Pearl Jam Yield

Reconsidering Pearl Jam’s ‘Yield’ 25 Years On

Pearl Jam’s Yield is a rare album resonating as an instant classic from its first spin, with memorable and diverse songs demanding full listening.

Pearl Jam
3 February 1998

When Pearl Jam dropped Yield on the world in early 1998, it was immediately clear from both the title and cover that the alternative rock heroes from Seattle were moving into a new phase of spiritual liberation. They burst onto the scene with their smash hit multi-platinum debut album Ten in 1991 and followed up with two more big winners in 1993’s Vs. and 1994’s Vitalogy. Pearl Jam’s meteoric rise made them one of the biggest bands in the world in just a few years, yet all was not well. The perils of rapid fame and fortune were taking a toll on enigmatic vocalist Eddie Vedder as he struggled to deal with the weight of the alternative rock revolution being placed on his shoulders. 

The shocking suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain at age 27 in 1994 left mainly Pearl Jam as the standard bearers for “the Seattle scene”. Upon apparently deciding that with great power comes great responsibility, Pearl Jam sought to take on Ticketmaster in 1994-1995 and tried touring at independent venues where they weren’t bound to comply with the corporate behemoth’s excessive service fees and greedy grifting. Pearl Jam were by the people and for the people, which was a large part of what the alternative rock/grunge revolution against more commercialized music was all about. 

But touring outside of the system came with a slew of logistical hassles. Members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament even testified before Congress in the summer of 1994 regarding their antitrust complaint against Ticketmaster’s monopolistic domination of the live music industry. But victory against the entrenched forces of the corporate establishment was not to be had. 

1996’s No Code had its moments but seemed to reflect a group feeling somewhat drained and weary. Pearl Jam barely toured in 1996, suggesting they needed a well-earned break. They then spent most of 1997 recording their fifth album. The “Yield” road sign on a Montana highway that graces the album cover was a clear signal from Pearl Jam that they were throwing in the towel on trying to fight Ticketmaster. But the vibrant songs that filled the multi-dimensional album revealed a band recharged and ready to resume their career as one of the most inspiring rock ‘n’ roll acts. 

Opening Yield‘s CD cover revealed that the highway scene from the front had become submerged under apocalyptic flooding that had turned the landscape into an ocean. This instantly suggested that Pearl Jam still had plenty to say, and did they ever, as Yield revealed itself track by track as a revelatory album that was all killer, no filler.

The opening track, “Brain of J.”, is an edgy hard rocking number blending punk and metal aggression with an angry Eddie Vedder venting some serious existential angst. Vedder sings out in anguish as he wonders, “Who’s got the brain of JFK?”, appealing to all the conspiracy theory enthusiasts who had fallen in love with The X-Files. The hit TV show’s third season in 1996-1997 even featured an instant classic episode in which the origin story of the nefarious “Cigarette Smoking Man” had revealed him as JFK’s assassin. Vedder also vented about pending Earth changes, singing, “The whole world will be different soon / The whole world will be relieved.” The song tied in with the album cover and grew Vedder’s mystique to a new level as fans were left to wonder what he might know and how he’d come to know it.

“Faithful” downshifts to a mid-tempo beat for its first verse before surging with a glimmering pre-chorus and rocking chorus over sharp bluesy riffs as Vedder sings of grappling with spiritual questions amidst a system that “keeps us in a box of fear”. The track has become a live rarity yet remains one of Pearl Jam’s most beloved deep cuts. “No Way” follows similarly as Yield’s cohesive flow coalesces. Gossard penned the lyrics that Vedder sings here about having stopped trying to make a difference, which feels like part of their decision to let go of the fight against Ticketmaster and move on. But when Vedder sings, “Ooh, let’s call it an angel”, it feels like a nod to listeners that the band still has those angels on their shoulders.

The angelic vibe deepens on the instant classic “Given to Fly”, as the first verse opens with shimmering acoustic-oriented guitar from Mike McCready that was quickly compared with Led Zeppelin‘s “Going to California”. But the tune takes on a life of its own as Vedder sings about a protagonist who develops the power to take flight. Lyrics that seem to allude to the spiritual strife of Jesus Christ and the mesmerizing reality of UFOs in the sky make this a deep number. It soars lyrically and musically as Pearl Jam build the song in a skillfully layered fashion to make listeners feel like they are taking flight thanks to the metaphysical power of the track.

