was on the way. The power of it comes in Vedder totally, completely unleashing his voice. He used to roar all the time, then he’d dialed it way back. “In Hiding” is a song that sounds like a slightly older man who’s learned he has a gift that needs to be used, but also controlled. Across Yield, Vedder does a lot of different things with that gift. But it’s towards the end of the journey, with “In Hiding,” that he goes all-in, swooping up into a chorus, belting it out in a way that makes it sound as if he must’ve just multiplied in size five times over during the span of a few notes. It’s a stunning thing, to be reminded of rock singer who can go to those kinds of places.

And, crucially: “In Hiding” is the skeleton key to Yield. It comes from a melancholic place, having to remove yourself from life and tune out. But it isn’t conveyed in the same depressive narrative a younger Pearl Jam might’ve favored here. The end result is rejuvenation. That euphoria.

If I can attempt to capture what it is that makes Pearl Jam’s middle year devotees so enraptured with Yield, it’s that feeling. Fans who have stuck with them saw how the ride went. They were there for all the convulsions, the era of the band sounding at war with itself. The title Yield was symbolic not just for that moment — the band learning to be at peace with each other and their standing, the band finding a more measured way of grappling with the world — but also for what it meant afterwards. There are true uplifting moments on Yield despite the darkness. And between that, and all the band members coming together to explore various directions, the sound of the album is something Pearl Jam might’ve seemed to have from the outside, as one of the biggest bands in the world, and yet had been fighting for ever since they began: freedom.

“In Hiding” might just be the platonic ideal of a Pearl Jam song, and in hindsight Yield is in many ways the platonic ideal of a Pearl Jam album. Not just in the sense that it has glimmers of almost everything the band did elsewhere, but in the basic construction of it: There are the furious rockers, the feet-won’t-touch-the-ground anthems, the matter-of-fact but profound balladry. It paved the way for what came next, whether in Pearl Jam once more indulging their experimental muse on moments across Binaural and Riot Act or in the gratifying comfort food moments of their more settled late era.

But most importantly, Yield was the album that really established what it was that this band could do. Yes, we all connected with the personal demons on display on the band’s first couple of records. But they were in a specific place then, an anxious and angry place, constantly swinging and lashing out. There was heaviness, and sometimes there was heavy-handedness.

Yield doesn’t shy away from any of that same subject matter. It’s just greyer, the way the world gets as you age. And by reaching that point, Pearl Jam established a new metric for their music: It could still dig deep and wrestle with those demons, but it wouldn’t be satisfied to simply expose and dwell on them. It had to banish them, cleanse them. It had to have moments like the euphoria of “In Hiding” to deliver you someplace else, someplace better. That’s what they accomplished on Yield, and what they’ve often set out to do since. That’s what makes fans foster that ardent love for this record two decades on. Compared to their blockbuster early releases that were cemented in pop history, Yield will never stand as one of Pearl Jam’s most famous releases. But it just might be their most quintessential.

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