Yield’s seamless flow continues on “Wishlist”, a hopeful ballad that eschews the overproduced power ballad format of the era with a more straight-ahead approach that connects on a deeper level. Vedder’s lyrics are a master class in analogy, as he evokes all manner of poetic longing in various circumstances before concluding with “I wish, I wish, I wish, I wish, I guess it never stops.” The tune is complemented with a disco ball effect in the live setting, yet it never feels cheesy. Jeff Ament’s “Pilate” has contemplative verses before simmering into a more heated chorus to conclude Side A of Yield as the song seems to ponder some more existential questions.

The incendiary “Do the Evolution” provides another instant classic to kick off Side B, with Vedder delivering one of the best social commentaries in rock as he rants against the greedy powers that be, whose short-sighted ways have placed the entire planet in peril. There’s a Bob Dylan-esque vibe in the lyrics recalling “Masters of War”, but the music is pure alt-rock adrenaline. The angelic backing vocals on the “Hallelujah” bridge section are a masterstroke in the song’s arrangement, indicating Pearl Jam are still representing the forces of truth against the forces of darkness and deceit. 

Vedder also added to Yield‘s mystique when he sang, “2010, watch it go to fire!” As on “Brain of J.”, the listener was left to wonder whether Vedder was speaking to some apocalyptic prophecy due in 2010. If so, what does Eddie know, and how does he know it? Had he been hanging out with some Hopi elders? This was a matter of considerable concern for some Pearl Jam fans, as the lyrics seemed to point toward indigenous knowledge like the Hopi prophecies or how the famed Mayan calendar would conclude its 26,000-plus-year Precession of the Equinoxes cycle in 2012. It’s an era that many scholars had suggested would pit forces of apocalypse against forces of transformation and an era that many observers would suggest humanity is still currently living through.

Pearl Jam even yielded in their policy against making music videos to create an animated classic to drive the message of “Do the Evolution” home. The song remains a staple of Pearl Jam concerts, with a zeitgeisty message that keeps gaining further relevance as this world gone mad continues to descend into climate change chaos.

The quirky track known as “Untitled” (aka “Red Bar” or “Red Dot” or just “Dot”) is a brief number credited to drummer Jack Irons. It’s only a minute long and has only two lines, but they say a lot: “We’re all crazy, we’re all crazy at war.” If there was anyone doubting that Pearl Jam are anti-war, this song was another indicator. “MFC” (aka Mini Fast Car) is a soaring number about hitting the road with a desire to leave one’s problems behind, which seems to follow in the tradition of 1993’s “Rearviewmirror”. Guitarist Mike McCready provides some great lead lines here in an all too brief track that always feels ripe for a jam but never gets there as if the car has disappeared as the protagonist sings at the end. 

This gives way to the gorgeous ballad “Low Light”, with acoustic guitars evoking vast skies in the middle of nowhere like the album cover. It’s another Jeff Ament composition, which he suggested provides the answer to the questions posed in “Pilate”. Vedder’s heartfelt vocal provides a cathartic sense of longing resolved when he concludes the song by singing, “I need the light. I’ll find my way from wrong. What’s real? The dream I see.”

Track 11 is where Pearl Jam up the ante on Yield with “In Hiding”, an instant fan favorite that has become another coveted deep cut with its unique blend of melodic introspection and hard-hitting rock catharsis. The last few tracks of 1996’s No Code were largely forgettable, but not so on Yield. The lyrics of “In Hiding” seem to reflect a shamanic journey of sorts, in which the protagonist has to go deep within to achieve a breakthrough that propels him to new heights of revelation and understanding. Vedder would reveal that the writings of Charles Bukowski inspired the lyrics. But for Gen-X fans engaged in their own studies of indigenous prophecies and self-shamanism in the mid-to-late 1990s, “In Hiding” hit home in a synchronistic fashion. In this sense, Vedder seemed to be tapping into a universal quest for truth and inner peace that continued to propel him as the voice of a generation. The band also syncs in for a performance of collective excellence that continues to resonate through the decades.

This vibe carries over into the old-school bluesy psychedelia of “Push Me, Pull Me”, which sounds like a lost track from the Doors. Vedder’s philosophical spoken word vocal conjures visions of no less than Lizard King Jim Morrison as he ponders some of the more profound existential questions of life on Earth. The atmospheric turbulence of the song seems to mirror the turbulence of heavy weather as the guitars and bass jump around dynamically while  Vedder sings of clouds dropping rain and puddles on the ground. It’s a masterful arrangement by Pearl Jam and producer Brendan O’Brien, pushing the envelope instead of playing it safe.

Track 13 concludes Yield with “All Those Yesterdays”, a low-key, retrospective number that functions as an encore to wind down a tour de force album that revealed that Pearl Jam were still at the height of their considerable rock powers. After a long pause, the track also features a hidden ending, where it feels like the band perform some mystical pagan ritual to conclude the ceremony.

It all adds up to what is arguably Pearl Jam’s greatest masterpiece. Many fans will argue for Ten or Vs., both packed with classic songs (as is Vitalogy). But Yield finds Pearl Jam developing a more mature spiritual voice while still rocking out with vibrant energy. It was one of those rare records that resonated as an instant classic from the first spin, with memorable and diverse songs that flowed in a manner demanding Yield be listened to in its entirety to get the full effect. Pearl Jam cracked the code on Yield. There’s also a resonance with how timeless these songs feel, sounding just as fresh 25 years later as in 1998.

Then there was the summer 1998 Yield tour, Pearl Jam’s much-anticipated return to full-scale touring. The test of a great album is how many of the songs will thrill in the live setting and how many will endure in the repertoire. Yield would score highly in both regards. This Gen-X reporter had to embark on a serious road trip to find out due to having painted himself into something of a corner that year. I had been living in Los Angeles when Yield was released and when tickets went on sale for the tour, so I purchased a pair for the 13 July show at the Los Angeles Forum. But I wound up making an impulsive move back to San Francisco that May, after three years in Los Angeles had left me missing my adopted hometown where I’d gone to school at San Francisco State and first seen Pearl Jam at the Bridge School Concert in 1992 and the electrifying Halloween 1993 show at the Berkeley Greek Theater. 

The Bay Area stop on the Yield tour was going to be in Sacramento on 16 July. This was problematic since I had also become a serious Phish fan in the mid-1990s. Vermont’s finest were launching their summer 1998 tour with a highly anticipated West coast run of their own that would begin in Portland on 15 July, then hit the magnificent Gorge Amphitheater in Eastern Washington on 16-17 July. These shows were not to be missed, yet I also couldn’t bear the thought of missing the Yield tour. It was a genuine quandary.

There was only one way out of this scheduling conflict between my two favorite groups of the 1990s. A like-minded friend and I decided we would have to drive down to Los Angeles to catch the Forum show on 13 July, even though it meant we would need to haul ass to get up to Portland for Phish on 15 July. It felt like a mission from the rock gods to prove our devotion, and we were game. The road trip worked out splendidly though as we seemed to be the only ones vending beer out of a cooler in the Los Angeles Forum parking lot, enabling us to make back our gas money and some. I also had a pal we could crash with.

The summer 1998 tour was also when drummer Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam in what felt like the most fitting fashion after Soundgarden broke up in 1997 and Jack Irons bowed out of Pearl Jam after Yield‘s recording. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden members had teamed up in the grunge supergroup Temple of the Dog, so there was a sense of destiny as Cameron seemed like the perfect man for the job. He has been Pearl Jam’s drummer ever since.

To say that the vibe at the Forum on that night of 13 July 1998 was electrifying would be an understatement. Pearl Jam delivered a scintillating rager for the ages, featuring six songs from Yield. This included a back-to-back performance of my two favorites from the album when they played “Brain of J.” and “In Hiding” in the fourth and fifth slots of the set. It was a night to remember, and Pearl Jam would eventually make an archival soundboard release of the show in 2016. A full concert video also popped up on YouTube. 

It’s been fulfilling to see Pearl Jam stick together for over three decades, growing older with their devoted fan base rather than burning out as many of their peers did. Yield was a pivotal moment in Pearl Jam’s career. They rebounded from the challenges of rapid success and subsequent responsibility to produce an instant classic that has helped propel the band for the past quarter century.